Holly George-Warren was ready to start a biography of Beat Generation poet and novelist Jack Kerouac when she received an offer from singer, songwriter, and actress Dolly Parton. Could she write a book about Parton’s iconic wardrobe? It was an exciting proposition, but George-Warren worried that writing Dolly Parton Behind the Seams: My Life in Rhinestones (Ten Speed Press, 2023) might conflict with her contract to write about Kerouac. Her Kerouac editor assured her that it was fine, adding, “How do you say no to Dolly Parton?”
So, of course, she said yes. While Kerouac’s life might be a darker tale than Parton’s, they actually have one thing in common. Neither wanted their creative spark to be stifled by the environment they grew up in. It has always been Parton’s unshakeable self-confidence and belief in her musical destiny that intrigued George-Warren.
“I just love her fearlessness and her being herself, really being herself, and standing up to whatever forces try to make her be like everybody else,” says George-Warren. “And I found out from doing the research and then interviewing her and talking to her and reading what she had to say about everything that it’s been like that really since she was growing up in East Tennessee.”
From a young age Parton enjoyed expressing herself through fashion, even if her choices didn’t always receive a positive response. Her parents warned her not to wear make-up or attention-provoking clothes, saying that only “trash” dressed that way. Despite their opposition Parton persisted in making her remarkable sartorial choices. “Well, then trash is what I want to be,” she told her parents. Early in her career she was repeatedly cautioned to tone down her look or people wouldn’t take her seriously. She refused.
“She’s like, look, I’ve created this look,” says George-Warren. “This is how I want to look, and I’m just going to make my hair bigger and bigger. My dresses flashier, my shoes higher.”
A Peek in the Closet
True to the book’s title, Parton’s closet now glitters with gems, but long before she could afford to buy rhinestones, she improvised, embellishing her clothing with various kinds of trim and buttons. “Her family had nothing, no running water, no indoor plumbing,” says George-Warren. “And her mom made her little dresses out of feed sacks and to fix them up she would sew on rick rack to make them more colorful.”
George-Warren admits she has also always been obsessed with fashion and began buying vintage clothes in the ’70s when she was a teen, favoring items inspired by a cowgirl aesthetic. Seeing Parton’s clothes up close, some of which have adorned beloved albums, was a dream come true for her. “I was vibrating,” she says of visiting Parton’s closet.
George-Warren, a Phoenicia resident, is the award-winning author of 17 books, including works on fashion, pop music history, and biographies, most recently Janis: Her Life and Music (Simon & Schuster, 2019). She wrote about Parton before, having reviewed her music for different magazines. “I’d written liner notes, including a box set that came out with three or four CDs,” she says. “So I’d done a big deep dive into her career then. And then of course, I’d already written some other fashion-type books. I wrote this book called How the West Was Worn (Harry N. Abrams, 2001).”
Dolly Parton Behind the Seams was a collaborative effort between George-Warren, Parton, and Parton’s niece Rebecca Seaver, who curates and manages the thousands of costumes that Parton has worn and preserved. The book features hundreds of detailed photos, as well as Parton’s stories about creating and wearing her clothes, plus interviews with some of the hairstylists, makeup artists, and designers who helped create the distinctive looks.
The New York Times-bestselling book divides the iconic wardrobe into sections that reflect eras and special occasions. There are the dresses Parton wore on “The Porter Wagoner Show” in the late ’60s and early ’70s, her wardrobe for the film Nine to Five, as well as the outfits she donned for magazine covers and on her many album covers. There’s a treasure trove of shimmering gowns, but there’s also a lumberjack outfit, a dress ringed by little plastic bubbles, and a lifeguard outfit with whistles for fringe. There’s a holiday section, because Parton loves holidays, particularly Christmas, and it showcases some form-fitting red jumpsuits, a gingham gown, and quite a few Santa suits. Parton kept the sleigh from her album cover for Home for Christmas and brings it out every year. She hosts an annual cookie-making night for her family.
“And then she dresses up in a Santa outfit and she’s got an elevator in her house and she decorates it like it’s a fireplace,” says George-Warren. “So, she comes down the fireplace with a huge bag of presents and gives out presents to all the kids.”
The author, who like Parton, has roots in the South, uses a Southern expression to describe the star. “She never got above her ‘raisin’,’ as they say. She was always true to her roots. Talking with her, she is just so down-homey and she never tries to put on airs or be highfalutin, or whatever. She’s super. The other thing about her is she’s so sharp and smart that you think, oh my God, this woman is so savvy. She’s always figuring out the next thing, the next five-year plan or whatever.”
Dressed for Success
George-Warren says it would be silly to write off the book as just being about “clothes.” For Parton, who at 77 still writes songs and will soon release a new album, clothes are an ongoing expression of who she is and what she’s accomplished.
“She really does inspire people to be true to how they feel inside,” says George-Warren. “And they can present however they want to. It doesn’t matter what gender you’re born or whatever. You present the way you feel comfortable and the way you feel good about yourself, and you stand up to the status quo to do that, and in the end you’re going to feel comfortable in your own skin. So, a couple of times early in her career when they tried to make her wear flat hair and wear a turtleneck sweater and stuff, they tried to market her first as this kind of pop folk singer. She said, ‘I just felt like I was wearing my mama’s clothes or something. I wasn’t comfortable in my own skin.’ And I think that’s the message that’s very powerful.”Parton’s clothes are a work of art, but they also serve as a superhero costume. “I think getting that determination and that stamina to be a woman in the music business and to be as successful as she was in all kinds of businesses, that kind of gave her the gumption and the stamina to do that by starting with her presentation and sticking with that. And then she went from there to be a singer-songwriter, to be an artist, to be a business entrepreneur, a producer, all the many things that she does. That’s a great message.”