Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Fashion in Film Blogathon

It's always fun to watch Hollywood look at itself. And no movie about movies is more fun than 1967's Valley of the Dolls. It's both cheap and expensive. It's high camp that takes itself very, very seriously. And it's a colorful time capsule of the swinging 60's most ostentatious hair, makeup and wardrobe.

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.

Next up: the redoubtable Helen Lawson. Travilla sums up the villain of the piece as personally "foul-mouthed and ruthless, completely without taste or finesse … She comes on like gangbusters -- like a scream." The first time we see Helen, as played by Susan Hayward, she's in her Broadway dressing room, swearing and smoking and terrorizing everyone who crosses her path while wearing a manish, tailored, "screaming red" suit. (I know this shot looks orangey but trust me, it's red in the film.)

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."

Legend has it Travilla thought this gown didn't fall quite right. All the outfits worn by Susan Hayward's Helen Lawson were originally designed for Judy Garland. Judy's Valley of the Dolls costume tests still exist, as do stills of her wearing the "screaming red" suit as she shot Helen's first scene. Garland was fired and Hayward brought in and there wasn't time to create all-new clothes. Instead they had to be hastily altered. Susan was taller and curvier than the short and by now quite gaunt Judy. If Hayward wore the oversized shoulder pads installed to make the tiny Garland look more formidable, she felt she looked like a linebacker. When Travilla removed them, he felt he ruined the silhouette. But the clock was ticking. Neither Travilla nor Hayward were completely pleased with what Helen wore.

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.

Finally there's my favorite, Neely O'Hara, as played by Patty Duke. Travilla describes Neely as his "ingenue ... perfectly natural and full of zip." A little girl with oversized talent and showbiz in her blood, Neely was obviously based on Garland (which naturally made the first few days of filming with Judy herself as Helen more than a little awkward). At the beginning of the movie, when Neely was scrapping and belting her way to the top, she dressed casually and simply.Young Neely's penchant for red may have been Travilla's fashion foreshadowing, letting us know that soon this talented little girl would be following in Helen Lawson's screaming-red-suited, "don't fuck with me" footsteps.

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.

After a rather lurid stay in rehab, Neely returns to Broadway. Here our little egomaniac is, posing in front of her own poster. Again, Travilla's costume immediately conveys that our talented little sprite is no longer wholesome and now perhaps even dangerous. (Note that, like the real-life Garland in Summer Stock and A Star Is Born, Travilla often has Neely flashing leg.)

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.



  1. That was a fascinating look at that movie! Thank you! My parents took me with them when I was like 5 or 6 to see it (what? no babysitters around back then???) and I remember it vaguely.

    I know it's one of your favorites and I love the behind the scenes look at it. <3

  2. Anonymous9:30 PM

    I've never seen Valley of the Dolls, but now I think I must see it. It sounds like it's a perfect combination of two things I love: fabulous costumes and things that are awesomely over the top.

    Wonderful post, thank you so much for participating in my blogathon!

  3. I have not seen the film Valley of the Dolls, in years.. You have inspired me to revisit the film. Great post!!

  4. I haven't gotten around to Valley of the Dolls yet. From the way you describe Neely, Anne and their clothes- from simple girl-next-door elegance to more complicated outfits- they go through the same transformation as Eve in All About Eve (1950).

    Using the costume designer's own words was very informative.

    Thanks for reading my Fashion in Film contribution about The Tender Trap (1955) with Debbie Reynolds.

  5. I found your look at Travilla and "Valley of the Dolls" totally fascinating.

  6. Wow - what a wonderful post! The 60s are so "now" - everything looks just so modern. I confess I was a Barbara Parkins fan, but Patty was a scream.

  7. Anonymous9:08 PM

    Barbara Perkins was def my favorite in the movie and I loved her clothes the most.
    Patty Duke had wonderful clothing as well.
    I honestly think my favorite part of this movie is the beautiful 1960s hair. How do they get their hair like that?
    While visually pleasing,I will say the book is much better than this film. If you haven't read it, you should check it out!

  8. I have never seen "Valley of the Dolls", but I really enjoyed your review. When I do have the chance to see it, I will keep your advice in mind: "The key to enjoying Valley of the Dolls is to just let it wash over you, don't ask questions."

  9. Great post with great outfits! I haven't watched Valley of the Dolls, and I plan to read the book first, that is waiting in my bookshelf for a long time.
    Don't forget to red my contribution to the blogathon! :)

  10. Great post and lovely contextual photos. I think I have seen the Susan Hayward pantsuit somewhere else before in person (maybe it was in the same place).

    I am a fan of 1960's fashion in all its forms. The hair is the thing though ;)

  11. Gal - great review and history of this symbol of the 1960s. There is so much back-story to the movie and you point that out so interestingly. I'm a fan of Travilla's too and his designs for VOTD were fantastic.

  12. The book, published in 1966, was a sensation. The story began in 1945. How did we get that '60's hair? I used Dippity-Do on wet hair and then set the style using rollers and Bobby pins. Hair sprayFspray aftermafter combing out dry hair andland styling.S would have diagrams showing how to set hair to achieve styles shown in the issue


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