Stories

How Dolly Parton Became a Fashion Icon

October 10, 2019

“It’s hard to be a diamond in a rhinestone world.” Dolly Parton has always stood out on the Opry stage — and her iconic looks are just the half of it.

By Katie Quine • October 10, 2019

Dolly Parton is a walking exclamation point. Be it her dazzling musicianship, wit, or wardrobe, it’s hard not to take notice. All three have made her the consummate performer the world has come to know her by.

Don’t be deceived: Her ever-evolving style is much more than skin-deep. Dolly’s bold fashion statements over the years are a testament to her artistry in more ways than you might think.

To understand them, you have to revisit the beginning of her story. In the Great Smoky Mountains of East Tennessee, Dolly grew up a one-room cabin that she called home alongside her parents and 10 of her siblings. Money was tight, so her mother sewed a coat for Dolly using scraps of fabric, which inspired one of Dolly’s best-known and most personal songs: “Coat of Many Colors.”

When Dolly’s classmates teased her about the coat, her mom told the biblical story of Joseph, whose own colorful coat was a point of pride. As a child, Dolly learned not to heed the opinions of others, in fashion and otherwise.

When she grew a little older, she set her sights on Music City. Not knowing what the future held but certain of her love for music, Dolly boarded a bus for Nashville the day after her high school graduation with “matching luggage” — four bags from the same grocery store, she quips.

Admiring the crowd from the stage, Dolly is recognized during her 1969 Opry member induction.

She’d catch her first big break on The Porter Wagoner Show as Porter Wagoner’s “girl singer.” While her earliest looks were reflective of the feminine beauty ideal, Dolly’s outfits became bolder as she began to forge her own success. She became an Opry member in 1969 and landed her first Top 10 single “Muleskinner Blues” in 1970. Her command of the Jimmie Rogers’ original was so convincing that you’d think the tune had been about a female mule skinner all along.

[Read the “50 Reasons Why We Will Always Love Dolly Parton”]

Her rise to fame was underscored by the 1970s biggest fashion trends, which — in true Dolly style — she made even bigger. Donning beehives and bellbottoms as sparkly as her stage presence, Dolly began to make a habit of turning each Opry performance into a grand occasion.

In the 1980s, it became clear that country music couldn’t keep Dolly all to itself as she landed roles in films like 9 to 5 and Steel Magnolias. Her show-stopping wardrobe accentuated the fact that she had become an entertainment phenomenon known to the world.

While some might gawk at Dolly’s over-the-top outfits, she unabashedly owns her unique fashion sense, so much so that she talks openly about the inspiration for her look: the “town trollop” who caught her eye as a child.

“I didn’t know what she was, just this woman who was blond and piled her hair up, wore high heels and tight skirts, and, boy, she was the prettiest thing I’d ever seen. Momma used to say, ‘Aw, she’s just trash,’ and I thought, That’s what I want to be when I grow up. Trash,” Dolly once said.

Dolly performed two sold-out shows at Ryman Auditorium in 2015. At this show, she wore a form-fitting outfit with intricate lace bellbottoms.

While that might sound like a peculiar approach, Dolly’s untrammeled spirit has made her a pioneer, in sequins and in song. It’s hard to debate the choices of a woman who is the only country artist to have a Top 20 hit on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart for six consecutive decades.

Whether she is wearing gingham or glitter, Dolly’s distinct style is just an extension of her refreshing approach to music and life, a reminder that if you love yourself and own your truth, the world can’t help but love you right back.