Reassuring, Timeless, Safe: How Angela Lansbury Defined the Style of TV’s Female Detectives | Angela Lansbury
ORoaming the fictional town of Cabot Cove, Maine in neat but unremarkable beige pants, a blue blouse and gold earrings, Angela Lansbury first appeared on American television screens in 1984 as an author turned detective Jessica Fletcher in The Murder She Wrote. At the time, no one imagined that almost 40 years later, her character’s wardrobe would still influence the way TV sleuths dress. For 12 seasons and more than 200 episodes, shoulder-pad blazers, button-down shirts and oversized glasses have been the cornerstone of Lansbury’s extensive on-screen wardrobe.
A few days before her 97th birthday, the great lady of television passed away. His role as the warm-hearted but shrewd Fletcher has drawn generations of Lansbury fans – reruns of the show are continually airing. In 2012, Lansbury even appeared on the cover of famous fashion magazine The Gentleman wearing glasses à la Fletcher.
Before Fletcher, female detectives on screen were much more glamorous. The Avengers spy Emma Peel, played by Diana Rigg, wore a skin-tight leather jumpsuit in the 1960s, while Sergeant “Pepper” Anderson preferred her form-fitting silk blouses in the 1970s hit Policewoman.
Lisa Dresner, associate professor at Hofstra University, New York and author of The researcher in literature, cinema and popular culture, says that Fletcher, as an older woman, appealed to both male and female audiences. “She doesn’t explicitly address sexism, so she’s very reassuring as a desexualized character,” Dresner said.
Fletcher, unlike his predecessors, does not own a gun, nor does he drive a car. “Most tended to have all these different ability markers. Fletcher doesn’t have much agency – she always asks men to take elevators.
It’s evident in what she wears. Her clothes were reassuring, timeless, safe. Although Fletcher often changed his outfit several times in an episode, the show’s costume designer Eilish Zebrasky, who went on to work on films including Spider-Man: Far From Home, had an almost stereotypical approach to dressing. Addressing the Los Angeles Time in 1992, she declared: “At Angela’s age, she has nothing to prove. I wouldn’t go so far as to put him in a gray pinstripe men’s suit. This would be (more appropriate for) a woman in her 30s just getting into business.
Instead, we regularly see her in single-breasted blazer jackets, open-collar blouses and “neck-elongating” sweaters. A jacket that just hangs down doesn’t work for her,” Zebrasky added. “And double-breasted adds volume.”
Dresner thinks Jessica Fletcher has allowed other shows to cast women in traditionally male roles such as Mary Beth in Cagney and Lacey and Jane Tennison in Main suspect. Their cropped hair, white shirts, and practical rain jackets were much more reflective of women watching at home.
“By having professional women wearing clothes that don’t show off their bodies, you really expand the possibilities of identification for the average person watching. You see the detective as a spirit, a character, a person when you don’t see the person wearing glamorous clothes that focus your attention on their body.
Over the past decade, storytellers have built a wardrobe that makes their TV sleuths instantly recognizable for their individual style. Grab Anna Friel’s Parka in the Gritty Crime Drama marcellaBrenda Blethyn’s long trench coat in Vera and Lauren Lyle’s tank top and belt bag in Karen Pirie. Much like Fletcher, their characters’ clothing helps them blend into ordinary social situations.
Marcella could be on her way to school or Vera on her way to a farmer’s market. At one point, we see Karen Pirie go from resolving a hostage situation to drinking in the pub with her friends. In her Carhartt pants and pullover, she looks like any thirtysomething.
As with Fletcher, their unassuming sartorial choices are often a covert stunt. No one expects them to be the mastermind.
British screenwriter Daisy Coulam, creator of Grantchester and Deadwater fell, describes Fletcher as a chameleon. “She could blend into any situation,” she says. “It wasn’t a disguise but she dressed to fit in, from a glamorous party to a book launch. I don’t think anyone has ever beaten her as a fashion detective.
While creating her own detective character, DC Gemma Darlington in dead water fallCoulam explains that she has watched a lot of documentaries like 24 hours in custody. “I was trying to keep it realistic. So Gemma wore a lot of practical costumes in dull colors. It wasn’t about glorifying the work, it was about saying it was hard work, it involved scenes of terrible crimes and that you had to be ready for anything.
The reality of being a diligent detective is also reflected in The bridge where Saga Norén always wears brown leather pants and a flowing coat. Course of action viewers expect to see DI Kate Fleming in her uniform of black pantsuits, M&S turtlenecks and her beloved Fossil shoulder bag. She even avoids jewelry for a thong. “It can be empowering to see someone who looks like an ordinary woman unerringly solving every crime that happens,” adds Dresner.
In 2018, despite the memes generated by Kill Eve‘s Villanelle (Jodie Comer) in her giant pink tulle dress by British designer Molly Goddard, it was investigator Eve’s (Sandra Oh) crumpled Uniqlo t-shirts and battered leather jacket that made the show and the character more relatable. Her costume designer, Phoebe de Gaye, says: “Eve wasn’t interested in what she looked like. I had to try to make it look messy.
Thanks to the power of social media, the right dress formula can often catapult a show into the spotlight. When the Danish TV show The slaughter First aired in 2007, it was the star’s sweater rather than the script that went viral. Worn by Sarah Lund (Sofie Gråbøl), Guðrun & Guðrun’s Faroe knit has boosted sales of patterned knitwear. Feeling overshadowed by her presence, Gråbøl had her removed after the first season.