Clothing makes the Monk

More to dressing character than meets the eye

A sea of brown patterned jackets and pants line a cage inside a clothing storage area just off Stage 2 at Paramount — all “rejects,” per costume designer Ileane Meltzer, who has been with “Monk” since the start.

“I’m subtly trying to take (Monk) into different browns,” she explains. “… Pretty pathetic, huh?”

If clothing makes the man, or rather the character, then Monk’s suits say it all: conservative, buttoned-down, hermetic, even claustrophobic. (Just don’t call the clothing “bland” or “drab,” however; Monk’s doppelganger, Tony Shalhoub, winces at the words.)

The clothing is even tighter, heavier and more confining than one would expect. And narrower: ”I shave all his collars,” Meltzer points out, displaying a typically narrowed lapel on a herringbone tweed.

”He was born an old man,” Meltzer explains about the character, ”so he dresses like an old man. … Even in flashbacks as a boy, he dresses like an old man.”

And in case you think Monk wears the same jacket every show, think again: Meltzer presupposes the question and immediately answers: ”There are well over 50 jackets … (and) it’s getting harder to find them” in the stores — even thrift stores. ”It’s a real challenge.” So she’s taken to making them herself.

Insistently out of step with what’s fashionable, Monk also doesn’t wear linens (too ”light” and thus casual — as in comfortable, and Monk is anything but comfortable in his own skin), so for now Meltzer sticks with silk-cotton blends (she would dress him in wool, but Shalhoub would overheat), all his coats have been taken in (but aren’t tapered) to give him a hunched, tightened look, and all the coats have three buttons which are always buttoned up — most men’s jackets these days have only two buttons, one of which is often left unbuttoned. The coat drapes, or rather traps, patterned shirts that are also buttoned all the way up.

But no tie: There are several reasons for this. Meltzer explains it would make him conform too much with what almost-always-dapper Capt. Stottlemeyer (Ted Levine) and ever-increasingly-hip Lt. Randy Disher (Jason Gray-Stanford) wear, and a tie would also make Monk look too much a part of civilization and other cops at police headquarters.

Shalhoub offers two additional explanations: 1) germs: Ties rarely get washed, and Monk would have a fit about that; and 2) the knot: As an obsessive compulsive who also has a phobia about things not being exactly symmetrical, Monk would forever be in front of the mirror tying to tie his tie just right and would never get out of the house.

(Besides Stottlemeyer and Disher, Natalie (Traylor Howard) also lends the show some semblance of modernity: She now wears top-of-the-line attire — Mephisto, Neiman Marcus, ”top, top, I mean TOP,” Meltzer emphasizes — after it was revealed Natalie’s parents are rich; in the beginning, she was to be dressed as a would-be free-spirited hippie.)

And besides the palette of browns and tans that Meltzer and Shalhoub arrived at, there’s one other restriction: no raincoats. Even though the show’s scripted location is foggy, often frigid and drizzly San Francisco, the show is filmed in L.A. — where it’s too hot to wear trench coats for the cops, and Shalhoub didn’t want to end up looking like Peter Falk’s Columbo. At least when the show was filmed in cooler Canada the first year, it made more sense to wear raingear.