Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow formed one of the most notorious couples and criminal duos in the history of mankind. The history of their short-lived career and relationship is dramatically told in Arthur Penn’s 1967 film aptly named “Bonnie and Clyde”, with Faye Dunaway and the charming Warren Beatty front and centre. They weren’t the only well-loved bad guys of their time though – the economical depression of the 1930s following the Wall Street crash in 1929 was the so-called “Golden Age” of crime in the United States and, ever since then, romanticised tales of gun-toting bank robbers have been a go-to key for cinematic success. John Dillinger was played by Johnny Depp, alongside Christian Bale and Marion Cotillard, in Michael Mann’s 2009 film “Public Enemies”. Brian De Palma’s 1987 film “The Untouchables”, a masterpiece of a film, tells of Elliot Ness’s pursuit of crime lord Al Capone and his eventual arrest in 1931. Another known criminal of the time, Pretty Boy Floyd, was featured in several lesser-known films and TV movies and even appeared as a character in the aforementioned “Public Enemies”. But while the male ensembles in all these films remain faithful to historical reality – from Warren Beatty’s Clyde Barrow in 1967 to Christian Bale’s Melvin Purvis in 2009 – costume design for womenswear was given a lot of creative freedom in the 1960s. The knee-length, body-clinging pencil skirts and berets worn by Faye Dunaway as Bonnie Parker are a far cry from the ankle-length one-piece dresses she is shown to be wearing in photographs taken during her lifetime.
It can be argued the when it comes to the connection between cinema and fashion, accurate representation of costume history is a fairly recent trend in film. Looking at films from the 1960s, there are very few blockbusters that we can’t say started at least one trend: Elizabeth Taylor in the title role of “Cleopatra” (1963) defined the beauty and makeup look of a decade and who can forget Catherine Deneuve in “Les Parapluies de Cherbourg” or “Belle de Jour”? One of the earliest 60s trendsetters was Audrey Hepburn in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” (1961) and in many films to follow, such as “How to Steal a Million” (1966). All of these films played a major role both in portraying the fashion of the 1960s and carrying it off with dramatic flair onto the silver screen, but also in successfully creating a specific style and look on-screen that then trickled down to define the style of a decade. Even now, in 2013, we constantly refer to ‘the 60s’ as the most easily identifiable epoch of style. This blurring of lines between fashion and costume design did, however, have a downside that becomes apparent to us now, at a time when historical inaccuracy in costume design is heavily criticised.
Both “Cleopatra” and “Bonnie and Clyde” could have come under blazing fire if they had been released later. While the creativity, beauty and effortless looks of the female protagonists in both films are to be admired and copied throughout eternity, they are not at all in tune with the times they portray. We all know the actual Cleopatra didn’t wear bright blue eyeshadow or elaborate hairdos (in fact, Ancient Egyptians wore shaved heads which pharaohs such as Cleopatra covered with very standard headpieces) eerily similar to the curly tresses in vogue at the time of the film’s production. And we most certainly know Bonnie Parker didn’t walk around in pencil skirts, cardigans, ballerinas and a beret robbing banks throughout the sandy roads of the American Midwest. Throughout the 1930s, the preferred skirt length was mid-calf, slightly above the ankle, and not knee-length like Faye Dunaway’s. After the folly of the Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression brought about a change in mood which called for greater discretion in dress and women particularly became more conservative. The real Bonnie Parker could never have worn the deep, sharp cleavages that Dunaway sports throughout the entirety of the film – from her first scene in a light dress to almost all of her short cardigans and sweaters. And just as the real Cleopatra could never have worn a wig covered in perfect curls, Bonnie Parker did not wear her hair in a voluminous shoulder-length back-combed fashion.
The real question here is intent. “Bonnie and Clyde” may not have been historically accurate in terms of costume, but then again period films produced in the 1960s generally weren’t. The 50s/60s/70s era was so rich in innovation and trends when it came to clothing that it only made sense to transfer that into the film instead of leaving it purely historical. It was an age where film was at its peak when it came to influencing everyday ensembles for the working-class woman and costume design was meant to inspire them to dress, not paint a perfect picture of the past. With surefire trendsetters such as “Rebel Without a Cause”, “A Streetcar Named Desire” and “Sabrina” in the 1950s, the expectation for cinema to practically dictate real-life trends grew to an unprecedented level. “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”, “Belle de Jour”, “Some Like it Hot”, “Vertigo” and even Truffaut’s “La Sirène du Mississippi” both portrayed the style of their time but also caused an increase in specific trends. Everyone wanted to be Audrey Hepburn, Catherine Deneuve, Faye Dunaway or Brigitte Bardot. It was the era of stardom and aspiration, the bright afternoon after the dawn of the pop icon that came with Marilyn Monroe. It was essential for a 1960s film with a female protagonist to not only be able to convey the particularity of this fashion decade, but also start trends and inspire women. It went beyond entertainment and storytelling; in fact, costume design started telling its own story by trickling down into mainstream fashion. Stemming from the success of “Bonnie and Clyde” alone, the production and demand for berets increased to an unprecedented amount – and the actual Bonnie Parker had never been known to wear them.
Long story short? It’s impossible not to want to dress like Faye Dunaway’s Bonnie Parker. The slight nod to elegant french style, plus a balanced mix of demure and sensuality through long pencil-skirts and fuzzy cardigans. Add in a flicked of black eyeliner, a hint of masculinity via the infamous gun, cigar and, of course, Clyde’s suit jacket, and you have the recipe for a perfect, poised and sensuous woman. Can we see the gun-toting female bank robber roaming the midwest in the 1930s? No, not really. But ever since “Cleopatra” came out, my grandmother has never strayed from blue eyeshadow.