Nancy Drew: The Secret of the 85-Year-Old Teen Detective


Nancy Drew, the teen sleuth known by generations of readers around the world, has managed to do something that is very rare among her literary kin. She has not only endured, but thrived as fictional series headliner. While countless series for younger readers have come and gone, Nancy Drew has been consistently appearing in new adventures for an envious run that reached its 85th year in 2015.

So, what’s the secret to her long-lasting success? Many cite that the timeless appeal of Nancy’s long list of admirable attributes is what resonates with readers across generations – she’s smart, personable, independent, resourceful, compassionate, a quick-thinker and adept at nearly every skill and activity she applies herself to. Others simply point to the obvious appeal of Nancy’s knack for finding clues, uncovering secrets and solving mysteries. Both are equally valid reasons. However, there are a couple more obvious, albeit slightly superficial, reasons why Nancy has remained popular for almost a century.

Quite simply, the girl knows the importance of a good makeover and the power of reinvention.

Before we get started, a quick history: Created in 1930 by Edward Stratemeyer, Nancy Drew Mystery Stories was his idea for a female companion series to his successful series about mystery-solving brothers, The Hardy Boys. Nancy Drew was a hit out of the gate and soon the teen detective’s adventures, chronicled by pseudonymous author Carolyn Keene (actually various ghost writers over the years, most notably Mildred Wirt Benson), were in demand in bookstores everywhere, and she hasn’t stopped selling since.

Her classic series of books began in 1930 with #1 – The Secret of the Old Clock and ended in 2003 with #175 – Werewolf in a Winter Wonderland. While subsequent series have kept Nancy in publication since then, it is this core series that we’ll be taking a deeper look at to see just how Nancy kept up with the times over the years.

Most fans like to break the series up into 2 distinct eras – The Grosset & Dunlap-published “hardcover era” and the Simon & Schuster (Wanderer/Minstrel/Aladdin) – published “paperback era”.

The Hardcover Era (1930 – 1979)

In the hardcover era, Nancy was first depicted as a very well-put together and stylish young woman of the 1930s. Flapper dresses and cloche hats soon led to a more glamourous look of gloves and pearls and an immaculate hairstyle reminiscent of box office bombshell, Carole Lombard. As Nancy entered the 1940s, she grew out her hair and relaxed her style, but still remained neatly, and more practically attired, with tailored tops and smart jackets paired with full skirts (Note – you can refer to the header at the top of this post for a timeline-esque view of all her major looks from over the years).


Nancy and her partners-in-crime-solving, George and Bess, and their evolving look from the ’30s to the ’60s

Heading into the 1950s we see Nancy’s first significant makeover. As a way to keep her older titles relevant to new readers, Nancy’s books were systematically republished with all-new cover art. This new-look Nancy again favoured the popular style of the day. Skirt and sweater sets were her go-to choice and her blonde locks were short, wavy and full, not unlike a young Marilyn Monroe. Towards the end of the decade Nancy did what many an adventurous young woman does and experimented with different hair colour, becoming a strawberry blond/titian-tressed teen for many of her later adventures. Nancy’s wardrobe also continued to evolve with the most fashionable gal in River Heights now favouring shirtdresses and flats and even the occasional pair of fitted pants or jeans!

Heading out of 1950s also brought about Nancy’s second significant makeover – the revision of her earlier novels. Over the course of almost 20 years (1959-1978), the first 34 Nancy Drew novels were rewritten and updated to reflect modern advancements and trends (for example, Nancy’s vehicle went from a roadster to a convertible) as well as remove any racial stereotyping, which was an unfortunate by-product of the earlier era. This widespread overhaul of her earlier stories undoubtedly become one of the major factors in insuring Nancy Drew’s appeal didn’t fade out with generation of young readers and was instead discovered anew by successive generations of curious readers.


Nancy Drew and style-sister Marlo Thomas

As the revised novels caught up with the current novels throughout the 1960s and into the 1970s, Nancy’s style stayed on point, too. She went from a pageboy-esque short ‘do into what many feel is her most iconic look – the “flip” hairdo. She sported both the short version, similarly seen on actress Mary Tyler Moore in The Dick Van Dyke Show and a shoulder-length flip, much like that of Marlo Thomas in That Girl. Nancy also stayed with times stylistically, appearing in shift dresses or bold, patterned shirts and scarves – but still returning to her standby shirtdresses on occasion. As the 1970s came to a close, Nancy could be seen sporting more “sensible” ensembles of the button-up shirts and pants variety, which were very suitable for activities like searching for forgotten cities or traipsing around crocodile-infested islands.

The Paperback Era (1979 – 2003)

As the dawn of the 1980s approached, Nancy Drew switched publishers and her books went paperback and got a whole new look with the new format – and so did Nancy. Quite a few new looks actually. The consistent artwork of the hardcover series all but vanished in the early paperback era (volumes #57-#75) and Nancy was almost unrecognizable from book to book. There was no consistency in her hairstyle either – bouncing around from long and full honey blonde hair to shoulder length titian hair to a shaggy-cut golden blonde to long and straight red hair – the only way you could tell it was Nancy Drew was because her name on the book cover told you so.

This era also brought us a more casually dressed Nancy, as she opted for outfits like sweaters or blouses paired with jeans and peasant tops with light, full skirts – looks that would easily make Nancy more accessible to the casual reader.


Nancy’s most consistent hairstyle of the paperback era was a Pantene-commercial-worthy shoulder length ‘do in various shades of blonde

Nancy’s look somewhat settled over the next three cover format changes through to the end of the series as Nancy was most commonly depicted with ash or golden blonde shoulder length hair. And continuing with her casual fashion parade, she started favouring polo shirts and khakis as well as t-shirts, sweaters and jeans – although she wasn’t adverse to dressing up if the situation called for it, whether it be elegant formal attire or a themed costume. And since even teen detectives deserve some R&R, Nancy also made the occasional appearance in modest swimsuits and beachwear.

So that brings us to the end of this brief run through Nancy’s makeover history. But remember, I did mention there was another factor in her enduring popularity – the power of reinvention. So, in an upcoming post we’ll explore just how Nancy’s been reinventing herself in the book world and beyond, for almost as long as she’s been in existence.