Currently Viewing – Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries

Australian readers will need no introduction to Miss Phryne Fisher, and she’s becoming increasingly popular in other countries as well.  She’s the lead character in an Australian TV program, which is based on a series of books by Kerry Greenwood.  Set in 1929, Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries tells the story of a “lady detective” in Melbourne, Australia.  There have been two seasons so far, and a third is currently in production.

Phryne Fisher is like a late 1920s Jessica Fletcher (Murder, She Wrote) though she is much too busy to bother with writing mysteries, and she is much more glamorous.   There are times when I think that the real star of the show is not Essie Davis, the actress who plays Miss Fisher, but rather, her wardrobe.  The clothes are stunningly beautiful.

They are not, unfortunately, historically correct.  The costumes are a mash-up of styles from the 1920s and early 30s, with a big dollop of 1970s thrown in for good measure.  The 1970s come in the form of long, flowy pants, very reminiscent of Halston at his very best.  Actually, in the most recent episodes, Miss Fisher is much more likely to wear pants than she is to wear a dress.

Unless 1929 Melbourne was very different from and more progressive than the rest of the Western world, Miss Fisher would not be out and about on city streets and in public building wearing pants.  She would wear them at the beach or in her home, but they would not be her every day attire.  (Australian fashion historians, I welcome your input.)

Even more problematic is Miss Fisher’s friend Mac, who is a female doctor, is a lesbian, and who dresses in men’s clothing exclusively.  Even though women often dressed as men as a lark (lots of photographic evidence of that) I can’t imagine a woman who went through her daily life in such a way.  Still, she is a fantastic model for anyone with a tweedy, androgynous  style today.

1929 was an interesting time, style-wise.  Dresses were still 1920s in style, but lengths were in flux, with many dresses having two lengths.  The flapper look was fading, as a more sophisticated woman began to take her place.  Many writers characterize Miss Fisher as a flapper, but she’s really the successor – a thoroughly modern woman.   It helps that Essie Davis is in her mid forties, and portrays Miss Fisher as a woman who has lived and learned instead of an ingenue.  It’s one of the strengths of the show.

That and Nathan Page, who portrays Detective Jack Robinson.  That’s him on the right in the beach scene, and left, below.  It thought it was clever how the writers got these three city dwellers into swimsuits, which are correct for 1929, by the way.  No bare chests, thank goodness!

The first two seasons are available for streaming from Netflix.

Photos copyright of ABC1.

Correction:  Spelling error.

33 Comments

Filed under Currently Viewing

33 responses to “Currently Viewing – Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries

  1. One of my (and my husband’s!) favorite shows! We were so glad when Series/Season 2 finally came to Netflix streaming!

    The costumes are captivating, but yes, no television show or movie will ever be completely historically accurate – it’s all about perceptions of history and current thinking about what is visually appealing so as not to be distracting in a bad way. So much of costuming is about making the audience subconsciously think what the filmmakers want them to think. (Occasionally, they beat you over the head with the obvious though.)

    I think one of the most interesting parts of the show is seeing some of the similarities of Australian history to American and British of the time (which I am more familiar with). It’s also interesting to remember the reversed seasons – when Miss Fisher is talking about her December birthday one minute and remembering celebrating it on a “hot summer day” the next, it can be a little confusing for a second.

    Another show you might enjoy is Murdoch Mysteries that takes place in Victorian Canada. (The first few seasons are on Netflix streaming, but I think the show is actually in it’s 8th season currently!) The historical accuracy of the costumes is rather cringe-worthy, especially for the first few episodes (plastic buttons!), but they do a decent job with the silhouette of the period and they definitely get a better costume budget as time goes on. The characters and scripts are what makes the show worth watching – very much how I feel about Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries too!

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    • Brooke, I always enjoy your costuming comments as they provide such a great point of view. Thanks for recommending the Murdoch series. I just hope I can watch it without throwing something at the screen. Seriously, I can’t watch M*A*S*H because of the horrible costumes, especially Klinger’s!

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      • If you can ignore some of the awful makeup and low budget costuming to get past the first few episodes of Murdoch, I think you’ll be fine. I think it took me about 5 episodes to start being able to ignore a lot of the distracting details. (I promise they tone down the eyeliner eventually!)

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  2. Diana Coleman

    Have just added this to my Netflix on line list. I really appreciate all your recommendations. Happy New Year! Diana Coleman

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  3. Irene Z.

    This is one of my favorites shows! The clothes, although not historically accurate, are absolutely marvelous, and Essie Davis wears them wonderfully. I couldn’t be happier that it’s getting a third season.

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  4. I love this show too! I also beefed about the pants–not so much that she is wearing them, but the low-waist style is not 1920s accurate at all. The wide legs, however, are. It is true that she wouldn’t have worn them as often as she does in the show, but the 1920s were a pretty push-the-envelope era, really. Much more radical than the 1960s in many respects, and so I think the spirit is there. As for Mac, I don’t know. I think it is certainly possible, especially in a place like Australia.

    But I do love the dynamics of the show, especially the will-they-or-won’t-they interplay between Jack and Phryne!

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  5. Danette

    I loved every episode! Beautiful to watch, sets, costumes….she definitely embodies the essence of the post-flapper spirit, yet with an appropriate finesse of her age. Exciting and fun. The chemistry between her and Jack is palpable!

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  6. I have heard about this show, I really hope it airs in the UK, it looks splendid. LOVE the costumes (I had to click on the link & have a good gander at them in all their glory!)
    Hoping you had a wonderful Christmas dear girl xxx

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  7. Mem

    OH I love that you love thus show . It’s made here until Melbourne and very much in the suburbs where I live . I know Kerry Greenwood although not at all well. She us a wonderful person . Her partner is white witch ! I live watching the show and seeing all the sights around town . The wardrobe is fantastic and I went to see an exhibition of them recently at Rippon Lea which is where Aunt Prudence lives . I have often enjoyed Phryne Fisher books over our long hot Christmas holidays . You often find well worn copies in Australian beach holiday houses.

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    • I really need to get my hands on some of the books.

      It must be so much fun seeing your city on the program. Scenes of filming in Melbourne have been all over Instagram lately.

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      • Mem

        Hello I was thinking about your comments regarding Mac and her masculine dress. I have a book about a very famous Australian landscape gardener who lived in a community if women in Mooroolbark here in Melbourne . She always wore masculine clothes and she and her lady friends while not being overtly Lesbian certainly never hid their predilections . I think perhaps that Australia and perhaps England have a ” live and let live ” attitude to difference . It’s probably because we started whit settlement as a large gaol ! It wouldn’t do to be too judgmental 😄

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  8. I watched a couple episodes of this show and just couldn’t get into it. (Clearly I’m in the minority!) However the clothes were indeed fabulous (historically accurate or not).

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  9. While Phryne Fisher’s costumes may not be historically accurate, I see it more as a nod to her character than any “error” on the part of the costumers, as the other, more conventional, characters seem to be true to the era.

    Phryne is a liberal free-thinker with enough money to have made or seek out whatever clothing she prefers. I could see someone like her bucking all trends and when it suits her, ignoring current fashion entirely. Her impeccable social graces endears and ingratiates her to others, even as she shocks them in various ways.

    In brief, I just think she’s avant garde.

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    • cardboard.suitcase

      I agree entirely with Liza D. The one error I cringed at by the costumers however, is in an early episode of season two when she wore a lovely tiara to a carnival boxing match (presumably, during the daytime). All of her other clothing are usually so setting appropriate, with her practical rain hat or loose on-the-go trousers, that such a fancy accessory seemed more suited to an opulent cocktail party or ball. Eeek!

      I do think it strange however, how she (or the costumers) so frequently recycle her wardrobe items. Davis wears them all with flair, but we see the same beige floppy hat and pendant earrings again and again. I presume she has a broader wardrobe, but we infrequently see it!

      As for Mac, I think that there have always been style eccentrics who either have the privilege or courage to dress beyond what is expected and instead dress as desired. And as for historical accuracy, there is a famous photo of the artist Frida Kahlo dressed in a suit for a family portrait dated (via this source) as from 1926! http://funstuffcafe.com/viva-la-vida-the-story-of-frida-kahlo (Apologies, I tried to find a better source for the photo, but it was surprisingly difficult!). So, even if this wasn’t Kahlo’s everyday wear during the 1920’s, we at least know masculine fashion was not entirely absent!

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      • I don’t think you should be surprised that Phryne wears the same items repeatedly. The fictional character might have a huge wardrobe, but the ABC doesn’t have the budget for anything like as many clothes.

        There’s an interview with the costumer, Marion Boyce, here which you may find interesting:
        http://www.theaustralian.com.au/executive-living/fashion/admiring-the-cut-of-miss-fishers-gib/story-e6frg8k6-1226731694706

        I saw the exhibition at Rippon Lea as well. It was wonderful to see the costumes up close, and amazing to see how small Essie Davis must be.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Cardboard.suitcase –

        I agree that the tiara was a little perplexing to me too.

        The repeating of costumes is definitely a budget thing like Vireya suspected in her above comment. (I am actually glad they repeat some of them because they are too wonderful not to show again.) Many episodes take place over many days which means that maybe as many as 4 days worth of clothing are needed for a single character in one episode. Multiply that by all the characters who don’t wear uniforms in every scene and you might need the budget for 30 or more costumes per episode! On top of all of that, it is a period show and any background extras have to be dressed by the costume department as well! (It’s much easier on shows set in modern day because extras can bring their own suitcase of clothing for the costumers to choose from.)

        I also believe that repeating the outfits is probably more appropriate for period shows simply because clothing was not as fast and disposable as it is today. One episode of Miss Fisher actually takes place in a couture house that feels threatened by the new thing in Paris called “ready-to-wear”. It wasn’t really until the ’60s (if I remember correctly) that fashion started marketing to teenagers and ready-to-wear really took over.

        If you pay close attention, you will see that most shows don’t repeat main characters’ outfits in back-to-back episodes and when a new season starts there will be all kinds of new costumes because the budget has been renewed. The repeats are much more obvious when you are able to binge watch tv shows on dvd or Netflix. (I notice pieces of clothing being worn by different guest stars and extras many times on shows because costumers use whatever they have on the truck.)

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      • Yes, there is plenty of photographic evidence that some women wore slacks in the 1920s and earlier; especially common are photos of performers and women on farms and ranches.

        What I find odd about Mac is that she wears pants exclusively, and that she dresses like a man (No one would mistake Phryne for a man!). Phryne with her leisured life of privilege might be about to carry off her feminine ensembles, but a woman who had to work for a living in a city would find it much harder to gain the acceptance of the people from whom she relied on for money.

        Even notorious lesbians like Marguerite Radclyffe Hall were usually photographed wearing skirts, though their attire from the waist up was all man.

        And thanks for sharing that photo of Frida Kahlo. She’s a great example of a woman who was not afraid to dress to suit herself.

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    • One person’s avant garde is another’s anachronism, I suppose.

      I’ve read dozens of reviews of the show and of the clothing, and the slacks are never mentioned. In the 1920s Miss Fisher’s manner of dress might have been considered avant garde, but to today’s eye, her dress seems perfectly normal. Women wear trousers on practically all occasions today, and I’m sure most viewers take women wearing pants for granted. Only those familiar with the dress mores of the past would see Miss Fisher’s costumes as odd.

      I wouldn’t find the slacks so jarring if people meeting her on the street reacted to her dress, which surely would have actually happened in 1929.

      Perhaps the slacks are just one more device used to emphasize Miss Fisher’s modernism.

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  10. I saw one episode and I am afraid it was the fact that she never changed costume that put me off. She was wearing a pair of trousers I do believe. I am a costume fan and it seemed such a missed opportunity and really any programme maker should know the pulling power of costumes is enormous. On the upside, it’s great to see a leading actress who is over 40, and perhaps I will try to catch it again on the basis that there may be more costumes in the next one.

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  11. Thanks so much for all the great comments. I enjoy a lively discussion!

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  12. I keep meaning to watch this, as many people have raved about it, but have wondered about the accuracy of it, as with any period piece. And your perspective is very interesting and something I shall keep in mind if I do end up viewing it, especially as the 20s is not an area I am super familiar with!

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  13. I’ve loved this series since I first saw it last year–the wit, the feminism, the fun: it’s just so darn enjoyable. Strangely, at first I didn’t like the costumes that much; I found them too fancy for daytime wear and not accurate enough for the period. But they’ve improved over time and grown on me. Interestingly, there was doubt that there would be a third season of the show–the ABC delayed and delayed their decision. So someone started a petition on change.org which I signed and which ended up getting over 10,000 signatures. I don’t know if this had an impact but soon after it hit 10,000 they finally announced a third season. Talk about suspense!

    Happy New Year, Lizzie and thanks for adding so much fascinating history, news and fashion-related delights to my week, every week. And I’m especially grateful that you keep the ethics and morals of fashion production so clearly in view, with its terrible exploitation of workers, lack of jobs in the U.S., negative environmental impacts and questionable marketing tactics. It’s so important that our love of fashion doesn’t blind us to these realities and that we all try to be a force for positive change when we can, as you are in this blog.

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  14. Mel

    It seems strange to me that people are saying Phryne wears the same costumes repeatedly, like it’s a bad thing. For me it’s clearly to emphasise character; certain trademark items act as motifs. It also seems more naturalistic to me: sure, Phryne is a woman of independent means with a large wardrobe, but even she would wear her favourite things again and again.

    Marion Boyce (who’s won awards for her work on this show) designed for whatever best serves the production and looks best onscreen, as well as for the period. For instance, she might use satins and brocades to make Phryne stand out against a dull background, wine colours during a vineyard scene and sorbet colours at the beach, or silks and chiffons that move alluringly with Davis’s movements and emphasise Phryne’s energetic qualities. Phryne’s favouring of exotic fabrics and styles also signals that she is more curious and cosmopolitan than the average 1920s Melburnian.

    I live in Melbourne too, and grew up reading the novels and aspiring to be as glamorous as Phryne. (The sexual tension with Jack is purely an invention of the TV series; in the books he’s older, far less dashing, and happily married.) For me the worst thing about the show is the really bad foreign accents from the guest cast, although they probably don’t register as hammily to those who already find the Australian accent strange.

    At the costume exhibition I was really struck by how beautifully finished and detailed the costumes are, especially the hats (most of which are matched to only one outfit) – much more so than previous comments about the show’s limited budget would suggest.

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