Faye Dunaway’s wardrobe in Bonnie and Clyde (1967) evoked a sense of the ’30s elegance and glamour that went against the fashionable mini skirt of the ’60s and ushered in the midi. Simple-cut silhouettes, slinky midi skirts, knitted sweaters worn with silk printed scarves, cardigans, the windowpane checked suit, jaunty berets and the iconic honey gold bob were chosen by Theadora Van Runkle, the self-taught costume designer who won her first Oscar nomination for Bonnie and Clyde, her first film, to create Faye’s “gun moll” look in this landmark American movie. Bonnie and Clyde was at the forefront of the New American Cinema or New Hollywood (mid-to-late 1960s – 1970s), when a new generation of filmmakers came to prominence in the American cinema. They were the auteur-directors, whose work was highly influenced by the European cinema, and which was thematically complex, technically innovative, morally ambiguous, sexually charged and anti-establishment.
“I knew it was a great role. I really identified with Bonnie. She was just like me, a Southern girl who was dying to get out of the South. She wanted to take risks, she wanted to live. I knew exactly how she felt – I’d felt that way for years”, said Faye Dunaway. She was perfect for the role. Dressed in effortless looking, fluid outfits suffused with tomboy sexuality, she became the most memorable and beautiful female outlaw. A controversial crime classic, a daring, disturbing tragicomedy, Bonnie and Clyde was directed by Arthur Penn and inspired by the films of Truffaut and Godard, and although in Europe it was an instant hit (no wonder), it was, at first, dismissed by many critics in the US. However, the young movie-goers immediately fell in love with it. Amateur bank robberies swept the American nation and women rushed in the stores to buy berets.
But can anyone wear a beret better than Bonnie Parker? The beret is her signature. Faye’s character would not have been the same without it; it gives her an identity, confidence and sex appeal. Reportedly, Arthur Penn put her in a beret as an homage to Gun Crazy’s bad girl Annie (Peggy Cummins). It’s interesting, in this regard, a remark in the book Film Noir: 100 All-Time Favorites: “Joseph H. Lewis’ and writer Dalton Trumbo’s Gun Crazy (1950) and its couple are far removed from the innocence of other fugitive-couple films like Fritz Lang’s You Only Live Once (1937) and Nicholas Ray’s They Live by Night (1949). Instead, its lethal lovers look forward to the more blatantly sexual fugitive couples of post-Production Code neo-noirs like Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (2967) and Tamra Davis’s homage film Guncrazy (1992).”
And what further completed Faye’s dramatic looks and became a fashion in itself was her glowing make-up, with sun-kissed skin, black eyeliner, peachy blush and lips, enhanced by the beautiful cinematography by Burnett Guffey. They would get up every day at 4.30 and shoot at first light. Bonnie and Clyde made Faye Dunaway a movie star, but it was Warren Beatty, her partner in the film, who gave her one of her most cherished compliments: “You’ve got a lot of class!”
The black blazer and flowing skirt. The designer used a bias cut so that the dresses would swing and incorporated her own concepts with vintage pieces. In my interview with Caroline Young, writer of Classic Hollywood Style, she named Van Runkle her favourite costume designer: “I came across a selection of her costume sketches, and they are beautiful works of art in their own right – she actually began her career as an illustrator – and they are so detailed, I think someone described them as being like Leon Bakst illustrations.” Van Runkle reportedly said that her ability to synthesize the character, the colour, the line, the era and the particular star into one drawing gave her an advantage because people knew what they were going to get.
Bonnie and Clyde ignited a fashion trend at its release and has been influencing the catwalks for five decades now. The beret made a comeback after the film was released, with the production in the French town of Lourdes reported to more than double. 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.” When Faye Dunaway attended the French premiere of the film, a crowd of thousands had gathered outside the Cinematique in Paris just to meet the star, many with bobbed haircuts and berets.
Bonnie’s look included a belted tweed jacket with matching midi skirt, paired with a black beret and flat pumps. She has found a profession, a bank robber, and she adopts a masculine-inspired, powerful and professional look. “They have $ for clothes at last,” reads a note made by Van Runkle on her sketch of the costume. Bonnie’s costumes record her development from bored Midwest waitress to bank robber. Her loose, crumpled pale peach button-down dress evolves to more professional looks as she gets into the swing of bank robbing, with a cigar in her mouth and a gun by her hip. Part of the success of the Bonnie and Clyde look, Theadora Van Runkle said, was that “they wore clothes that people could wear to work and wear in their real lives.” I think that’s the secret of any enduring style. The costume designer’s ability to fully realize the onscreen sex appeal of the characters through clothing was what made them irresistible to audiences, pointed out Deborah Nadoolman Landis, costume designer and author of Dressed: A Century of Hollywood Costume Design. “It’s not the clothes people want to emulate, it’s the characters,” she said.
Writers David Newman and Robert Benton captured the world’s fascination with the film best: “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.”
Note: This is a revised edition of a previous article I wrote (initially published in September 2012), in celebration of today’s 50th anniversary of “Bonnie and Clyde”.
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photos: screen stills captured by Classiq Journal | production credits
bibliography: Classic Hollywood Style, by Caroline Young, Film Noir. 100 All-Time Favorites, an article from L.A.Times by Patrick Goldstein