What would Jessica Fletcher wear?

The steely sleuth from Murder She Wrote has become an unlikely icon
Photo illustration by Sarah MacKinnon

Murder She Wrote, CBS’s famously wholesome whodunit starring Angela Lansbury as a retired schoolteacher-turned-mystery writer and sleuth, is often typecast as a show for the elderly. Like Matlock and
Miss Marple, it’s lumped into the “cozy mystery” genre, defined by a quaint treatment of dark and dangerous things. Between solving murder mysteries for ineffectual detectives and arrogant county sheriffs, Lansbury’s character—Jessica Beatrice Fletcher (J.B. for short)—is seen riding her bicycle through serene and sunny Cabot Cove (the fictional New England town in which the show is predominantly set), or gardening in colour-coordinated outfits. Murder She Wrote is probably something many of us of a certain age watched at our grandmothers’ houses in the ’80s or ’90s (the series ran for 12 seasons, from 1984 to 1996).

Lately, however, pop culture has begun to tell a different story, as Jessica Fletcher emerges as a modern role model and unlikely style icon. NBC announced this fall it will revive the series with Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer in the lead role, something Lansbury, now 88, doesn’t approve of. “The idea of remaking the show is flawed,” she said in December. “I think viewers like my Jessica, who was a very rare, individual kind of person.”

It’s easy to see why the 12-time Emmy nominee is protective of her character. In the past few years, Fletcher’s reliably colourful style—brightly patterned blouses, pashminas, jogging suits—has captured the imagination of young fashion bloggers and Pinterest users, many of whom watched the show as kids. French designer Yaz Bukey, a self-described “superfan,” debuted a Murder She Wrote-inspired accessories line at Paris Fashion Week this year. Blogs abound dedicated to Cabot Cove’s lady of mystery, some of which include: Murder She Wore, Exploring Jessica Fletcher’s Closet and Cabot Cove Fashions. One blog, Jessica Fletcher Style, provides near-episode-by-episode commentary on Lansbury’s outfits. Others provide tips on how to “get the Murder She Wrote look.” (Hint: H&M and Topshop carry more Fletcher-esque items than you’d think). “If Zooey Deschanel started dressing like Jessica Fletcher on New Girl,” says Todd VanDerWerff at The Onion’s
A.V. Club, “it wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest.”

Lansbury’s cool factor seeped into the mainstream last fall, when celebrity photographer Terry Richardson immortalized Fletcher on the cover of The Gentlewoman magazine. Known for taking risqué shots of supermodels, Richardson worked a completely clothed Lansbury into his portfolio. The photos went viral. But it’s not only the fashions. Buzzfeed ran a list of 16 reasons to revisit Murder, complete with Jessica Fletcher GIFs, and Jezebel recently called it “the greatest show of all time.”

Why has Fletcher struck such a chord? “What makes her so cool is that she is not,” says Rebecca Jane Stokes, a Brooklyn writer who penned a Fletcher encomium on the women’s culture site The Hairpin earlier this year. Stokes is a long-time fan; she watched Lansbury on TV as a kid while eating oatmeal with her grandmother in an overheated apartment. “She’s toodling around on her bicycle, rocking her floppy hats.” It’s obvious she doesn’t care what other people think, says Stokes—the golden rule of cool. For Sarah Lockhart, a 34-year-old in Oklahoma who has also blogged about Lansbury, Fletcher’s appeal is about poise. “Wherever she shows up, whatever she’s doing, she’s always well-dressed,” says Lockhart. But she’s also adorable. “The way she looks over the top of her oversized frames warms the cockles of my heart,” says Stokes.

That’s the thing about Jessica Fletcher: Anyone who watches the reruns at the end of a long workday will tell you that Lansbury’s signature character makes them feel everything is going to be okay. “Murder She Wrote felt like a safe place to go,” says Robin Snip, a 31-year-old coffee-shop manager in Toronto, who watched the show at age eight and again in her early 20s. Part of it is that a series so morbid (Cabot Cove boasts the highest murder rate in the world) is also so unthreatening. Jessica Fletcher is a harbinger of death: the grim reaper in gingham, Anubis in pearls. Everywhere she goes, somebody turns up cold and lifeless. Yet, we’re always happy to see her.