Columbo doesn’t wear a uniform, per se, but we know and love him best in his ever-present crumpled beige suit, off-white shirt, scuffed boots, green/brown tie and, of course, the shabby raincoat.
He sported a near identical appearance for 35 years. Indeed the Lieutenant’s unique wardrobe is so intrinsically linked with the character that it’s almost impossible to separate the two in our minds. Yet there were a number of occasions when we encountered him out of his usual attire – and that’s what I’m chronicling here.
Some of these 13 chronologically listed examples are more memorable than others, but see how many of these you recognise and remember on this fashionable journey down memory lane.
NB – I haven’t included occasions where Columbo switched ties (Requiem for a Falling Star; It’s All in the Game) or other times when part of his famous ensemble is missing (e.g. shambling around in his vest in By Dawn’s Early Light) or has had a small item added to it (e.g. hats in Fade In To Murder and Columbo and the Murder of a Rock Star).
“The Lieutenant’s unique wardrobe is so intrinsically linked with the character that it’s almost impossible to separate the two in our minds.”
1. A Stitch in Crime
Yes I know he’s wearing his full suit underneath, but Stitch in Crime is notable in that it’s the first time we see the Lieutenant in something other than his regular work ensemble.
Busting into the operating theatre where the fiendish Dr Mayfield has just removed incriminating dissolving sutures from his patient, Columbo appears in full surgical scrubs, into which Mayfield memorably stows the sutures when shoving the detective angrily out of his way.
2. An Exercise in Fatality
Supposedly taking advantage of a special offer at the Milo Janus Health Spa, Columbo signs up for membership and is found lashed to a jogging machine, sweating it out in a blue tracksuit, as Milo saunters through the gym.
Unused to the physical exertion of a gentle jog, Columbo tweaks his hamstring and is later forced to limp out of Janus’s office in no small amount of pain. He was never again seen in sportswear…
3. Troubled Waters
For a man on his holidays, Columbo spent a lot of time in his traditional outfit aboard ship, although he did shed his tie on a number of occasions. The biggest departure came at the end of the cruise as Columbo donned a brown, black and white patterned casual shirt to seal Hayden Danziger’s fate. He was also spotted in a night gown when alerted to the death of Rosanna Welles late at night.
We must presume at some point during the cruise that Columbo was sporting a pair of luminous green budgie smugglers to take a dip (every man does it), but we were thankfully spared that particular sight…
4. Forgotten Lady
The first episode of the fifth season was notable in that it marked the first occasion we saw Columbo really dressing up as he dusted off a tuxedo to attend a private movie screening at Grace Wheeler’s house. His effort wasn’t lost on his gracious host, who correctly commented that the Lieutenant looked “simply smashing“.
5. A Case of Immunity
After going 31 episodes without wearing a tuxedo, Columbo went back-to-back in season 5, busting out splendid evening wear once again (borrowed from his brother-in-law) to attend the Suari Legation Garden Party thrown to celebrate the King’s visit to the United States.
Initially worn in conjunction with his raincoat, Columbo absolutely rocked the look – and also rocked Hassan Salah’s poise by letting him know he was suspect number one.
6. Now You See Him
One of the best examples in this magic-infused cracker of an episode as Columbo struggles throughout with a new coat bought for him by Mrs Columbo. With all other aspects of his outfit remaining as per usual, we find out here it’s the coat that really gives the Lieutenant his mental superpowers as he bellows “I gotta take off this coat! I can’t think in this coat!” early in the episode, before trying desperately to lose it throughout. He’s back to the trusty old favourite by the end, though, to secure the arrest of The Great Santini. The new coat never rears its ugly head again…
7. Murder Under Glass
Heading out to a glitzy awards dinner to celebrate the great and the good of the LA restaurant scene, what else would Columbo dust down other than the tux? Although it’s lost its novelty appeal by now, the good Lieutenant still looks absolutely ravishing in it, so there can be no complaints from viewers.
He also memorably dons a chef’s hat when cooking for Paul Gerard at the episode denouement, albeit worn in conjunction with his regular wardrobe.
8. Make Me a Perfect Murder
After busting his neck in a car prang during the episode’s opening credits, Columbo seeks assistance from a burly masseur to quell the pain. Lieutenant fanciers are therefore treated to the very real thrill of a trim and taut Columbo wearing only his boxer shorts as the bald muscleman massaging him unsuccessfully attempts to cure his ails. Phwoooooooooooooooooooooooar…
9. Murder, Smoke & Shadows
Not sure this really counts, because it was presumably supposed to be a trick of the light to fool Alex Brady (and the disbelieving viewer) at episode’s end, but for a couple of seconds Columbo appears in full Circus Ringmaster regalia as he seals the fate of the world-renowned movie director. The less said about this, the better…
10. Rest in Peace, Mrs Columbo
In order to smoke out villainous, vengeful widow Vivian Dimitri, Columbo stages a sting operation par excellence in which he fakes Mrs Columbo’s death and stages a phony funeral for her. That’s a whole lot of taxpayers’ dollars, folks.
To keep up the charade, the weepy Lieutenant is adorned in a suitably sombre black suit, coat and tie combination – an outfit he remains in until he outfoxes Dimitri in the episode finale.
11. Caution: Murder Can Be Hazardous to Your Health
Wade Anders is MCing a glitzy bash to which the Lieutenant, naturally, shows up at to discuss the case. And, just as naturally for such an auspicious occasion, he rocks up in a tuxedo, making it the fourth time we see him so attired. He even comments that the shirt he’s wearing with it was made in Korea, and cost the princely sum of $29.95.
12. No Time to Die
It’s the tuxedo… again… but warranted as the Lieutenant has guest of honour status at nephew Andy’s wedding (he’s the son of Columbo’s deceased sister, Mary). As always, he pulls it off with style. Shame the same can’t be said for the plot of this televisual debacle…
The madcap (some would say preposterous, yet others would say dire) 1994 caper features, the most wardrobe changes for the Lieutenant in a single outing. Adopting a variety of guises from a down-and-out and an art-loving gangster to full-on mafia don, there’s also a scene where he’s wearing crazily coloured trousers (see above). Quite why I can’t recall as I can’t bring myself to rewatch to find out.
Columbo also gets whopped on the head at one point and has to go into hospital necessitating a switch into a hospital gown. How we laughed…
“Undercover features the most wardrobe changes for the Lieutenant in a single outing.”
That’s the end of my list, folks. If you can think of any examples I’ve missed please identify them in the comments section below. And do let me know what your favourite example of Columbo being out of uniform is.
Thanks for reading, and don’t be a stranger!