dressing the part | bonnie and clyde

March 31, 2017 in stop look & listen by editor

Bonnie and Clyde is a cinematic landmark credited with inspiring a 1930s pop culture revival and influencing many movies that followed, including Easy Rider and The Godfather. However, the story behind its creation is as rags-to-riches as the film’s subjects, though it has a much happier ending. Produced by Warren Beatty, the script, penned by Robert Benton and David Newman, passed through the hands of countless directors who turned it down before Arthur Penn signed on to direct (and even he initially rejected it). Warner Brothers only agreed to produce it after Beatty (reportedly) begged execs on his hands and knees. Studio head Jack Warner was never thrilled with the picture and complained throughout production: Why did they have to shoot in Texas instead of the back lots? What about all the violence? Gangster films are out of style! Beatty and Penn argued often on set, leaving cast and crew waiting while the two disappeared for hours to resolve their creative differences.

When Bonnie and Clyde was released in the dog days of August 1967 (late summer is basically where movies go to die) it had little support from Warners Bros. They refused to distribute it to big movie houses, instead dumping it in second-rate theaters and drive-ins. Initial reviews were critical of its bloody violence, most notably Bosley Crowther of the NY Times who squawked, ‘This blending of farce with brutal killings is as pointless as it is lacking in taste.’ Within months, Bonnie and Clyde faded from most theaters, but not before making a huge impression on loyal young tastemakers who loved its French New Wave stylings and romantic nostalgia. One person who fell for Bonnie and Clyde was critic Pauline Kael whose a long, glowing essay about the movie appeared in the October 21, 1967 issue of The New Yorker. This was followed by a December cover story in Time, with the headline, ‘The New Cinema: Violence…Sex…Art…’ With this renewed interest spurred on by the cult following, Beatty convinced WB to re-release the film, this time with a real promotional push spotlighting its handsome stars. Bonnie and Clyde became a box office and critical smash, grossing $70,000,000 and earning 10 Oscar nominations and two wins (one for cinematography… guess that authentic Texas backdrop paid off!).

One of the reasons for Bonnie and Clyde‘s success was a youthful audience drawn to the film’s dreamy, revisionist version of the 1930s, or as Time so perfectly explained, ‘it observes the ’30s not as lived but as remembered.’ Of particular significance was the wardrobe, designed by Theadora Van Runkle. Believe it or not, Bonnie and Clyde was Van Runkle’s first costume design job — until then, she mostly worked as a fashion illustrator. She says when she was first handed the script, she knew exactly how she wanted the characters to be dressed and made little drawings in the margins next to dialogue. Faye Dunaway thought that as Bonnie Parker, she must look malnourished (she strapped 12 pound weights onto her body to lose weight) and should wear pants, which made for a quick getaway. But Beatty and Penn thought dresses were best and Van Runkle agreed — she imagined Bonnie as more boy-meets-girl, wearing soft 30s-inspired knitwear, bias-cut skirts, mary jane flats, and tailored jackets. The beret was a nod to the real Bonnie Parker, who wore the style herself. Warren Beatty’s Clyde Barrow was outfitted in herringbone and pinstripes, wide lapels and even wider ties. Dunaway and Beatty’s costumes, which combined authentic vintage and custom-made, became more refined as the plot played out, indicating they were able to afford top shelf clothing as they earned (ie stole) more money. The color palette mimicked the rustic Texan landscape of pale yellows, blues, and browns.

While the costumes were not rendered with pinpoint historical accuracy, they successfully evoked the mood of the 1930s. However, the hair and makeup were comically off-base. Like many films of the 1960s rooted in the past (Cleopatra also comes to mind), the beauty was more ‘Ready, Steady, Go!’ than Great Depression, hence Bonnie’s teased bob, false lashes, lipgloss, and heavy eyeliner.

But while some of these discrepancies bothered some critics, they are arguably why the Bonnie Look became such a hit. Van Runkle believes that fans could relate to the way Bonnie and Clyde mixed and matched their outfits and repeated pieces, just like real life. It’s also likely that women just wanted something new. Bonnie’s wardrobe was soft and romantic, not juvenile or in-your-face. In other words, it was a 180 degree departure from the graphic, mod looks that had been marking 1960s fashion for at least 5 years. Sales of berets through the roof — Life magazine proclaimed ‘Faye Dunaway… has already done for the beret what Bardot did for the bikini.’ Bonnie’s longer skirts ushered in the Mini vs. Midi debate. Dunaway indeed became a fashion icon and appreciating what Van Runkle had done for her career, collaborated with the designer on her real-life wardrobe, including the dress she wore to the 1968 Academy Awards. Van Runkle also designed the costumes for The Thomas Crown Affair (1968) and The Arrangement (1969), both of which starred Dunaway. ‘She’s a very talented woman,’ the actress told Variety in a 2002. ‘She made a great difference in the fashion design of my career. Her gift endures.’

Original sketches by Theadora Van Runkle, courtesy Oscars.org