Is there a correlation between sartorial savvy and the ability to nab a wrong ‘un? TheTramp investigates.
If there is one genre that television loves, it is that of the detective drama. From gritty police procedural dramas, through to whimsical amateur detectives in quaint but deadly villages, there always seems to be a show on some channel or another, new or repeat (sorry, classic), with murders that need solving and solved they invariably are, the pleasure generally being how they are solved and by whom.
Character is key in this genre, with one of my favourite sub-sectors being the female detective, in particular the ‘amateur’ sleuth. I am sure that my enjoyment of watching these characters sleuthing unfold is in part due to rather liking it when female characters take the lead. However, the other is purely sartorial. The female detective you see, is in a large part defined by her wardrobe, and if she is an amateur sleuth that wardrobe is often, though not always, one to covet.
It is rare (although not unheard of, Colombo and his rain mac for instance), for wardrobe to be quite as pivotal to the male detective as it is for the female. Take Poirot, that neat freak Flem may well be impeccably dressed* but it is his poise, his mannerisms and his facial hair that truly characterise him. Marple meanwhile, that other much-televised Christie sleuth and sharp-witted foe of murderers everywhere, always manages to slink into a room and learn just what she needs to know about every suspect that surrounds her. How can that be you wonder? How can she be so overlooked? Well the wardrobe department almost always come up with the answer that Marple’s clothes are the equivalent of a cloak of unobtrusiveness**. Whether patterned or plain they are so sartorially bland as to render her invisible and as such earwig her way to solving the puzzle that so vexes the police.
But it is not the plain Marple, or the economically challenged policewoman’s off duty ensembles (Sarah Lancashire’s Sgt Catherine Cawood for instance) that I covet. No. It is, on the whole, the wave of feminist (in varying degrees, but in recent years almost always in some way portrayed as such) amateur sleuths’ wardrobes which make me weep with longing, whom I will mostly dwell upon here. The lavish – and they usually are lavish – outfits of these femme detectives are designed to highlight how different they are to the women and men around them. Their abnormality. Their uniqueness. They also, often, challenge the men they are pitted against, or indeed the society in which they circulate in a way that the male detective simply has no need for clothes to do.
Style as a weapon for women is hardly a revolutionary concept ‑ and certainly one that designers have been perpetuating for year ‑ but done well on the small screen it is sumptuous indeed to behold; and Australia’s, Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries (2012 to date and found on Netflix) uses clothes like a gangster uses bullets. Indeed, Miss Fisher’s wardrobe is so stylish Vanity Fair, amongst others, have taken note.
Phryne (Fry-nee) Fisher (Essie Davies)is a fortysomething independent Melbourne heiress who likes to use her money and her oodles of free time to solve crime, learn new skills, enjoy a bit of free love and stick two fingers up at the societal expectation that women should stay in the background. It is no accident that she sports a Louise Brooks bob, or that her underwear, when on show, should be corset free, slinky and silk.
Miss Fisher may have the money to be one of the idle rich, but her background is less salubrious and idle is evidently not in her nature. Hence every outfit that she wears is as practical as it is stunning; for instance her bags are always just large enough to carry a hand gun, and if up to some late night breaking and – clue seeking- entering she will wear trousers with boots, not heels. Not that her clothes are always on sleuthing point, which is why if chasing a villain in heels in an evening gown through the undergrowth our heroine is likely to be flummoxed by a hemline, vexingly allowing the villain to get away. When did Holmes last find himself under the cosh thanks to his choice of evening attire?
As all women should know, if there is one item of clothing that shouts ‘ALPHA’ it is the trouser. Why, you may wonder, is the trouser so pivotal? Well, nothing looks quite as dreadful as a poorly cut ill-fitting trouser; which is why if you want to convey frumpy or economically challenged the ill-fitting trouser is your go to choice. Just as nothing looks quite as fabulous as the traditionally of the male domain despite being worn by women now for at least 100 years, gender challenging well cut, leg lengthening oh so flattering, trouser. The short, in short, does not cut it. Shorts, whether worn by men or women, are far harder to take seriously. There is something about that much leg on show that makes it difficult to be stylish. Comfortable, cool, silly, sexy, slutty – yes; but stylish is far far harder to achieve. (So ignore every women’s magazine that suggests otherwise. Seriously, if Madonna can’t pull them off convincingly, no-one can.)
The female sleuth is certainly aware of the power of trousers and every last one of them will sport a fantastically well cut, flattering instant game changer at some point in their televisual outing. Miss Fisher wears more than the norm, in part to reflect how practical her character is (when running about after villains or flying planes, a skirt can be cumbersome) and in part to highlight the degree to which she ignores social norms. In particular she favours white trousers, white trousers being notoriously difficult to wear stylishly, and yet Phryne manages it with ease, with the assistance of a good coat, swishy or otherwise.
Another female sleuth who uses trousers to defy convention is Diana Rigg’s Mrs Bradley. Female characters have a tendency to fall into youthful or elderly matron. Rigg’s Bradley may well challenge Miss Marple on age, but she most certainly does not in style. Bradley is a matron without the matronliness; a woman who refuses to stop being sexy simply because she is old enough to be a grandmother. Again a character that hails from the 1920s, there is a moment when Bradley sports a trouser suit and striking red hat combo that is not only being daring in terms of the latest fashion, but also daringly defying the rules that age has applied to her. If ever a picture could tell a thousand words, then Rigg’s Bradley in a black and white mob style pin stripe suit says, “I am a strong, independent, attractive, wealthy, older woman who truly does not give a flying fig what you think, but I dare you to challenge me on it.” Now whom of us would not wish to project such an aura?
Of course Rigg is a woman who at any age can make you wish you could look that good in that outfit. It would be remiss of me to fail to mention hear her days as action woman, sleuth and spy Emma Peel in The Avengers. Her catsuit clad figure clutching a gun is as iconic an image of the 1960s as Michael Caine in his thick black rimmed spectacles. If ever an outfit oozed feminine, but badass, it was Emma Peel’s catsuit, and action women have been donning them ever since.
Arguably the most recent iconic image of a female not to be messed with owes much to Emma Peel and was donned by another Avenger actress, Uma Thurman, in Kill Bill. I do wonder if, since leaving Steed and her cat suit behind, Rigg rather missed being a fashion icon and if that was part of what attracted her to the role of Bradley. Perhaps this late 1990s BBC show failed to set pulses racing quite as Miss Fisher has, but it is most definitely a game changer in sleuth terms. Bradley is neither glamorous granny, nor sartorially invisible matron. She is fully, and utterly, herself defying gender and age conventions, demanding to be noticed and taken seriously in every outfit that she dons. In a decade that has seen Red and Best Exotic Marigolds I and II did Bradley arrive ten years too early for the audience?
Speaking of glamorous Grannies, how can I trip through the female televisual amateur sleuth landscape without mentioning Angela Lansbury’s Jessica Fletcher? Fletcher was a successful middle aged woman with a fondness for wearing a blazer with every outfit. As a writer turned thwarter of murderers, Fletcher moved around in professional and moneyed circles, sniffing out purveyors of deadly sin and then writing about them (and presumably making a pot of cash doing so). Her wardrobe was all about fitting in but not standing out. She may have enjoyed the 80s shoulder pad, but not to Dynasty levels. Her handbags were tasteful, but far from fashion forward, and her heels were of the lower non-teetering variety. She liked skirts that sat on the knee. She was matronly, but not dowdy, and her hair was always coiffed to perfection. Think of her as Jilly Cooper in the 1980s, but older, crossed with Kirsty Alsop and without the sex. This non-threatening, feminine, status stating wardrobe is perhaps part of the reason why Fletcher was as likely to have suspects confiding in her as if she were their grandmother as she was to find herself being wooed by a later life lothario who may or may not prove to also be a bad ‘un.
Bringing things up to date, my latest sleuth wardrobe crush is Agatha Raisin (Sky originally but now found on Amazon Prime), played by Extras‘ and Ugly Betty‘s Ashley Jensen. There is a moment in the Witch of Wyckhadam, when Raisin walks in wearing a pair of high-waisted, long, wide-legged black and white tweed trousers with a black polo neck jumper and pearls, where I found myself longing for a magic button to send me direct to the store that stocked them. It was an arch nod to the twin-set and 1920s detective in an episode where Agatha poked about a supposedly haunted castle seeking the killer of a local psychic gypsy. If you ever wondered how trousers that cost several hundreds of pounds could possibly be worth the money, these are the trousers that tell you. Jensen has never looked so stunning and in an episode where control was something Raisin was lacking, the appearance of these trousers coincided with the moment that she took charge not only in the case, but her private life too.
Jensen’s Raisin, a London PR guru who has semi-retired to the Cotswolds and now solves murders (in a village as idyllic and lethal as Midsomer but with more hills), stands out from the locals thanks to a wardrobe of city-slick, colourful, stylish clothes and shoes that wouldn’t know sensible if it hit them. Her shoes are of particular note, they stand out pointedly – they’re usually stilettos – as Agatha teeters impractically over cobbles, country roads, muddy puddles and grassy fields. They serve to underline her background as a London career woman who hailed from a glamorous world, and how as brilliant as she may be at sleuthing and her job, Raisin is far from practical and possibly a little foolish. Unlike other Londoners who have moved in to the village, Agatha does not don the uniform sported by local women – jumpers, jeans, wellies – and even when she tries to she fails to fit in choosing bright pink rambling gear over the battered waxies or more muted North Face numbers favoured by everyone else.
Again, Agatha is not your typical woman on telly. She is attractive, but in her 40s, not her 20s or over 60. Neither Nancy Drew nor Miss Marple, Raisin is a woman with a brain who needs to use it, but uses style to stand out and be noticed (hopefully by her dish of a next door neighbour).Albeit ironically her style is very much what singles her out as being an outsider. When writing this I did begin to ponder if this is the genre where there is truly space for the fortysomething woman to shine? It certainly appears to be the genre where a bob cut of some description is a must have.
Speaking of stylish fortysomething career women out of their usual London orbit, despite not being an amateur detective it would be wrong of me not to mention Gillian Anderson’s cool career police detective Stella Gibson in The Fall. No stranger to the wardrobe of the female detective, thanks to The X-Files, Anderson must have been pleased to note that Gibson’s trousers were better fitted and her wardrobe more glamorous than conventional scientist Scully ever managed in her dour Clintonesque FBI-approved trouser suits. With Stella it is the blouse, rather than the trouser, that is the star. Never has a female character avoided creases and stains so well. Stella sports a seemingly endless collection of silk blouses that hint at a sensual, sexual woman (in a way that crisp cotton or polyester never could), beneath that tightly controlled, efficient exterior. There is more to her than meets the eye they say, and eyes are most certainly drawn to her. Stella is a femme fatale in image, if not in character, and her hair, with that 40s Veronica Lake wave, is as much a part of that as the blouses.
I have touched upon but a handful of the female sleuths with wardrobes to lust -over here, and there are many more with wardrobes just as telling in their identity, if less inspiring to Vanity Fair.
Vera Stanhope’s ill fitting, flapping coat, for instance. Practical and voluminous, it dances about her on a windswept Teesside crag like a cloak from days of yore. It could be a fashion statement, but the matching round brimmed wax hat plonked firmly down around her ears and muddy wellington boots shout single, disinterested in appearance, practical and living in a cold, wet climate. Rarely has wet weather gear been so lacking in sensuality or style (and that is saying something) – much like plain talking, sharp witted, middle aged matron police detective Vera Drake. A woman who hasn’t so much given up on romance, as decided that it is a frivolous impractical waste of everyone’s time. Or Sarah Lancashire’s Detective Catherine Cawood; the contrast between how she appears in uniform – in charge and on point – with how she looks at home – harassed and more giving than getting – is simply but firmly illustrated with thanks to handful of puffa jackets, jumpers and cheap denim jeans contrasting with a spotless shiny uniform.
Clothes, Mark Twain once said, maketh the man. Perhaps they certainly maketh the woman – on screen at least.
*Unless played by Peter Ustinov of course, although I am sure the costume designer tried their best.
**Not televised but Rutherford’s Marple is the exception to this rule. Not unlike Ustinov, Rutherford is a character who seems incapable of pulling off neat. Her Marple is therefore dressed in a series of seemingly unravelling layers and scarfs to rival (perhaps she inspired) Dr Who. She oozes crackpot and as such is overlooked or hopefully ignored by those around her, always, it must be said, to her advantage. This is quite at odds with the Marple of the books, but as a Marple fan I admit she remains my favourite. And her scarves always look fantastic.