Dolly Parton's stylish hustle will never stop
As Soho House lands in Nashville later this month, we look back at the country singer's most iconic looks, from sky-high hair to double denim
2 February 2022 By Libby Callaway
Don’t call Dolly Parton a fashion icon. She’ll deny it. And I speak from experience.
Two decades ago, when I was working as a fashion editor for the New York Post, I came up with the idea of curating an exhibition of my fellow Tennessean’s biggest wardrobe hits. From the floaty, pastel 1960s dresses that marked her early days on The Porter Wagoner Show, to those curve-enhancing 1980s numbers for the silver screen and the figure-hugging power looks she still wears today, Parton has clocked a lifetime of fashion moments; ones that needed preserving.
I pitched the idea to fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg over lunch one day in New York. She’s known Parton since the 1970s – when they partied at Studio 54 together – and agreed to make the introduction to the singer’s Nashville-based management team. I faxed over my idea to them and explained why I thought country music’s biggest star should be honoured in this way.
A week later, I was told to expect a reply from Parton herself. I watched as the printer slowly piped through the response: ‘I don’t want anybody to think I know about fashion,’ she wrote. ‘The only reason my clothes are special is because I wear them.’ It was polite enough, and she had a point. Parton’s wardrobe isn’t iconic because of the cut, colour or provenance of the garments she wears; they’re legendary because she’s the one wearing them.
Despite Parton’s protestations, I still give her props for her glittering fashion choices. Her instincts have always been right on target. Here are five looks that prove it.
The early years
Dolly Parton was born the fourth of 12 children to a poor but loving family in East Tennessee. Her mother, a homemaker, was responsible for sewing the now iconic coat made from scrap cloth that inspired one of Parton’s early hits, ‘Coat Of Many Colors’. Other early fashion influences came from more unlikely sources. ‘My own overexaggerated look came from a serious place I’ve often spoken about: the town tramp in our little country hometown. They called her trash, but to me she was absolutely beautiful,’ she told WSJ magazine last year. ‘She wore colorful patchwork skirts and pretty blouses and showed a little cleavage and had red nails and piled-up blond hair and red lipstick and high heels. She was the prettiest thing I’d ever seen.
The 1970s were good to Parton. By the time she left Porter Wagoner’s variety show in 1974 with her swan song, ‘I Will Always Love You’, she had already launched her solo career and was racking up the hits. She had let go of her prescriptive, ladylike stage looks and embraced a more grounded aesthetic that nodded to her Appalachian childhood: blue jeans, chambray shirts and headscarves tied into her now-signature bouffant were her visual calling cards. At the same time, her songwriting was making her famous. By the end of the 1970s, she had made 21 studio albums, including 1977’s Here You Come Again, which earnt the platinum blonde her first platinum certification.
If you had to pinpoint the moment that Parton’s image went into hyper-femininity, it was the cover of her Heartbreaker album in 1978. Her frilly, boudoir-ready chiffon gowns and metallic mules caught the attention of global press. When needled about her inimitable style by Barbara Walters, she replied, ‘I would never stoop so low as to be fashionable. I can afford to piddle around and do-diddle with my makeup and clothes and stuff because I am secure with myself.’ You go, girl.
Dolly goes to Hollywood
The 1980s saw Parton’s major entree into Hollywood and onto the red carpet, with starring roles in 9 To 5 in 1980 and Rhinestone in 1984. It was a decade of bedazzling figure-hugging dresses that nodded to her southern roots. She wore this particular look on the Tonight Show in 1989, which was designed by her stylist, Tony Chase. ‘He was always trying to put me in all these clothes that had these big 'ol shoulders and all that stuff that was so fashionable,’ she told Vogue in 2020. ‘I said, “Tony, you just gotta tone it down a little. There ain’t nothing big about me but my mouth and my boobs.”’
Parton’s modern look began to evolve in the early 1990s, when she started working with creative director, Steve Summers. ‘I felt like, during that time, I was probably the most fashionable that I had ever been – as far as little more classy with the hair, a little more classy with the clothes, and really trying to be a little more refined,’ she told Allure in 2020.
This hemmed-in look served her well as she evolved into a business powerhouse. Among her achievements: opening Dollywood, a theme park in Tennessee, and founding the Imagination Library, a national book programme for children. And last year, she donated $1m to COVID-19 research at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, proving that her signature sparkle goes much further than skin deep.
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