Bonnie and Clyde was the film that really sparked my love of old movies; I must have been 14 or 15 when I first saw it on television late at night, and I was completely hooked on this slice of glamour and violence in a depression-era southern setting.
Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde is old Ford Coupes with running boards, bottles of Coca-cola in half abandoned dusty southern towns, posters of Roosevelt and stylish ‘gangster’ costumes combining period touches with 1960s style.
In reality Bonnie was a mousy brunette, and Clyde was described in newspapers of the day as a “shifty young Texas thug who spoke with a whiny drawl,” but on screen Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty were romantic idols, folklore heroes, and the costumes designed by Theadora Van Runkle set off a trend for thirties glamour of pinstripes, midi skirts and berets.
The glamour of the young couple, who become legends and celebrities in the mid west, contrast with the poor depression farmers, depicted in battered dungarees, dirt-stained shirts and straw hats.
Theadora said in an interview: “Dull colours and marcelled hair were ruled out – the styles had to be palatable by Hollywood standards. The stars were, after all, two very good looking people who had no particular desire to resemble physically the real Bonnie and Clyde.”
Bonnie and Clyde was at the forefront of the New American Cinema movement – emerging from the collapse of the studio system and fuelled by European new wave cinema and the softening of censorship. Penn mixed realism, sex and violence with stylised glamour and broke with convention and moral codes. The couple not only die in a bloody hail of bullets, but Bonnie simulates oral sex and Clyde, in a twist to how a hero should be, is impotent. Flatt and Scruggs’ Foggy mountain breakdown, with its restless banjo, helps balance the film as it switches between farce and bloody violence.
Writers Newman and Benton wrote that “If Bonnie and Clyde were here today, they would be hip…It is about style and people who have style. It is about people whose style set them apart from their time and place so that they seemed odd and aberrant to the general run of society.”
The crime spree couple, in impossibly glamorous retro clothing, captured the imagination of the young, idealistic audience of the 1960s who felt that they were also fighting against stuffy traditions and the repressive government who sent young men to die in Vietnam.
In one late scene, the father of Barrow gang member CW Moss ultimately betrays Bonnie and Clyde because he is disgusted with the bluebird tattoo emblazoned across CW’s chest. The scriptwriter, David Newman, said “Just as our parents were ‘offended’ by long hair, Woodstock, rock & roll, smoking pot and dropping out, we reflected this by inventing the tattoo on CW’s chest that directly leads to the assassination of Bonnie and Clyde.”
Theadora Van Runkle’s costume design
Bonnie and Clyde was Theadora Van Runkle’s first film as costume designer, stepping in when Dorothy Jeakins pulled out of production.
If you look at Theadora’s costume sketches, they are incredibly detailed works of art in themselves with little notes scribbled alongside the designs, such as “Now they have $ to buy clothes.”
“The minute I read the first page I saw everything,” she said. “I knew it was going to be fabulous. I never designed anything before and I made all kinds of mistakes. I didn’t know about continuity, I didn’t know how to break down a script. I just stumbled through.”
During production, Theadora met legendary designer Edith Head briefly at International Silks and Woollens as she searched for buttons, as recounted in David Chierichetti’s biography of Edith Head.
“I was bending over, digging way in the back of the pile when Edith came in. I was introduced, and she said, ‘Anybody who would dig that hard for buttons will become a great designer’. I told her my project was set in the early thirties and she said, ‘Flowered chiffons, flowered chiffons!’ I said no, I had been doing research and once Bonnie and Clyde had some money from robbing banks, they started wearing tailored clothes from the Marshall Fields catalogue”.
Faye Dunaway told Women’s Wear daily in 1967 that Van Runkle was “a lovely, mad nut. She took what’s hip now in the 60s, combined it with the 30s.”
The designer, who went on to create costumes for The Thomas Crown Affair and The Godfather Part II, created such an excitement with her designs that she would become an overnight sensation, influencing Faye’s real life wardrobe, creating a trend in hem lengths and bringing a new lease of life to the beret industry.
Van Runkle created a feminine but powerful wardrobe for Bonnie, evoking the costumes of 1930s stars like Marlene Dietrich and Katharine Hepburn.
As a career girl who discovers her own niche with bank robbery, she adopts the masculine image of power with midi skirts, jackets and berets; a cigar in mouth and a gun by her hip. Van Runkle used a bias cut so that the dresses would swing, and incorporated her own concepts with vintage pieces.
Theadora said: “The beret was the final culmination of the silhouette. In it, she combined all the visual elements of elegance and chic. Without the beret it would have been charming, but not the same”.
Bonnie’s costumes chart her development from bored mid-west waitress to bank robber. She begins the tale in the loose, crumpled pale peach button-down dress and a pair of flat ballet pumps, but her dress becomes more professional as the gang get into the swing of bank robbing.
Bonnie is ultimately a dreamer, with the inability to foresee the consequences of their actions. When they sit in the cinema after a robbery gone wrong, Bonnie is more absorbed in the glamour and fantasy of classic depression era movie Gold Diggers of 1933. In their motel room, she poses in the mirror in a camisole and tweed skirt, adjusting her necklace of gold coins while humming We’re in the Money.
Bonnie was a half-starved depression era waif and Faye was determined to shed 25lb before the start of filming. “I spent weeks walking around my apartment and working out wearing a twelve-pound weight belt, with smaller weight around my wrists to help me burn the pounds off faster. I only took the weights off to sleep and bathe. By the time I headed to Texas, where we were shooting the film, I was gaunt,” she wrote in her autobiography.
Warren Beatty also retains the looks of a movie star in pin-striped suits and trilbies. In one scene he wears a white vest, but rather than looking like a period item, it shows off his arms to full effect and gives him the appearance of Marlon Brando. Theadora had in fact wanted to make him look more ‘period’, with a hair parted in the middle and cut high at the back, but he challenged her on that decision.
“The hair was totally anachronistic,” said Theadora. “Warren and I had our first big knock-down drag-out over the hair. I wanted him to wear his hair parted in the middle and cut high in the back. Warren thought I was insane and sexless, and Faye thought I didn’t care how she looked. Faye thought I was trying to make her ugly.”
At the Paris premiere of Bonnie and Clyde in 1967 Faye Dunaway was greeted like a rock star, with a crowd chanting her name and all dressed in berets and thirties style clothes. Smart young Londoners on the King’s Road adopted look and Faye Dunaway was the new It girl. Even Brigitte Bardot adopted the style, dressing like Dunaway to perform The Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde, her duet with Serge Gainsbourg, in a promotional film and in Paris on New Year’s Eve 1967.
“Actress Faye Dunaway, the gun toting Bonnie Parker in Bonnie and Clyde, has already done for the beret what Bardot did for the bikini,” declared Life Magazine.
The film had a huge impact on fashion on its release in 1967. In the mid 1960s skirts were shorter than ever before, (the micro-mini was worn by the more daring), but suddenly on the back of Bonnie, women were covering their legs by lowering their skirts to below the knees.
The beret also made a comeback, with production in France reported to have more than doubled on the film’s release. It had been a trend for confident young American women in the 1930s, as worn by Ginger Rogers and Joan Crawford, but had fallen out of fashion.
Women not old enough to have lived during the depression thought of those days as romantic. The Bonnie Parker style was one of confidence that rejected the submissive 1950s girdles, perfectly coiffed hair and petticoats. After the Second World War, women were encouraged to return to the homes and become good housekeepers, but in the sixties women wanted more – a career and control of their sex lives. Bonnie’s style was also popular as office wear as it was more acceptable than mini skirts and flares.
Theadora said at the time: “Bonnie and Clyde slept in cars and crummy auto courts; their clothes had to be livable. That’s why they’ve been so successful now.”
But it wasn’t only fashion that Bonnie and Clyde shook up. The film paved the way for realism, violence and sex on screen, and marked the end of the studio era. Badlands, Thelma & Louise, Drugstore Cowboy, Natural Born Killers and Wild at Heart, in which ordinary couples become legends through violence, owe a debt to Arthur Penn’s film.