When Bonnie and Clyde opened on this day in 1967, all that the critics saw was blood. They gave scathing reviews focusing on the graphic violence—scenes that are PG-worthy by today’s standards—and the film was out of American theaters by late autumn. It looked like the movie would be a bust until actress Faye Dunaway, who played Bonnie, noticed something during the European press tour. She told People magazine in 1995: “Everywhere I went, people looked like me, wearing berets or whatever I was wearing. It was strange. But it was great, too.” Young Europeans had latched onto the cool style of the movie’s anti-heroes, and women copied costume designer Theadora Van Runkle’s chic re-imagining of Bonnie Parker. The real Parker was no great beauty, but widely published photos of her posing with guns and cigars painted her as a bad girl living in sin with an even worse boy. Van Runkle gave Bonnie a sexier, more appealing image. Dressed in mid-length skirts, cable-knit sweaters and a now-iconic beret, the fictional Bonnie was unblemished and sartorially savvy. Van Runkle was a Hollywood newcomer who had never actually designed clothes, but she had a clear picture of how the famous duo should look on the big screen. “The minute I read the first page [of the script] I knew it was going to be fabulous,” she said.
Along the same vein, Runkle’s Clyde Barrow, played by Warren Beatty, was a suit-and-tie kind of guy, not quite the Depression-era bottom-feeder we now know the real Clyde to have been. Beatty’s wardrobe—a never-ending supply of three-button jackets and fedoras—paired with his impeccably white, toothy grin gives the character an irresistible charm. When Bonnie first appears onscreen, naked and pouting at her heavily lined eyes and pink lips—a dewy Dolly-Girl face in a rugged Grapes of Wrath world—she is a bored teenager all made up with nowhere to go. When she catches Clyde trying to steal her mother’s car, it becomes clear she’s got a serious thing for bad boys. She barely has time to pull on a beige cotton dress before running outside to flirt. Bonnie’s desire is obvious, and after he knocks off a store, she joins him in a stolen car to start their life on the lam.
Bonnie classes it up for their first crime together in an elongated gray pencil skirt and a yellow cable-knit sweater (top photo). In what has to be one of the most unforgettable uses of accessories in cinema, she drapes a patterned silk scarf around her neck and sets a black beret on top of her head, just like the real Parker wore. According to Van Runkle, “The beret was the final culmination of the silhouette. Without the beret it would have been charming, but not the same.” The cap worked, and Van Runkle’s updated version of Parker created a fashion icon out of a criminal gunned down 33 years earlier.
Van Runkle’s midiskirts—below-the-knee-length pencil and A-line skirts—and V-neck sweaters were a fresh alternative to the miniskirts and short shift-style dresses of the late 1960s. The longer-length hemline would even prove to be a brief but socially explosive fad during the early 1970s. John Fairchild, the publisher of Women’s Wear Daily and a movie buff, named Bonnie and Clyde as an inspiration when he hailed the midi as the look du jour of late 1969. So convinced was he of the midi’s potential, that he declared 1970 the “year of the midi” in the September 14 issue of Time magazine. Some women bought it, but most refused to wear a skirt style they considered dowdy and unflattering.
Unlike the midi, the film only grew in popularity. Thanks to the enthusiasm of European markets, Warner Brothers re-released Bonnie and Clyde in February 1968 and it became the studio’s second-most lucrative film of that era (topped only by 1964’s My Fair Lady), earning 10 Academy Award nominations, including best costume design. Van Runkle didn’t win the Oscar, but her costuming cast Dunaway in a whole new role: style icon. Even 44 years later, it’s easy to see why: The perfectly balanced proportions of a longer-length skirt, soft sweater and, of course, jaunty beret, make a timeless, killer combination. —Rachel Chambers
Photo credits: All images courtesy of Warner Brothers.
Cinemode is OTDIF’s ongoing compilation of the world’s most stylish films, a must-see list for fans of fashion. From Klute to Breakfast at Tiffany’s to Shaft, some of the greatest style inspiration comes from the characters and costumes in film. Bookmark Cinemode and check back often to read the growing list. The reviews, written with an eye specifically toward fashion, are added to On This Day In Fashion on the anniversary of the film’s release date.