Reassuring, timeless, safe: how Angela Lansbury set the style for female TV sleuths

The grande dame, who has died aged 96, pioneered the idea of a set fashion formula for a generation of fictional detectives

Whizzing around the fictional town of Cabot Cove in Maine in neat but mundane beige trousers, a blue blouse and gold earrings, Angela Lansbury first appeared on American television screens in 1984 as the author-turned-detective Jessica Fletcher in Murder She Wrote. Back then, no one imagined that nearly 40 years later her character’s wardrobe would still be influencing how TV crime detectives dress. For 12 seasons and over 200 episodes, shoulder-padded blazers, button-down shirts and oversized spectacles formed the cornerstone of Lansbury’s vast on-screen wardrobe.

Just days before her 97th birthday, the grande dame of television died. Her role as the warm but astute Fletcher garnered Lansbury generations of fans – reruns of the show are continually shown. In 2012, Lansbury even appeared on the cover of acclaimed fashion magazine the Gentlewoman wearing Fletcher-esque spectacles.

Before Fletcher, on-screen female detectives were much more glamorous. The Avengers spy Emma Peel, played by Diana Rigg, wore a slinky leather catsuit in the 1960s, while Sergeant “Pepper” Anderson preferred her figure-hugging silk blouses in the 1970s hit Police Woman.

Lisa Dresner, associate professor at Hofstra University, New York and author of The Female Investigator in Literature, Film and Popular Culture, says that Fletcher, as an older woman, appealed to both male and female audiences. “She doesn’t explicitly deal with sexism so she is very reassuring as a desexualised character,” Dresner said.

Fletcher, unlike her predecessors, doesn’t possess a gun, nor does she drive a car. “Most tended to have all these different markers of capability. Fletcher doesn’t have a lot of agency – she’s always asking men for lifts.”

Eve (Sandra Oh) in a scene from the final season of Killing Eve.
Eve (Sandra Oh) in a scene from the final season of Killing Eve. Photograph: Anika Molnar/AP

It’s obvious in what she wears. Her clothing was reassuring, timeless, safe. Although Fletcher often had multiple outfit changes in an episode, the show’s costume designer, Eilish Zebrasky, who went on to work on movies including Spider-Man: Far from Home, had an almost formulaic approach to dressing. Speaking to the LA Times in 1992, she said: “At Angela’s age, she doesn’t have to prove anything. I wouldn’t go so far as to put her in a man’s grey pinstriped suit. That would be (more suitable on) a woman in her 30s starting out in business.”

Instead we see her regularly in single-breasted blazer jackets, open-collared blouses and sweaters that “elongate the neck. A jacket that just hangs doesn’t work for her,” added Zebrasky. “And a double-breasted one adds bulk.”

Dresner believes that Jessica Fletcher gave permission for other shows to cast women in traditionally male roles such as Mary Beth in Cagney and Lacey and Jane Tennison in Prime Suspect. Their cropped hair, white shirts and practical rain jackets were much more reflective of the women watching at home.

“By having professional women wearing clothes that don’t emphasise their body you really broaden the possibilities for identification for the average person watching. You think of the detective as a mind, as a character, as a person when you don’t see the person wearing glamorous clothes that focus your attention on their bodies.”

Over the past decade, storytellers have constructed a wardrobe that makes their TV detectives instantly recognisable for their individual style. Take Anna Friel’s parka in the gritty crime drama Marcella, Brenda Blethyn’s long trench coat in Vera and Lauren Lyle’s tank top and belt bag in Karen Pirie. Just like Fletcher, their characters’ clothing helps them blend into ordinary social situations.

Marcella could be on the school run or Vera on her way to a farmer’s market. At one stage, we see Karen Pirie go from resolving a hostage situation to drinking at the pub with her friends. In her Carhartt trousers and sweater vest, she looks just like any other 30-something.

As with Fletcher, their unassuming clothing choices are often a secret power move. No one expects them to be the mastermind.

Sofie Gråbøl as Sarah Lund wearing that jumper in 2007’s The Killing.
Sofie Gråbøl as Sarah Lund wearing that jumper in 2007’s The Killing. Photograph: Nbc/Sportsphoto/Allstar

The 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 fashiony detective.”

When creating her own detective character, DC Gemma Darlington in Deadwater Fell, Coulam explains that she watched plenty of documentaries such as 24 Hours In Police Custody. “I was trying to keep it realistic. So Gemma wore a lot of practical suits that were dowdy in colour. It wasn’t about glamorising the job, it was about saying it’s hard work, involves terrible crime scenes and you have to be ready for anything.”

The reality of being an assiduous detective is also reflected in The Bridge where Saga Norén continually wears brown leather trousers and a flowing coat. Line Of Duty viewers have come to expect to see DI Kate Fleming in her uniform of black trouser suits, M&S rollnecks and her beloved crossbody Fossil bag. She even shuns jewellery for a lanyard. “It can be empowering to see someone that looks like an everyday woman unfailingly solving every crime that sends itself,” adds Dresner.

In 2018, despite the memes generated by Killing Eve’s Villanelle (Jodie Comer) in her giant pink tulle dress from the British designer Molly Goddard, it was the crumpled Uniqlo T-shirts and battered leather jacket of investigator Eve (Sandra Oh) that made the show and character more relatable. Its costume designer, Phoebe de Gaye, says: Eve was not remotely interested in what she looked like. I had to try to make her look a mess.”

Thanks to the power of social media, the right sartorial formula can often catapult a show into the spotlight. When the Danish TV show The Killing first aired in 2007, it was the star’s sweater rather than the storyline that went viral. Sported by Sarah Lund (Sofie Gråbøl), the Faroe knit from Guðrun & Guðrun sent sales of patterned knitwear soaring. Feeling upstaged by its presence, Gråbøl had it axed after the first season.


Chloe Mac Donnell

The GuardianTramp

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