The pleasure of viewing a Columbo is very often enhanced by the vibrant fashions sported by the series’ guest stars.
This is particularly true of the 1968-78 era, but also occasionally true of the ‘new’ Columbo age from 1989-2003 (although definitely not in the case of Columbo Cries Wolf). While I’ve gained a great deal of pleasure from considering the merits of particular outfits, and even lampooning them on occasion, I’ve never critically compared the wardrobes of Columbo killers. That’s a wrong that is being put right here as I consider who can put in the strongest claims to be considered Columbo’s best-dressed baddies.
To be eligible, contenders had to rock at least three different looks during a single episode. This, sadly, eliminated the likes of Nelson Brenner (who arguably wears the single-coolest bloke’s outfit of all), Paul ‘Mauve Suit’ Hanlon, Dale ‘velvet tux’ Kingston, ‘Corduroy’ Ken Franklin and Milo ‘tight trousers’ Janus. Fancy dress doesn’t count (Santini) and I also didn’t include sixties siren Joan Hudson because I don’t really believe she’s a villain, more an unwitting pawn in a criminal mastermind’s game.
I wanted to squeeze Lauren Staton from It’s All in the Game in this, but when critically comparing her admittedly fine threads with those in the final list, she pulled up just short. Plus, Mrs Columbo was threatening to use her power of veto on the inclusion, so dear Lauren – otherwise regarded as the acceptable face of 90s’ Columbo – is conspicuous by her absence. Got that? Good…
NB – these crims are listed in no particular order – except for the top three! Now read on!
Dr Ray Flemming – Prescription: Murder
Prescription: Murder is an episode apart in many ways – notably, of course, in its late 60s’ stylings, which are totally evident in Dr Flemming’s wardrobe.
Impeccably cut suits, skinny ties and narrow lapels were the psychiatrist’s fashion weapons of choice, while he also turned heads in his made-to-measure tuxedo (which simply must have suffered watermarks when lover Joan Hudson gave him a straight-from-the-pool cuddle).
Although a fiendish fellow, a man who dresses so dandily and who sports a pocket square the way he does can’t be all bad, can they…?
Grace Wheeler – Forgotten Lady
You could be forgiven for not realising Grace Wheeler is something of a fading icon because her elegant apparel is absolutely befitting of Hollywood royalty of the day.
She’s the undisputed QUEEN of Columbo headscarves, but really everything she wears oozes class – up to and including the final, heart-wrenching scene.
Dr Mark Collier – A Deadly State of Mind
If you like a bit of smooth, few Columbo killers can compare to Dr Mark Collier. Boasting a fresh-from-the-salon complexion and magnificently coiffed hair, a man this beautiful simply has to have a wardrobe to match – and Collier doesn’t let us down.
When suited and booted, we can all enjoy the cut of his jib (bonus points for those collar pins), and I think it’s fair to say that no killer rocked the leather jacket / turtle neck look quite like he did. Society may have gained from Collier’s incarceration, but the fashion world lost.
Leslie Williams – Ransom for a Dead Man
Oooooh Leslie! For a bad woman she’s such a good dresser that her greed and penchant for murder can almost be overlooked.
As well as an array of single-colour dresses she wears around the house, Leslie also makes a dazzling figure in her colour-blocked lady lawyer suits, and she even pulls off the near impossible by dazzling in a headscarf / aviator shades combo. I am absolutely on board with her interpretation of 70s’ chic.
Hayden Danziger – Troubled Waters
It’s just as well Hayden Danziger – the founder of the short-lived ‘pimp chic’ fashion craze – didn’t nick his jugular vein with one of his razor-sharp collars or there’d have been two deaths to investigate aboard ye goode shippe Sea Palace!
Danziger’s unapologetically awesome outfits (including a pure white lounge suit and a devil-may-care cravat) ensure that he was at least sent down the river in fine style after being thoroughly outfoxed by the wily Lieutenant.
Kay Freestone – Make Me a Perfect Murder
Whether determinedly striding towards an appointment with murder, bossing some TV underlings or picking up the pieces when a trashed friend drops her in it the sh*t, Kay Freestone effortlessly power dresses for every occasion.
Buoyed by her fabulous, voluminous 70s’ hair, the look hasn’t been invented yet that Kay can’t absolutely ace.
Adrian Carsini – Any Old Port in a Storm
Mr Carsini claims that his life starts and ends with wine. I think he’s being too modest, because he’s obviously put a great deal of effort into maintaining his spiffing wardrobe.
Despite a diminutive frame and bald pate, Carsini’s outstanding suit/shirt/tie/cufflinks/pocket square combinations absolutely epitomise his dedication to excellence. The man also has the class to sport a real flower on his lapel, and did you see the ruffled shirt cuffs that accompanied his velvety tuxedo at the fine wine auction? Even Dale Kingston turned green with envy…
May his enemies never be as well dressed as Carsini is in this episode.
Beth Chadwick – Lady in Waiting
There are two schools of thought on Beth’s outrageous pink-and-purple boardroom coup costume: those who LOVE it, and those who are WRONG. And even though she’s perennially associated with that outfit, this sultry minx could never be considered a one-outfit wonder.
Once freed from the tyrannical grip of hated brother Bryce, Beth is reborn and revitalised, dressing like a confident young beauty rather than an ageing librarian. Her transformation represents one of the most enthralling character arcs of the series.
Luis Montoya – A Matter of Honor
A man who is virtually a deity in his homeland has no excuse for dressing shabbily – and luckily Don Luis Montoya never lets the thronging masses down in the sartorial stakes.
Even his knee-trembling terror when caught in the steely gaze of monster bull Marinaro was pleasingly off-set by a splendid lemon yellow and beige ensemble (a red neckerchief helping the outfit really pop), while his slim-fit apparel also did a fine job in displaying his enviable physique.
And the top 3…
3. Dr Bart Kepple – Double Exposure
There was no way an article on Columbo fashions was going to overlook Kepple’s yellow jacket, but the dastardly motivational research expert is blessed with a sense of style that enables him to look sensational in everything he wears.
From that killer pin-stripe suit to a casual golf outfit that would still look fresh today, the man is simply SEX ON LEGS in this episode – even when just sitting amongst pumpkins at a supermarket. Phwoooooar!
2. Viveca Scott – Lovely but Lethal
Two words for you: FASHION TURBAN. Four more: everything else she wears.
Yes folks, cosmetics Empress Viveca Scott has a killer look for every occasion – including killing x 2. On any other TV show, the fashion turban would have spring-boarded Viveca to top spot in the standings. However, that honour goes to…
1. Nora Chandler – Requiem for a Falling Star
Fittingly for a woman regularly dressed by cinema costume goddess Edith Head, Nora Chandler illuminates every scene she’s in – even when trying to keep a low profile at a clandestine meeting with frenemy Jerry Parks sporting octagonal gold-rimmed shades.
According to my reckoning, Nora stuns with at least seven magnificent looks in little over 70 minutes of screen time – an impressive average that makes her simply unreachable at the summit of the Columbo fashion mountain. Her navy blue and fuchsia pink split-leg pant suit is worth the price of the DVD box set alone.
“Nora stuns with at least seven magnificent looks in little over 70 minutes of screen time.”
That’s the conclusion of today’s catwalk show, ladies and gents. As always, I invite you to wade into the debate and share your own opinions on Columbo’s best-dressed villains. Have I missed out any fashionista/o deserving of a place? Or have I included someone whose wardrobe selections makes you see spots in front of your eyes?
Until we meet again, farewell…
In at least two episodes: Requiem For A Falling Star (Nora/Anne Baxter) and Candidate For A Crime (Linda aka the secretary/Tisha Sterling) are wearing sweaters with an “A” logo. I’ve researched time and again and can’t figure out who the designer is. Any idea?
2 words…WARD FOWLER! Mr. Fowler faded into murder, and erupted into fashion!
What about Investigator Brimmer? That poor guy gets about as much respect as Rodney Dangerfield! He looked rather hot in his three sets of threads.
Greetings! How about the one and only Mrs Leslie Williams, ESQ, the lady lawyer herself? Cool, collected, elegant, stylish, and a cold murderer. Don’t forget her!
I love this, do interiors next!! I’ve been meaning to make my own Columbo fashion list but I’m mostly in agreement here, though would move Kay Freestone to my personal top 3 and definitely include John Cassavetes from Etude in Black; both look incredible in a timeless way as opposed to the so-bad-it’s-good style of some of the folks on this list. Beyond villains, Blythe Danner in Etude in Black is my favorite—her ribbon-trim lace nightgown and tennis togs are amazing, and there is so much good fashion throughout that episode, from Myrna Loy to the victim…if I could go out in that dress I would die happy 🙂
I don’t believe it. What happened to Dale Kingston’s crushed velvet jacket with the French cuffs? Not even a mention? It was the most 1971 item to appear on the show.
Oh…”3 different looks to qualify.” Perhaps his other outfits weren’t distinctive.
Yes, that’s why. He dressed well but not distinctively enough when not in his velvet tux.
Pattrick mc nee and bernard foxs white shorts in troubled waters are definetley on the crime against fashion list.
Thanks Columbophile for crowning beautiful Nora with the much deserved Fashion Queen crown. We all do so admire her, and she knows it.
Beth’s Granny Gown deserves a mention. Tried to find a pic but Google images would only find the sexy one she wore at the end.
Great idea for an article! Unfortunately my judgement is coloured by the fact that I really, really dislike 70s fashions. I can agree with Ray Fleming and Mark Collier, however.
That one of Beth Chadwick in the pink/purple makes her look like she’s going to be appearing on Soul Train.
Lily Stanhope is overlooked here, despite her numerous stunning costumes.
Can’t understand why Clive Reville (The Conspiritors) didn’t make the list ! Great corduroy jacket. In fact, I’ve been trying in vain to find one like it.
Would you people please leave librarians alone, we are a very stylish work force these days! 🙂
/ A librarian and a Swedish one to boot!
Sincere apologies! My good wife is a former librarian herself (although not Swedish)!
A humble librarian from Miami, FL
Yes and I was 17 years in the State Library of Victoria (Melbourne).
Well said from the Swedish librarian 🙂
This was a wonderful collection of fashion that was incorporated into the Columbo series, a true classic. Thank-you, the author, for the article.
The 70’s styles were horrific……… yet awesome!
Beth Chadwick’s boardroom outfit warranted her immediate arrest. However, the other outfits were absolutely dazzling.
Maybe you will dismiss me as a dirty old man (spoiler alert: I am!) but when Jessica Conroy rocks a cherry bikini, it doesn’t matter what the other two outfits are. She should make the list!!
Jessica wasn’t a villain. She was just unknowingly working for one.
Oops! I guess I should read the title!
What??? No Buddy Castle?? The man whose attire matched his car? Or was it his car that matched his attire?
I’d give an Honorable Mention to Nelson Hayward, not just for his camel hair jacket, but his stylish suits as well.
While I agree that Viveca Scott had great clothes, she needed a different hair stylist.
That lady lawyer- always a sharp, elegant villain! With a mansion of 60 rooms- she had plenty of closets to store for her sassy, dressy, fashionable wardrobe. 🙂
Dr. Flemming is soooooo sexy and polished(maybe number 2 instead of 10 for me) but Nora Chandler definitely deserves the #1 spot. Lol at Clive Reville comments about his heinous outfit and agree about all the yellow jacket comments. Dr. Kepple’s, not the insect.
I thought Leslie’s Greco-Roman
looking outfits she lounged around in in her
neoclassical mansion, reminded me of a modern
day Gorgon. Only instead of turning men into
stone, she turns them into corpses.
Of course, she’s considerably better looking.
I’m going to qualify here a little: I feel that Beth Chadwick had the most outrageous outfits, ones that most people (even of that time period) would not own, and her outfits stood out in my mind more than any of the others killers’ clothes! Especially that pink and purple with the crazy hat! Nora Chandler had the classiest, outfits in my book, as I remember admiring them, and would wear them myself!
I’m sure that Nelson Brenner had at least three different looks in Identity Crisis so was eligible to be included, although I’m not sure which of these fashion icons he could have replaced on the list. If there was an award for the one best piece of attire then I would support Dr Kepple’s yellow jacket’s claim to it.
Brenner has two red-hot looks but was otherwise relatively ordinarily presented. Definitely stylish, but not quite stylish enough!
Most of the 70’s female killers then, only Ruth and the woman in Dagger of the Mind are missing i think
Ruth Lytton and Abigail Mitchell are on the fashion sidelines along with Lilly Stanhope (although she certainly had some excellent stylings).
oh yeah i forgot Abigail. Ruth and Abigail both dressed a bit like librarians i think. its been a while since i saw those episodes though so i can’t remember that well.