The Polarizing Movie That Paved the Way for Barbie-mania

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Nearly a year before the buzzy movie debuted, paparazzi photos of the costumed stars began leaking from the location shoot. When the premiere rolled around, it was just the first in a months-long series of red-carpet events, for which the cast—and fans—wore clothes inspired by the film. The movie went on to become a global hit and an Oscar favorite whose popularity changed the course of contemporary fashion.

No, I’m not talking about Barbie, whose hyperfeminine, hot-pink aesthetic was so ubiquitous last year that it sparked a new entry. Back in 1967, the crime drama Bonnie and Clyde redefined movie marketing and screen-to-street dressing—and became a pop-culture phenomenon. Based on the real-life exploits of the titular outlaws, the film entranced the younger generation with its polarizing story, which some critics saw as glorifying violence. But the movie also inspired relentless hype via a grassroots marketing campaign as clever and audacious as the film itself. Today, we’d call it #Bonniecore.

Barbie may have raised contractually obligated promotional appearances to the level of performance art, but Hollywood has a long history of blurring the lines between screen and streetwear. Before stylists, sponsored content, and brand ambassadors ruled the red carpet, many leading ladies turned to studio costume designers to make their opening-night gowns. In fact, most studios stage-managed their contract players’ public images, dressing them on-screen and off.

Bonnie and Clyde may have been the first Hollywood film to capitalize on the power of fashion as a marketing tool in an international PR push. It was a strategy born of desperation: Warner Bros. had virtually disowned the ultraviolent biopic after scathing early reviews, and it allotted no budget for publicity, much less a full-blown Oscar campaign. But Warren Beatty—the film’s producer as well as its leading man—had deferred part of his salary to get the film made, and he was determined to plug it, even if that meant wearing a fedora and a pinstriped suit on the red carpet.

Fortunately, Bonnie and Clyde’s costumes attracted the kind of press that no studio could buy. “Two of the most fashionable people alive today aren’t,” The Atlanta Journal joked. “They died amid blood and bullets 34 years ago in Louisiana.” The rookie costume designer Theadora Van Runkle, a former fashion illustrator, dressed Faye Dunaway’s Bonnie in berets, calf-length skirts, and braless sweaters that were evocative of the film’s Dust Bowl setting, yet were like catnip to 1967 audiences. “Bonnie and Clyde slept in cars and crummy auto courts,” Van Runkle told the Los Angeles Times. “Their clothes had to be livable. That’s why they’ve been so successful now.”

The natural colors and textures of the ’30s were an irresistible alternative to the microskirt and synthetic fabrics in psychedelic hues then in style. Just as “mod” was beginning to look old-fashioned, nostalgia had become trendy, and Bonnie and Clyde helped usher in the neo-Victorian hippie chic of the 1970s. Young audiences connected with the film’s rebellious antiheroes and imitated their brand of gritty glamor. After a shaky start, Bonnie and Clyde stayed in theaters for months, becoming one of the most profitable films of the decade.

Dunaway leaned into the Depression-era dressing, striding “through the fashion pages in the suddenly popular ’30s-style dresses and suits like the ones she wore in the film,” Time noted. She even borrowed a beret from the wardrobe department to promote the film in New York, pairing it with a beige and brown plaid suit by the designer Jacques Tiffeau. A virtual unknown when she got the role, Dunaway was catapulted to the A-list—and the International Best-Dressed List.

The film opened the Montreal Film Festival in August 1967, where Dunaway looked “splendidly sleek and remote,” according to the Ottawa Citizen. A month later, the cast (minus Dunaway, who was already shooting her next film) assembled for a premiere in Denton, Texas—where the real Bonnie and Clyde committed crimes and where parts of the movie were filmed. In November, Dunaway made a solo visit to London, where she “took the city as few of her countrywomen—except maybe Jackie Kennedy and Pocahontas—had before,” Life reported. Though there was no London opening for Bonnie and Clyde, Dunaway attended the glitzy premiere of Camelot, where she was photographed in a Bonnie-esque ensemble of a calf-length brown-satin coat edged in ostrich feathers; she told a reporter she’d designed it herself.

In January 1968, Dunaway appeared on the cover of Life in a long cardigan suit and beret, under the headline “Bonnie: Fashion’s New Darling.” Days later, she flew to Paris for the European premiere of Bonnie and Clyde at the Moulin Rouge. The film’s fashion reputation preceded it; fans with temporary machine-gun tattoos mobbed the red carpet. “My Clyde hat was snatched off my head,” Beatty told a newspaper, though his dapper suit read as gangsterish even without the fedora. Dunaway wore a sparkly white beret with a matching long, fringed coat and V-neck minidress; if the effect was more 1920s than 1930s, nobody noticed. A grateful French hatmaker had a box of berets delivered to her room at the George V—sales had skyrocketed since the film’s release.

In April 1968, Bonnie and Clyde won two Oscars out of 10 nominations. Dunaway, nominated for Best Actress, wore a slinky 1930s-style black satin wrap gown to the ceremony, its deep V-neck edged with ruched chiffon, a vintage purse dangling from her arm. Van Runkle, who was also nominated, made the gown; she claimed that it was inspired by a Botticelli painting, but it was pure Bonnie.

“Probably no one imagined at the time that the most far-reaching contribution Bonnie and Clyde would leave to our acid-rock-pop generation was its influence on fashion,” Show magazine reflected in 1970. While the designer Geoffrey Beene interpreted Clyde’s pinstriped suits and fedoras for women (dubbed the “Alice Capone” look), others offered cardigans, “Bonnie berets,” and the 1930s-inspired “midi” hemline. The movie revived the flagging menswear industry, popularizing suits in dandyish glen plaids and pinstripes, and giving a boost to Ralph Lauren, who launched his first tie collection in 1967. Walt Frazier, the point guard drafted to the New York Knicks in 1967, got his nickname, “Clyde,” thanks to his penchant for fedoras. Beatty appeared on the February 1968 cover of Harper’s Bazaar, accompanied by a model in a beret. Bonnie and Clyde mannequins posed in trendy New York shop windows, guns drawn.

The avant-garde designer Rudi Gernreich was one of the few who didn’t hop on the Bonnie and Clyde bandwagon. “I think it’s shocking to want to look like a couple of hideous murderers,” he complained to a journalist. “Fashion isn’t tragedy; it’s entertainment. It should be tongue-in-cheek, relief from serious things. This is something else.” The couturier Pierre Cardin shared his skepticism, albeit for a different reason, saying, “It is not the role of the couture to promote films.”

The famous designers who have been dressing Margot Robbie in meticulous reproductions of Barbie clothes would surely beg to differ. Like Bonnie and Clyde, Barbie taps into escapist nostalgia; one of the pleasures of the movie, as well as the publicity tour, was recognizing deep cuts from the doll’s 65-year fashion history. (As America Ferrera’s character in the film gasps, watching Ken toss Barbie’s clothes out of a window, “These are archival!”) The Bonnie look was lived-in, earthy, sexual—everything the space-age style of the 1960s was not. But Barbie’s costuming—for all its cheerful colors, humor, and childhood memories—is rebellious in its own way, pushing back against the dressed-down COVID era, when heels got the heave-ho and sweatpants became the new black. In the spirit of the film, it pushes back against the patriarchy too, asserting that you can be a fashion icon and a feminist icon at the same time—a message as provocative today as Bonnie and Clyde’s unrepentant carnage was then.

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