Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries: 1920s on a Budget

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A friend recommended I check out this series, which I found on Netflix (it’s also available on some PBS stations). Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries was made in Australia and has two seasons, which aired in 2012 and 2013. A third season finished filming in January 2015 and will premiere later this year (though no word yet on when it comes to the U.S.). The story is based on a series of novels by Kerry Greenwood, all about a feisty, female detective named Phryne Fisher in 1920s Melbourne.

Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries costumes

Miss Fisher (played by Essie Davis) is thoroughly independent, both financially and in spirit. In the first episode, she climbs a building’s wall and merely pauses to adjust her hat. She and her practically cross-dressed doctor gal pal joke about ‘wondering wombs,’ and Phryne goes through lovers like a hot knife through butter. Phryne creates a family of wayward folks about her, including a young and religious lady’s companion (who is only mildly shocked by Fisher’s lifestyle), an orphan she raises as her daughter, and a pair of cabbies who help her solve crimes, plus the local detective she flirts with / annoys.

The mystery stories are engaging and not-always predictable — some of the settings are quite intriguing, such as a circus, a Turkish bath, a back-alley abortionist, a fashion show, and a human-trafficking ring. Phryne and her doctor friend, Mac, are definitely feminists, and even her cabbie pals are a bit of vigilantes. Together, they’re all fighting the good fight in a way that’s a touch more modern than period, but not jarringly so.

Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries Costumes

Why do I call this show “1920s on a budget”? Because I made the mistake of watching the first couple episodes right after watching a new ep of Downton Abbey. Yes, Miss Fisher has a big budget for an Australian TV show, and IF Magazine reported in 2012 that the series spends about $1 million per episode. The Australian dollar has been valued a bit under the U.S. dollar historically, so this equals around $800,000 per episode.

For comparison, The Telegraph, in covering Downton Abbey‘s fifth season, filmed in 2014, reports the show spends £1 million per episode. That’s would be at least $1,500,000 in U.S. dollars. To further compare, the recently ended contemporary American show Breaking Bad cost $3 million per episode to produce, which Variety said was the “high end of most basic cable dramas.” And then Game of Thrones cost at least $6 million per episode in 2012. So, while historical costume series get the short end of the stick, Australian ones are really working on a budget; Fisher spends a little over half of what Downton does per episode.

Now that we’ve had our economics lesson, we can better appreciate how costume designer Marion Boyce creates the look for Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries. The show does a fantastic job at creating a period feel and immersing you in 1920s Melbourne, from the seedy backstreets to the posh drawing rooms. Unlike at Downton, we meet a range of people from different socioeconomic backgrounds and go to a greater variety of settings with Phryne. So the costume and art department have to work extra hard to create a bigger, more complicated, more detailed world, and on a much smaller budget.

Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries costumes

Notice the holes in her glove — this series covers all aspects of society.

Since it’s my job to nit-pick, I can see where they’ve used matte paintings to fill in the scenery and how secondary characters’ gowns in, say, a party scene are just generic tunics made into ’20s costumes (because I’ve used that costume trick myself!). Basically, the producers are focusing all the good costumes and details on Miss Fisher and spending money on renting period cars (there seems to be a car chase or driving scene in each ep). Everything else is fudged a little because it’s not as important. And that’s OK! That’s exactly what you do on a budget — spend on what shows most.

Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries costumes

These secondary characters get nice gowns because the scene is a fashion show.

Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries costumes

Yet the same ep, this character is wearing a not-as-exacting just-trying-to-get-the-feel-of-the-period outfit.

Phryne has great historical-repro shoes in every episode, which is important because she’s an excellent dancer and has some dance scenes that play important parts in solving some mysteries. Her stockings are period too, since the camera focuses on on her feet and legs, not just for dancing but because she’s very active, running, jumping, climbing, etc. Phryne’s hats and those of her companion Dot (played by Ashleigh Cummings) are great — they each get a lot of closeups, so of course, you want to see 1920s hats on them. The show apparently had a milliner create custom designs, and this level of detail works really well (compare with a show like Peaky Blinders where headgear is either non-existent or rather dull).

There’s also a nice contrast between the two characters, Miss Fisher being so flashy with expensive tastes and Dot being conservative and demure. Overall, Phryne’s costumes make excellent use of the colors and fabrics of the period. The designer Boyce reportedly uses quite a few vintage materials, and it shows.

Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries costumes

Phryne & Dot

One detail I find lacking is the jewelry. It’s either pedestrian, cheap-looking, or just missing. This may be me comparing it to Downton again, where jewelry is SO important since the characters are all super-wealthy. But Phryne is titled (“the honorable”) and wealthy too. Her jeweled headpieces look a bit … like inexpensive necklaces plopped on her head. Not impressed, and I’d just as soon leave them off.

Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries costumes

Garter knife, cool! Jewelry, meh.

In Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, the characters just DO a lot more stuff than in Downton, and we get to see a lot more types of clothing, which is really cool! They go to the seaside, so we see bathing costumes. They go to dance halls, so we see a variety of fun evening wear. They go to a costume party, so we see 1920s historical fancy dress. They take long journeys and several different trips, so we see lots of traveling coats and such. It’s refreshing to see a breadth of 1920s costumes for Phryne, as well as for all the people she meets.

Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries costumes
Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries costumes
Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries costumes

I’m still watching eps and really enjoying Miss Fisher Murder Mystery‘s mix of crime-solving, feminism, and period aesthetics. These are a few more outfits I like from the series…

Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries costumes

The sportswear in this series is especially good.

Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries costumes

Miss Fisher often wears trousers.

Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries costumes

Perky suit.

Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries costumes

Ready, steady, go!

Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries costumes

You can’t have a mystery series without some funerals.

 

Do you watch Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries? Do you like these TV series set in the 1920s?

 

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About the author

Trystan L. Bass

Twitter Website

A self-described ElderGoth, Trystan has been haunting the internet since the early 1990s. Always passionate about costume, from everyday office wear to outrageous twisted historical creations, she has maintained some of the earliest online costuming-focused resources on the web. When she’s not dressing up in costumes, she can be found traveling the world with her sweetie and, occasionally, Kendra and Sarah. Her costuming and travel adventures are chronicled on her website, TrystanCraft. She also maintains a popular fashion blog, This Is CorpGoth, dedicated to her “office drag.”

42 Responses

  1. LydiaR

    I was hoping you would cover this series on your fabulous website! I’m currently watching it for the third time and eagerly anticipating Season 3. I’m drooling over the costuming, while lamenting the fact that Phryne’s slinky silhouette would not suit me at all. But it’s still some tasty eye candy!

    I also have a major crush on Detective Inspector Jack Robinson. He and Phryne smolder like nobody’s business!

    Reply
    • Trystan L. Bass

      We’ve had a lot of requests to review the show, & I’ve been devouring it on Netflix! So I was happy to write it up. The stories are so engaging & fun, & the costuming is spot-on, & the characters are people I’d love to know. So so good!

      Reply
  2. Michael L. McQuown

    Love Miss Fisher, which is currently airing locally. Interesting for many reasons, among them the references to the after-effects of WWI. It wasn’t for nothing that the survivors were called the “Lost Generation.” Also not the fact that Australia very sensibly never tried as foolish an experiment as Prohibition.
    If you like Miss Fisher, you might want to see “The Artful Detective” aka “The Murdoch Mysteries” now showing on Ovation, about a turn-of-the-last-century Toronto detective who pre-invents many now established forensic tools. His light-of-love is a lady doctor who is the ME in the early part of the series but moves on into politics. Series begins in 1895 and moves forward a year with each season. Good costuming over all, but sometimes lacking for one-time characters. A Mountie’s uniform is so clearly a costume rental it’s appalling. But by and large good, witty, and well done. Phryne Fisher and Dr Julia Ogden are definitely cut from the same cloth.

    Reply
    • Carolyn

      I’ve been disappointed by a number of the women’s costumes on Murdoch Mysteries – both principal characters (Dr Ogden, Dr Grace) and supporting or one-time ones. But I LOVE the show all the same and am a big nerdy fan of it, lol. I’m from Toronto and while I don’t recognize all of the shooting locations they use, I do know some of them, which is fun for me. Mostly I think I love how unabashedly Canadian it is – it’s a show *about* Toronto/Canada rather than using Toronto as a filming location to represent somewhere else, that tickles me!

      So, if this Phryne Fisher (who I’m just finding out about here and now) is someone that Dr Ogden fans enjoy, I think I’ll have to look out for this….but somewhere other than Netflix, since the Canadian version doesn’t seem to have it. :o(

      Reply
      • Michael L. McQuown

        Dr Ogden might well be Phryne’s grandmother, spiritually and intellectually, if not genetically. Both she and Phryne are mentors, she to Dr Grace and Phryne to Dot, who has loosened up quite a bit under Phryne’s tutelage. Also interesting that Dot and Murdoch are both Catholics in Protestant milieus.

        Reply
    • Trystan L. Bass

      Thanks for the recommendation for “Artful Detective” / “Murdoch Mysteries” — I keep seeing it around on Ovation & PBS, but wasn’t sure if it was worth watching (& I’ve got a HUGE backlog of things to watch & review :-) ). But I’ll add it in.

      Reply
      • Michael L. McQuown

        Definitely worth viewing. Aside from the retro science, there’s also some great potshots at history and historical characters. Geraint Wyn Davies appears several times as Arthur Conan Doyle. Teddy Roosevelt, Thomas Edison and others also appear. The joys of 20/20 hindsight!

        Reply
      • Michael L. McQuown

        I have mixed feelings about Dr Blake; he seems to be a rather unpleasant and angry man. The season just wrapped here with an important piece of backstory. Since I was around at that time, I can say that they seem to get it right, but most of the cars seem a bit out of date. This may be due to postwar shortages or just the difference between Australian and American car design. And speaking of cars, I’d like to see any series that featured the Auburn-Cord-Dusenberg lines. Which does bring me to one anachronism in “Murdoch.” Dr Grace refers to something as being a “doozy,” which wasn’t coined until the advent of the Dusenberg.

        Reply
    • tp

      I’m not certain I’d consider Murdoch Mysteries an outstanding costume drama. It’s mostly historically accurate, done on a string of a budget because CBC has zero money and fun for those of us interested in Toronto history, but not stunning like Miss Fisher and Downton mostly because the characters are supposed to be working class people.

      However if you’re from Toronto, or have an affinity for Canadian made television, this one is fun. They poke a lot of fun at modern things, they suggest that Murdoch invents a lot of now everyday things, such as ‘finger marks’ – their words for finger prints. They tie a lot of Toronto history to the story lines, obviously adding their fictional take on it. And most fascinatingly they use Toronto as Toronto, which is very seldom the case as many many films are shot here having TO substitute for New York, Boston, Chicago, and even DC. They also film in and around Toronto as finding period neighbourhoods gets harder and harder.

      As for costume’s you’ll find the men’s uniforms and suits appropriate, including details like the collars, with the women’s clothes they’re also fairly standard costume stock for early 20th century. Hair dyes and make up are a little more heavy handed, but not glaringly awful.

      Watch it for the history and the fun not for the costumes.

      Reply
  3. Belinda

    If you like an Australian period murder mystery you should also see The Doctor Blake Mysteries. It’s based in 1950s country Victoria (Ballarat) and follows an ex military doctor turned police surgeon.

    Reply
  4. Dee

    I’d be interested in your take on the Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries. They were done in the late 80s, I believe (Edward Petherbridge) and are set between 1929-1935.

    Reply
  5. Karen Lavoie

    I really like her hats, because instead ofKeep writing, Trystan! the bucket-like cloche, her signature hat frames her face and makes her attractive, rather than look like she’s trying to hide. Also love all her togs made from kimonos or kimono-like fabrics. . .very exotic for the time and the place. . .

    Reply
    • Trystan L. Bass

      Yes, the ‘orientalist’ touch is gorgeous — very appropriate for ’20s & also for Australia, being on the Pacific Rim. After all, Phryne had a wealthy Chinese lover.

      Reply
  6. Karen Lavoie

    Well, somehow my last comment was interspersed into the prior body of the post. “Dunno how they done that. . .” Anyway, enjoying this site and looking forward to seeing you ALL (?) at CoCo.

    Reply
  7. Katy

    My fave!!! Can we just discuss the sparkley green dress she wears at the beginning of the fashion episode???

    Reply
  8. Saraquill

    Squee! I adore this series, and eagerly await for season 3 to appear on Netflix.

    My question for the Frock Flicks trio is, how accurate/plausible is Phryne’s burlesque fan dancing “outfit?”

    Reply
  9. Michael L. McQuown

    The dance itself is certainly appropriate for the period. If I remember correctly, a woman named Sally Rand was one of the major exponents of the art.

    Reply
  10. Sarah F

    I too have watched both seasons multiple times, for obvious reasons.
    One of the most standout aspects of the show is the age of the two leads. Had this show been made in the US, they would have cast people in their twenties, or maybe early 30s. Yet here is a woman on the shady side of forty, who is brilliant, dynamic, sexual, and has real agency.
    Its also a tad shameful how much I would be willing to spend to get my hands on those hats.

    Reply
  11. DebL

    I watch the show & love everything about it: great chemistry between the actors, beautiful clothes, the period sets, the lighting, the plots, the music, the very funny and witty dialog, and those two beautiful fools, Miss Fisher and DI Robinson. I wish 1920s fashion would come back, wish we could still find the fabrics they had back then. One nit: It’s not ‘wondering wombs’, it’s ‘wandering wombs’. In an exchange between Phryne and Mac about wrong-headed medical dogma with respect to ‘women’s troubles’, Mac tells Phryne about the belief that celibacy caused the ‘wandering womb’ syndrome, and Phryne cracks, “Oh good, mine’s not going anywhere” because, well…she is far from celibate.

    Reply
  12. sometimessweetpea

    I stumbled onto this blog looking for Miss Fisher info and am so glad I did!!

    I agree that the costumes are gorgeous, I just wish they were a bit more flattering to Dot. I know her character is supposed to be conservative but her clothing seems to have gotten worse. It annoys me, if for no other reason than subtly implying that those of us with fuller figures were completely out of luck in the 1920s.

    A quick pinterest search found the below pictures:
    http://www.shorpy.com/node/8236
    http://theyroaredvintage.tumblr.com/post/38328894053/josephine-baker-1927

    Reply
    • Trystan L. Bass

      Hmm, I don’t see that Dot looks especially ‘full figured’ just that she’s conservative, a little prim. The clothes suit her character, both have a strict religious background & being a no-nonsense gal. I like that Dot isn’t plain; her hair is waved, she wears excellent hats, & her clothes have lots of details like pleating & trims. I do think the designer is trying to say something specific about her character thru Dot’s clothing.

      Reply
  13. mmcquown

    At this point, I’ve seen every ep at least twice; I hope there are new ones out there. Worth the while to look up the name “Phryne” on Wikipedia. Apparently, her father named her in a drunken fit.

    Reply
  14. mmcquown

    Just saw the behind-the-scenes show. According to local PBS station (WHYY, Phila) the third season is now pending and the fourth is in production. The show has a worldwide fan base. Apparently, they try very hard to get the details right on the show specific to the year 1928.

    Reply
    • Trystan L. Bass

      Yep, the 3rd season is airing on many PBS channels & all of it’s available on Netflix as of October 2015! I may have to write a new review bec. there’s a BIG finish. Plus, there’s talk of a Miss Fisher movie.

      Reply
  15. Susan Pola

    Your review was very fair. I’m glad you pointed out the budget involved in this production compared with shows of the caliber of Downton and Thrones. I also noticed the lack of jewellery, or the inadequate use of what they showed.

    Reply
  16. Nevenah Smith

    I am deeply in love with Phryne’s wardrobe, but it’s amazing how she can wear white silk and furs into a coal mine and emerge without a single smudge on her. Not to mention climbing in and out of windows and racing motorcycles and nary a snag or tear. If only all clothing were so durable!

    Reply
  17. Michael McQuown

    Nevenah. It’s all due to pure thoughts. Oh, wait, we’re talking about Miss Fisher…I could listen to her voice forever. Why do so many American actresses sound like crap?

    Reply
  18. tp

    Having just binge watched all three season’s, I adore this series. I think they hit their costume stride in the second series – the third wasn’t quite as good in the costume area, but the final shortened series hit some interesting story lines and the big finish(es) in the last episode will somewhat satiate fans.

    For those of us who watch or have access mostly to American made television it’s so refreshing to see woman and men of varied ages, varied sizes and who do not all look exactly alike.

    The dvd’s have lovely behind the scene features and of course i watched the costume ones twice.

    Reply
    • Nicole

      You can blame the Australian government for the lack of costumes, episodes, and anything else in Season 3. Because of funding cuts to the ABC which produces the series, Season 3 wasn’t going to be made at all. Thank you overwhelming public backlash for making it happen!

      As for costumes, I’ve always thought that Phryne’s jewellery was too cheap for her expensive tastes and that any hosiery seen close up has to be custom made for the show. And I’m really jealous of her shoes and hats.

      I’m impatiently waiting for the costume exhibition to open in Sydney in a month’s time. It’s a good thing that Phryne’s clothes wouldn’t fit me, otherwise I’d be too tempted to ‘souvenir’ them!

      Reply
  19. Rebecca L.

    I was lucky enough to see the exhibition in Adelaide. The costumes were amazing up close and they had fabric swatches so you could feel the fabric and see the detailing, it was great. A couple of the outfits were genuine 1920s but a lot of it I think was made for the show, which is amazing! But yes the Australian government is cutting funding to the ABC which annoys me greatly.

    Reply
  20. Alluria

    Speaking as a person that has as pale and as translucent complexion as the Actress Essie Davis does in the Fisher series, I absolutely adore jewelry – but it does not like me back.

    Also, forever as a youth while designing costumes and attempting to wear outlandish pieces while climbing trees and exploring 18th century ruins and boggy swamps in the country side can do a number to heirloom jewelry/clothing, I declare!

    I think a combination of the vigorous activity required for the show mixed with tendencies for the actors to have a vivid, splotchy, and painful reactions to dog collars, sautoirs, and so on could account for the lack of jewelry.

    I care not, for I believe the series is perfect! Give me witty dialogue, a women’s POV, and gorgeous antiques and clothes any day!

    Reply
  21. Joan

    I am just beginning to watch the third season on Netflix, and have so enjoyed the costumes so far. However, being from Canada, and knowing the weather is much warmer in Australia, would there have been so many coats, especially with fur used in that climate?

    Reply

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