EXCLUSIVE BOOK EXTRACT: Dolly Parton reminisces about how her signature style came to be

In her new illustrated memoir, the singer reveals her true self.
Dolly Parton

Clothes are like songs. Hearing certain music brings back particular memories, so it is with certain outfits … I first developed my own personal style growing up in the backwoods of East Tennessee. I always loved make-up. I wanted to be pretty. Back then, any woman who wore make-up in the mountains was considered trashy. But I didn’t care. When I started buying my own make-up, I also started dressing according to how I felt, which meant wearing tight, low-cut outfits that my mama made. I remember feeling powerful enough to go up against Daddy or Grandpa to say, “Now, that’s not that tight. It ain’t cut that low. It ain’t that much.” And they’d say, “Yes, it is!” But I’d be willing to get my ass whupped for it. I would sacrifice for how I wanted to look. The same thing happened when I moved to Nashville in 1964 to become a country star. Just like I had to persist to get my songs heard and ignite my recording career, I had to resist a lot of “advice” telling me to tone down my look or choose a different type of wardrobe. I never listened to any of that. From early on, I loved the big hair and make-up, the long nails, the high heels, the flashy clothes, and – as soon as I could afford them – the rhinestones!

Image courtesy: Dolly Parton archive

But believe it or not, I had to fight for that look! As a young artist, my self-confidence was enhanced by developing my own Dolly style and then sticking to it. I didn’t care about trends. Instead, I worked hard to look the way I pictured myself. Although my style has evolved as the years have gone by, I’ve stuck to the motto, “To thine own self be true” over the past six decades – and still do. Much as the fictional characters that populate my songs uncover essential truths about me and the people I’ve known, my clothes and make-up also reveal the real me. Maybe they’re both “made up,” but they reflect my innermost self, my own personal truth. “Look pretty!” That’s what my aunt Dorothy Jo told me when I was three years old, right before she took a picture of me wearing a little white dress she’d bought.

Image courtesy: Dolly Parton archive

I was standing in a field near my Tennessee mountain home as she took aim with her Brownie Hawkeye camera. “Pretty? How do I look pretty?” I asked her. And she said, “Well, just pose.” So I did – and that’s my first pretty picture. We were poor people and lived way back in the Smoky Mountains. I didn’t have many nice things that weren’t hand-me-downs, but I tried to make them look special. Even as a child, I was fascinated with clothes. I wanted to have more than what I had and wanted to wear more than what I should. Even though I didn’t know it at the time, I just wanted to be different. I wanted to be seen.

When I was really young, my older sister, Willadeene, and I wore clothes that Mama made from flour sacks and the sacks that held feed we bought for the farm animals. Some of the sacks were decorated with flowers. Mama was making what we called “sack dresses” long before that was a style, and we were always happy when we got a new dress with a pretty print on it. We loved it! To make the dress special, Mama would sew rickrack or a little lace trim on it. Rickrack was a big deal back then. You could buy yards and yards of it at the dime store, so Mama trimmed our flour-sack dresses and made them as pretty as she could. Because the sack dresses were made from thick, coarse material, they weren’t very comfortable against our skin. But there’s a saying, “Beauty knows no pain.”

Image courtesy: Dolly Parton archive

As a little girl, I liked playing dress-up, even when we didn’t have great things to dress up in. I’d mix and match different things that I’d find—like Mama’s skirt and Aunt Estelle’s blouse or whatever. I was always trying to make myself look good.

I wanted to be Cinderella.

Even back when I was just a toddler, our neighbour, who I called Aunt Martha, used to bounce me on her knee and sing me a tune with words about “Little Dolly Parton” having a pretty red dress – I think that idea stuck in my head! We had the woods, too, where you could forage natural beauty products. If a girl has dreams and creativity, she can come up with all kinds of ways to look, and feel, pretty when she doesn’t have the real thing.

I used to squash up honeysuckle blossoms to make perfume. And pokeberries! Pokeberries were major because you could mash them up and make a stain that – boy! – takes forever to come off. I would paint my lips with that. I also used household goods to make homemade cosmetics. I’d strike one of Mama’s long wooden kitchen matches, put a little spit on the end of it, and use that to colour in my eyebrows and my beauty mark. Mama always kept bright-coloured Merthiolate or Mercurochrome to put on our cuts. Since I didn’t have lipstick, I tried putting it on my lips. Merthiolate was more orangey and it burnt like hell. Mercurochrome was redder and didn’t sting as much. Both stayed on forever. But Daddy did not like us wearing make-up. He’d try to wash it off my lips, and I’d say, “No, it’s my real colour. It’s my natural colour.” He’d say, “My natural colour, my ass! You get in there and get that off of you.” Later on, I’d use Mama’s flour as face powder.

I never had beautiful hair. Mine was not curly like my dad’s. It was straight, like Mama’s, and baby fine. I loved curly hair and wished mine was. Mama would get me a perm once or twice a year, which was not necessarily great for my hair. But you go through such things till you find out what’s good for you and what’s not. To look better or different, I was always putting stuff in my hair – flowers and twigs and any kind of thing I could root up. We used lots of other stuff from the wild too. I’d take Mama’s big sewing needles and heavy thread and string up all kinds of berries and things we’d find in the woods to make jewellery.

Mae West

Ever since I was a young girl, looking up to that “town tramp”, I’ve related to Mae West more than any other star because we’re both little and we’re both outrageous and we both like our high-heeled shoes. I’ve even heard that when she was older and in a wheelchair, she still wore her high heels. I’m sure I’ll do the same thing. She was a tiny little thing – even shorter than me. She loved the platinum hair. I totally relate to her in every respect, not just the way she looked. She was a very smart businesswoman. A lot of people don’t realise that she owned half of Hollywood, and she had her own production company. She did all that. She made good decisions and stood her ground. It’s amazing how advanced she was as a woman in business back at that time.

After I started making a bit of money singing, I spent it on hair and make-up. There was a little area in the Sevierville drugstore where you could buy Maybelline make-up and perfumes. I’d also buy Evening in Paris and Heaven Sent perfumes. But Maybelline was the star of the show. You could always trust it. I still wear Maybelline. And oh my goodness, pantyhose were like the microwave oven. When we started getting pantyhose, I thought it was one of the greatest inventions that’s ever been. I still wear pantyhose. They’re like a little body girdle. They make your legs prettier and shapelier. They mash in some of that loose stuff you don’t want to show; you just feel more self-contained. I remember the first nylons I ever got. Mama said, “Now, you’re going to have to be real careful with those because you’re going to pick ’em. They’re going to run, and they don’t look good with runs. You’re going to look like trash.”

But as you can imagine, the “looking like trash” part didn’t bother me too bad.

I wore fishnets as soon as they came out. To this day, I love wearing them. Back then, I’d worry about ripping a hole in my fishnet hose. That was a big, big deal. We used to cry about having to wear torn things. Years later, ripped fishnets and nylons actually became a trend!

Image courtesy: Dolly Parton archive

And we used to cry when we got holes in our jeans. We didn’t know ripped jeans were going to be fashionable one day too. In my teens, I lived for a while in Knoxville with my aunt Estelle, who took me around to different department stores and helped me pick stuff out. While staying with her, I’d catch the bus to appear on Cas Walker’s TV show. The bus came by her house at the top of the hill, and I’d ride it downtown, always carrying my guitar. After I finished the show, I usually had to wait on the sidewalk for the bus. One day, just to pass the time, I opened up my guitar case while I was waiting and started playing and singing. Somebody came along and dropped money into my guitar case, and then it happened again and again. I got the idea to wear a more raggedy outfit for playing on the street. I started taking a little shabby shirt in my guitar case and changing clothes in the bathroom after the show. I’d put on that shirt, go out to the street, pull out my guitar, and start singing. I made a little money – not a lot. Years later, my baby brother, Floyd, and I wrote a song called “Nickels and Dimes” based on my time busking on the street.

Aunt Estelle will always be special to me because she took me shopping for my first fancy dress, a formal gown paid for by my uncle Lester. That was the first time I got to really dress up. I remember Daddy feeling so proud of me. He thought I looked like an angel because the dress was kind of fluffy and a baby pale pink. I really did feel pretty in that. I felt like a real grown-up. I was 18 years old. In May 1964, the day after I graduated from high school, I packed all my clothes in my matching luggage: four paper bags from the Piggly Wiggly. I boarded a Greyhound bus to Nashville, where my life – and my style – would soon change. 

Dolly Parton’s memoir Behind the Seams: My Life in Rhinestones is available now from Booktopia.

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