First off, I have very limited knowledge of Russ Meyer as a filmmaker. Lydia is the reason I even know who he is and introduced me to Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. I’ve always been fascinated with costume and costume design. For anything. That’s why I studied it at university and hope to pursue it… That’s my proviso for this article and a preempted defence if I make scurrilous remarks about Meyer!
Before talking about costume design for the three female leads in Beyond the Valley of the Dolls I feel that it’s worth quoting one of the most important costume designers for the field, Deborah Nadoolman Landis; “Costume is character.” Short and sweet. But, for me, it is short statements like this that help to solidify the importance of costume within film, theatre and television. Costume is used to help tell stories through the unspoken fleshing out of a character. A lot of press attention is given to period costume design – particularly when you hit awards seasons. But costume design is an important aspect of any film. Beyond the Valley of the Dolls was not a period film at the time. It would have been regarded as a contemporary film; if very stylised in that way. Clueless was the same (not particularly current I know). Clueless was a contemporary 90s costume designed film. But in a very heightened way. The film was using costume to explore characters but there was also a definite link with fashion. This is also true of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. The credit list at the beginning doesn’t list a costume designer; ‘Fashions by De Graff of California by David Hayes’. That’s one quick way to eschew costumes into fashion territory but, for me, costumes are costumes. They may have been designed by a fashion designer but fashion designers have designed costumes for decades. They are still using clothes to help visually explain a character to the audience. Costumes work for a particular character. Even if they are ‘shared’ by different characters. They would be worn a different way. Have you ever borrowed an item of clothing from a friend? Has it ever been worn in exactly the same way? No. Unless you want to be them, it won’t happen.
But back to Russ Meyer and the costumes used in Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. I find the costumes in the film interesting in its separation between performances by The Carrie Nations and the band’s individual clothing outside of that world. It is worth analysing the costumes used within the “music videos” separately from the character and costume arc for each member.
Kelly’s arc is the fairly typical good-girl-conflicted-by-wealth-and-power in ‘big bad’ LA, then realises her errors and is ‘redeemed’. Kelly is first introduced wearing a bright red mini-dress – more overall colour than Casey or Pet. Up until Harris’s fall, Kelly is mostly seen wearing bright colours. It can also be noted that after arriving in Los Angeles Kelly is mostly seen wearing warm colours – lots of orange. Her first appearance at Ronnie’s party is significant for the fact that she wears a dress belonging to Susan – it is noticeably the lightest costume in tone that she wears until later in the film. The iconic scene of Kelly and Harris together in the country shows an extreme change for Kelly’s previous style. The purple is very soft and muted in tone; the shirt is long-sleeved with a high neck; the skirt is floor length gingham (very non-LA style). It’s worth noting that the skirt does have a huge slit in it though – this is a Meyer film after all! Kelly’s final appearance is at her wedding to Harris, wearing a light pink dress and jacket. A mature option that in no way draws attention away from other characters to her.
Casey’s arc is pretty shocking but also less focused than Kelly’s. Kelly is, after all, the ‘star’. Casey is mostly seen wearing light colours when they get to LA. Casey obviously feels like the overlooked member of the group – particularly noticeable when you see her reaction to Ronnie’s ‘praise’ following ‘In the Long Run’. The tones are also cold until she announces to Roxanne that she’s pregnant. In that scene she is seen wearing a beige/khaki military style coat dress. Even though the colour is not particularly cold, it is pale and skin coloured. If she weren’t so tanned she would look particularly washed out. Her first kiss with Roxanne, following the abortion, is in a yellow high-necked knitted dress. The first bright colour she has worn since arriving in LA. That moment marks the happiest that Casey has seemed. However, her next appearance has her returning to light blue. Is this a comment on Casey and Roxanne’s relationship? Maybe she isn’t as happy as we are led to believe? Casey survives longer than Roxanne because she left their bed. Possibly the light blue dress was an indication that Casey hasn’t been ‘redeemed’ to the same extent that Kelly was.
For me, Pet’s is the least interesting arc. She arrives in LA, already more confident than Casey, instantly begins a relationship with Emerson, cheats on him, gets back together with Emerson, and then gets married. She doesn’t seem to have a set colour or tone. Her costumes don’t make any drastic change from pre-LA to LA. However, her colours become much softer in tone following her night with Randy and apology to Emerson. Pet’s costumes even have a range of textures – she is seen wearing lots of satin, lace, polyester. There is no coherent theme to her costumes. If anything, she is the mid-way point between Kelly and Casey and wears things that wouldn’t be out-of-place in one or the other’s wardrobes.
The costumes of The Carrie Nations are very interesting. These costumes are much less individual and more fitting with ‘The Supremes’ style of costumes. ‘In the Long Run’ is the first song that they “record” and their costumes have a mix of style and feel, reflecting various acts of the 60s and 70s, and build up towards the end of the song. They start with jeans and simple blouses. Then the blouses become pussycat bow blouses and waistcoats. Each member has a different colour blouse but matching waistcoats – completion of a group. Almost styled like The Carpenters. Then the costumes take a swing to the 60s with pink sequin mini-dresses. A style of dress never seen on the characters before or after. This isn’t their choice – this is a style chosen by Ronnie to help gain fans. The song ends with long blue glittery Grecian dresses. A swift move from the 60s to the 70s. And another dress style never seen before or since.
The next time we see The Carrie Nations ‘perform’ is for ‘Look On Up from the Bottom’. It’s another case of a carefully styled uniform for the band. It starts with the girls wearing skirt suits accessorised with a pattern either down the front of the jacket (Casey) or as a headscarf (Kelly and Pet). This moves into skirt dresses, different colours for each but all the same style. Finally they are seen (only from the waist up) in jackets with coordinated polka dot neck scarves.
The costumes that the girls wear in these sequences seem to have no sense of order to their use. Particularly noticeable with ‘In the Long Run’ where styles move from late 60s to early 60s then early 70s. There is no real consistency beyond the bond within the group. The costumes all seem to be based on groups of the time. Whether this is mockery or appreciation I guess is up to the audience member. I think that using a similar style for each band member is a clever touch of moving the group away from their first performance in the film at a school dance. This is their big break. They ARE The Carrie Nations.
The costumes need to be viewed outside of the character’s story arcs. Including their television appearances. I specifically noticed Casey’s dress. This scene comes after her night with Harris. She is distraught and has discovered that she’s pregnant, even if no-one has been told yet. But what is she wearing? A long clinging red dress. That’s not a dress you wear to hide away or to recover from a traumatic experience. This is the main reason that I separate the television interview appearances away from character arcs – and also, this appearance is part of their public view. A styled view to co-ordinate with earlier performances. It is all about The Carrie Nations. Not Kelly, Casey and Pet individually.
The costumes of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls may not have as big a connection with the 60s/70s as we think they do but they are used to describe the heightened Los Angeles world that Meyer has created. Costumes shouldn’t necessarily be authentic and realistic. They should be appropriate for the film, the characters and the story. The costumes can tell you a lot about the differences between Kelly, Casey and Pet. Even if you aren’t looking for it.
Sophia Shillito is a London-based Costume Designer and graduate of AUCB. Not content with just designing and making, she also writes for the site Damn That’s Some Fine Tailoring and can be followed on Twitter here.