Friday, July 30, 2021

Some Costume Love for Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman

When I was a kid in the '90s I watched Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman pretty religiously. It was a program my parents approved of, it was fun to watch, and, best of all, there were The Boston Episodes. The Boston episodes didn't necessarily happen in Boston exclusively, but every once in a while, Dr. Quinn and family would travel to the northeast and the family would get to wear their fancy clothes and go to the opera and balls in between the usual Dr. Quinn drama.

I lived for these episodes. I loved the fancy dresses and the pretty houses, and the balls and dinners and other fancy shindigs. Since these were special story lines, they usually ran for several episodes, which meant even more eye candy.

Were these dresses historically accurate? No, not really. (The episodes in Colorado always skewed way more 1890s than 1860s, and even that is questionable.) But, they were actually a lot better than some of other programs out there, both then and now (looking at you, White Princess). And once I started really looking at the details of these Boston Episode costumes on a recent viewing, I really enjoyed what the costumer did for these fancier looks.

So, I thought I would celebrate my re-watch with a look at the pretty costumes, questionable hairstyles, and high-drama plotlines of The Boston Episodes.

Where the Heart Is

This was the first of the Boston Episodes/Story lines. Dr. Quinn and family travel to Boston to tend to her ailing mother. While there, she meets a handsome, successful doctor who totally supports her research and skills, who falls head-over-heels in love with her and wants her to move her family permanently back to Boston, open a practice with him, and marry him. He's pretty much perfect, but Sully's all rugged and brooding and whatnot, so poor Dr. Burke gets the boot.

The season takes place over 1868-69, which should put it right in the transitional hoop/bustle period. The costumers give us a mix of more "standard" hoop styles, elliptical styles, and early transitional bustle styles.

For a good chunk of the first episode, Dr. Mike plods around Boston in her Colorado duds, before finally getting a wardrobe makeover. The first fancy dress we see her in is this electric blue evening gown with black lace panels and trim. Dr. Burke takes her and the kids out to a dinner at Les Pantalons Fancie and everyone gets upgraded clothes for it.

Next, Mike wears this red evening dress with black lace for dinner at home. It's a shame we don't get to see more of it, because the few bits we do see are really lovely.

This day dress is probably my least favorite of her Boston looks, but it's still not terrible. The hoop is even somewhat elliptical in the back, so the shape is pretty nice. She wears this outfit to go on rounds with Dr. Burke, and then to check out his new office space.

We don't get a good look at this dress, but it has some lovely embroidery on the collar and sleeves, as well as what appears to be pocket openings. I have no idea what the white part is that we see on the bodice, but I'm not a fan because it looks like she's just wearing her corset under a jacket. I don't think that's what's actually happening, but that's what it looks like.

We get a quick glimpse of the back while she's going into the building, and we can see some bustling in the back, which is a nice touch.

Dr. Mike wears this lovely pale blue dress twice in these episodes - once when her mother is first brought home from the hospital, and later when she's writing a letter. It has a nice transitional bustle shape and this chunky lace around the neckline that somehow works. It's a frothy departure from the jewel tones she's in more often during these episodes.

Dr. Mike wears this bright red evening gown to her mother's birthday party. We have a promotional shot of this dress, so we get to see the full-length view. I confess that I hated this dress from just the promotional shot, but it's actually really pretty in the scene. I blame the lighting of the promotional shot for making her look like a tomato.

You can see in the bottom image that the dress has more of the late-60s/early-70s transitional style, with the full hoop combined with the bustle back (it's what's known as a crinolette, and they look wacky, but give a nice silhouette.) It looks very pretty while dancing, and we get a glimpse of how the back is styled.

Sully takes Dr. Quinn out to dinner. We get a promotional pic of this dress, too, so we get to see it full-length. I remember this color combo of black lace, over a white underlayer, being super popular in the 90s, and that lace overlay on the skirt, especially, screams 1990s to me.

Sully also takes her to the opera. She wears a black natural form dinner gown, which is a total departure from the rest of the looks, and totally wrong for the 1868-69 date, because we are several years off the mark for natural form fashions. But, this dress is gorgeous. It's hard to see in the photos, but it is absolutely dripping with sparkly beads. I'm sure it's spectacular in person. I'm fairly sure this dress was reused on an extra in the episode The Washington Affair, but I couldn't get a good screen grab of it.

Dr. Mike wears this wackadoodle dinner dress a couple of times in this episode. First she wears it to actual dinner, then she wears it again to go and break Dr. Burke's heart and turn down his proposal. There is a LOT going on with this dress, almost like they just threw the whole costume shop at it. I kind of love it.

My favorite outfit from this episode is this black/white day ensemble.

The jacket with the soutache detailing is just stellar. In this scene she wears it with a matching skirt and a lace overskirt that's not really an overskirt. It's the lower half of THIS MONSTROSITY:

Oh Zod, it is just so awful. That huge dumb rose motif in the lace, the weird white strapless satin under bodice, I just can't with this thing.

We do get a better look at the actual skirt, though, and it has some soutache detailing along the bottom, as well as a pleated ruffle. The skirt is actually very lovely, but that lace thing is just atrocious.

It's that 1990s black lace over white trend again.

She wears the jacket and skirt again when she travels back to Colorado (why would you wear white to travel in?!) with a small bustle pad instead of a hoop. She leaves the terrible lace thing in Boston, hopefully burning to ashes like the dumpster fire it is.

Cute peplum is cute.

The Washington Affair

The Washington Affair takes place in season three, putting it somewhere in 1869-70. Dr. Mike, Sully, and Cloud Dancing go to Washington to lobby for the Cheyenne, and Sully gets arrested. A LOT goes on in this episode - we find out that Sully is a former army sniper who deserted, he's sentenced to DEATH for desertion (spoiler, he lives) , there's a political plot involving some shady senators, a plot on the president's life, secret passages in the white house, and more shenanigans than you can shake a stick at.

The costumes in this episode are a mix of transitional styles and straight up bustle fashions. I would peg a good number of them around 1872-4 rather than the date that the show gives. This episode was one of the things that launched my mid-90s bustle obsession.

Unlike Where the Heart Is, Dr. Mike starts off this episode in her fancy duds. She wears this red travel ensemble as she leaves Colorado. It has a lovely matching hat. It's very 1880s in cut and silhouette, so a little ahead of its time for 1870.

Dr. Mike wears this electric blue dress with black lace when the train arrives in Washington, and in the following scene when speaking to the Senate. It has a great silhouette for 1870, with a massive fluffy bustle, but the standing collar and other details are questionable. Still, it's a great color. Very trendy in the 90s, but also on trend for 1870, so win-win!

The gang is invited to a reception in the Rotunda, where she wears this black and white ensemble. The 90s trend for black lace over white is BACK, BABY.

Didn't get enough black lace on a white dress yet? Here's another one! During the Rotunda reception, Mrs. Grant invites everyone to the White House for a fancy dinner, and Dr. Mike wears another black and white dress, this time an evening gown. The whole family is invited to stay overnight at the White House because everyone just likes each other so darned much.

This red and brown day dress is my absolute favorite dress of hers EVER. Gah, it's just so good! The attention to how the pleats lay, with just a bit of red peeking out from the underside, the colors, the matching hat, it's just all so fabulous. I need this dress in my closet. 

And, bonus photos that popped up on a French fan forum, from some exhibit somewhere!

I love this stripey blue ensemble, too, and it's absolutely fabulous for 1870. The only strike against this outfit is the high collar. The costumers for the show had this tendency to put Dr. Mike in a standing collar, which wasn't really in fashion at the time, at least not in this form.

There's another ball at the White House, and Dr. Mike wears this fabulous green gown. 1994 was a good year for this color, as it shows up on the character of Madeleine in Interview with a Vampire in one of my all-time favorite movie bustle gowns. The movie and the episode premiered within only a few days of each other, so I don't think one was a direct inspiration for the other, but the costumers were definitely on the same wavelength. 

The Heart Within

The Heart Within wasn't an episode of the series, but a TV Movie made a few years after the show ended its run. It's actually the second Dr. Quinn movie, but it's the better one, because it has the fancy dresses.

Dr. Quinn and family travel to Boston to attend Colleen's graduation from Harvard. Brian gets a job at the Boston Globe. Dr. Quinn's mother dies. It's a very low-key movie, definitely not the action-packed drama of The Washington Affair, but it acts as a good end cap to the series, and we get a few fabulous bustle looks out of it.

Colleen wears one of Dr. Mike's black and white dresses from The Washington Affair, and we get a better look at all the details thanks to this promo shot! They actually did a pretty good Victorian hairstyle on her here, with minimal 90s influence. We also find out that the bodice zips up the back! Tsk, tsk.

There was always something about this bodice that bothered me. I'm not sure exactly what, though. The bodice wrinkles? The wonky bertha pleats? The fact that the sleeves look like a head of cabbage? All of the above?  The bodice is much less offensive when you see the entire dress. The whole outfit is actually quite lovely! Also, early '00s hair strikes HARD here.

The brown and red dress returns for the film. The hairstyle and sausage curls in this promo shot look rather awkward, but in the actual scene she wears a jaunty little matching hat and it looks much better. It's a different hat than she wears with it in The Washington Affair, though.

This. Gold. Dress. SO GOOD.

Last but not least, we get some mourning attire. Is it exciting? No. But full mourning isn't supposed to be. You're supposed to be sufficiently grief-stricken to not want ostentatious clothing, and plain black wool dresses were pretty much universally prescribed by fashion magazines.

My only quibble is with the Colleen's purple hat. Purple was a half-mourning thing, so wouldn't be appropriate right after the death. Children weren't always put into mourning, so that checks out, but she does get a cute black bonnet. The boys, however, should at least be wearing black arm bands.

I hope you enjoyed this little trip through 90s TV with me! If you didn't catch the show when it was on TV, it's usually streaming on Prime, IMDB TV, YouTube, and occasionally HBO.


  1. Oh I LOVED Dr. Quinn too. This is a truly amazing post. Must have taken you days. Thank you!

    1. I rewatch the series at least once a year. It's one of my favorites!

  2. I Loooove this show, and im a Huge costume nerd! but I must say I was disappointed when I saw Dr Mike in the beautiful green dress in Washington! The green dresses from that era was filled with arsenic and made everyone who worked, wore or was around that specific color extremely ill, even killed many! So I was disappointed that the custume department didn't know about it? I mean they must have known since the 19 century was known to put arsenic in almost everything...that being said, the green dress is abselutely stunning

    1. There were certainly arsenic based dyes, but not all greens were produced with arsenic. Cobalt green, viridian green, and emeraldine were all non-arsenic based green dyes that were non-toxic. Nicole Rudolph has a great video that talks about all the available green dyes in the Victorian period, and even tests an extant garment in her collection to see if it contains arsenic.