The clothes were done by Travilla. He was one of Marilyn Monroe's favorite designers, having dressed her in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Bus Stop and, most famously, The Seven Year Itch. Yes, he was responsible for that white dress, the one that blows up when Marilyn stands on the subway grate.
It's hard to believe now, but back in the mid-1960s, Valley of the Dolls was a high-profile, highly anticipated movie with a huge budget. So Travilla went into it knowing that money was no object. He would run into many, many problems working on this massive, messy movie, but finances were not among them.
A savvy veteran, Travilla understood his task -- to use his skills for character exposition. He once said of Valley of the Dolls, "... the very nature of the women is projected by that which they wear."
The first of the four major characters he dressed was Anne Welles, played by Barbara Parkins. He described Anne as a "shy, clean-cut American girl from New England ... I designed her clothes honestly, simply and attractively in the best of taste." In the 1960s, that woman, and those clothes, were exemplified by a certain First Lady. It's easy to see how Jackie influenced Anne's early style.
Once Anne's character becomes a glamorous city girl -- and improbably, a high-fashion model -- her style changes radically. Her hair, clothes and makeup are all very loud in the movies fabulous fashion montage.
She's the Gillian Girl, the face of a cosmetics line and the idol of millions, but naturally that is not enough for her. She wants love and hot sex, as personified by (of all people) Paul Burke. (The key to enjoying Valley of the Dolls is to just let it wash over you, don't ask questions.) So she retires to domestic (albeit shockingly unwedded) bliss and her clothes get a bit more subdued, typified by pastels and sensible heels. But she's now living a jetset lifestyle -- New York to Malibu and back again -- and it shows in her obviously expensive wardrobe, complete with de rigueur mink.
Then we have Jennifer North, as played by Sharon Tate. She was by far Travilla's favorite. He was effusive in his praise, describing her as "divine" and likening her to Monroe. "She has the same defenseless, childlike quality that Marilyn had."
Unfortunately, he had less to do because her character's arc was so narrow. Jennifer begins as a showgirl and ends up in softcore European porn movies (aka "art films"). Travilla described Jennifer as "an ample, no-talent, stunning girl whose only asset is the display of her body ... In one scene, we practically had to sew her into her gown."
The first time we see Jennifer, she's in the chorus of a Broadway show. She descends a staircase wearing this awe-inspiring blue feathered creation and worries aloud that she may be "too top heavy." This comment, of course, makes her the topic of vulgar jokes. Jennifer is good-hearted, vulnerable and completely tragic -- a la Monroe and Mansfield.
Then she moves to Hollywood. Her clothes are beautiful but, just as Travilla intended, the style is still too flashy, still too revealing.
Yet when the play opens, and we see Helen onstage (performing a ridiculous song surrounded by floating plastic pop-art), she's transformed into musical theater royalty. When Travilla gives her a gown in angelic white, he softens her onstage persona and helps us see why her loyal public still clamors to see every "Helen Lawson show."
Except for The Suit. Garland walked off with it. Some say the studio gave it to her, to console a legendary star who had just been unceremoniously dumped. Others say she stole it out of spite, exacting a price from the producers who humiliated her. At any rate, The Suit had to be recreated from scratch for Susan Hayward.
Colorfully, intricately beaded, it was Travilla's favorite piece from Valley of the Dolls. Therefore it stands to reason to that he would want his favorite actress photographed wearing it. Here's Sharon Tate, playfully posing in the recreated costume.
Here's how Helen Lawson looked in the second version of The Suit, the one made for expressly for her and that she wore as it appeared in the final film. And on the right is Garland wearing the original onstage, as she continued to do until her death two years later. Sharon has a mock turtle under the jacket, as opposed to the scarves worn by both Helens -- Hayward because the green scarf has to go from accessory to headwear in the famous catfight scene and Garland, presumably, out of personal preference.
And sure enough, once she became famous, and her life became complicated by booze and pills and power and fame, her clothes became more complicated, too. Here she is in her white bouclé mini jacket/vinyl go-go boot glory for a movie premiere at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.
Patty Duke-as-Neely personifies everything that's hypnotic about Valley of the Dolls. She's over-the-top yet compulsively watchable. And she has all the great wardrobe malfunctions. There's a terrific scene where she crosses her legs with great flourish and the bow from the toe of her pump goes flying out of the shot. How can you not adore such a movie? And then there's this ...
Watch Neely's necklaces. These chains work overtime. At about 1:57, they literally lasso Patty Duke's breasts. And this is what I love about Valley of the Dolls. On the one hand, it's fastidiously designed couture. On the other hand, it's trashy dimestore necklaces that just won't behave.
Travilla won an Oscar for the Erroll Flynn swashbuckler, The Adventures of Don Juan, and an Emmy for dressing Linda Gray and Victoria Principal on Dallas. He may have preferred to be remembered for that, and for his work with Marilyn. But when I have the blues, I slip in my VOD DVD and find myself delighted anew by the camp classic and his contribution to it.