Bonnie and Clyde_Faye Dunaway black beret CU, Warren Beatty_cap © 2011 Contributor. All rights reserved.

Bonnie and Clyde: Hats as Identity

Hats are one of the standout trends from this season’s Fall/Winter Collections. They add elegance and glamour to any outfit for both men and women. Costume Designer Theadora Van Runkle’s Oscar nominated work for Bonnie and Clyde (1967), directed by Arthur Penn and starring Warren Beatty as Clyde Barrow and Faye Dunaway as Bonnie Parker, is a great example of how the simple addition of a hat can say a lot about a character.

The function of hats and other forms of headwear are not simply to cover the head and protect it from the elements. Their use has defined social and cultural identity throughout mankind’s history, and they go much further than being mere accessories or a fashion statement.

The designer's addition of the hat completes the look he/she is intending: The nonconformist woman (Anna Sui, Dolce & Gabbana), the rebellious (Dsquared2), the romantic (Badgley Mischka), the glamorous (Gucci), the effortlessly chic (Diane von Furstenberg, Hermes), the young and playful (Christian Dior), the confident (Burberry Prorsum, DKNY, Emilio Pucci) and the classic (John Galliano) could not be viewed as such without the hat.

The same principle applies to menswear. Each look would be incomplete without a hat.

Costume designers often use hats as a way to bring out specific personality traits of the characters they dress. A hat can bring a sense of dignity or confidence to a strong character or conceal their lack thereof. It can provide a sense of armour to someone too vulnerable and afraid to face the world bareheaded, a companion to a lonely soul, or even a shield of protection to the weak. A character can become classy, sexy, and mysterious by the addition of a carefully chosen hat.

In this classic film set in the early 1930s, Bonnie first appears pouting, frustrated with her constricted existence, clearly longing for something, or someone, to rescue her from an unattractive, boring existence. She first sees Clyde while he is trying to steal her mother’s car through her bedroom window. Intrigued, she goes out to meet him and they go for a stroll on the empty main street of her small town.

Their initial encounter is flirtatious, Clyde is handsomely dressed to purposely hide his low-income status, which shows he is confident and determined to change and become someone important. Either that or he uses his looks to hide his past. His fedora helps finish the look of confidence and self-sufficient manliness, but also hides his insecurities and fragility. Bonnie on the other hand is wearing a flimsy linen dress, clearly exposing her low-income lifestyle and her lack of hope that any change will come her way, and so far it is unclear whether she has any ambition.

They begin a nonchalant conversation about each other and Bonnie soon learns that Clyde has just been released from State Prison, which you would never be able to tell by his looks. Bonnie’s fascinated expression reveals that she wants might use him as her ticket to a more exciting life. Clyde tells her he was in prison for armed robbery and she skeptically asks him what that is like. He notices her cynicism and feels the need to prove himself so tries to impress Bonnie with his large pistol.

As soon as Bonnie sees the gun, she becomes aroused and erotically fascinated by his dangerousness. She phallically caresses the gun and dares him to use it. Clyde then proceeds to rob the groceries store across the street to prove his manhood. As the scene is concluded, they steal a car parked outside the store and formally introduce themselves.

With banjo score playing in the background (by Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs), the exhilarated duo flees the scene without pursuit. Bonnie begins to ecstatically and obsessively kiss and hug Clyde all over, but he stops the car. Feeling overwhelmed and suffocated by her, Clyde gets out and announces he “ain’t much of a lover boy,” clearly an excuse to hide his impotence (in the original script Clyde was written as bi-sexual).

It is clear at this point that Clyde’s dandy looks are just a mask. Feeling sexually rejected and humiliated, Bonnie tells him to take her home. He then delivers a speech about how he could return her to that Depression-era Texas home where she would stay for the rest of her life or she could stay with him because she is worth more than her poverty-stricken existence. He allures her with promises of a glamorous life and his own “unrealistic, ignorant and childish fantasies of freedom, wealth and fame” [AMC Filmsite].

Bonnie accepts this, demonstrating she has ambition and is willing to become an outlaw to achieve the change she so desperately needs. Thus begins the story of the two nobodies Bonnie and Clyde who become famous by robbing banks and killing people then getting their pictures in the newspapers; they believe themselves to be antiestablishment rebels. Bonnie and Clyde innocently (or foolishly) think they are public servants who only rob banks and the establishment they represent.

The Barrow Gang is born with the addition of C.W. Moss (Michael J. Pollard), Buck Barrow (Gene Hackman) and Blanche (Estelle Parsons). But the sexually frustrated Bonnie will not be satisfied with her new lifestyle until she gets what she yearns from Clyde. She is beautiful, sexy, lusty, and frustrated by Clyde’s impotence. Her outfit changes dramatically from that simple first dress. We can see through Bonnie’s costumes, including her famous beret that she is trying to allure Clyde because she is not taking his rejection well.

Costume designer Theadora Van Runkle knew how to dress a woman on the prowl. Van Runkle’s romantic Depression-era designs for Bonnie immediately started a worldwide fab, and berets became the new trend. Bonnie’s style is so sophisticated, she still looks feminine and desirable indulging in a homicidal crime spree. Bonnie’s beret served two purposes, to provide her the confidence she needed to be an outlaw (something lacking in Blanche for example), and sex appeal.

In his book, The Little Dictionary of Fashion, Christian Dior says “A hat is the quintessence of femininity with all the frivolity this word contains! Women would be very silly not to take advantage of such an efficient weapon of coquetry”. Berets have also historically been used for political and military reasons, as an elite symbol, giving her the best accessory for her newfound rebellion. Furthermore, “berets have been worn as “classic” sportswear by adults of both sexes and children since the 1920s” (Steele, V. The Berg Companion of Fashion, p72), which would make it perfect attire for an outlaw on the run.

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The hat one chooses to wear, or a costume designer chooses to dress their characters with, pertains to personality and emotion.

Chic is the word for this Fall’s hat trend. They come in all colours, shapes and sizes. Hats have been known to define personality or current mood. This trend is perfect for anyone wanting to unleash a new form of self-expression.

Words and image layout by Louise Junker. Louise is creator of cinéphile costume and fashion site Dressed Cinema.

You can watch Faye Dunaway in Bonnie and Clyde at LOVEFiLM.com.

© 2011 – 2014, Contributor.

  • http://kinnemaniac.blogspot.com Simon Kinnear

    Great article. I always wondered, too, whether the beret was a sly in-joke, considering the film’s roots as a homage to the French New Wave.

    C.W. Moss’ hats are interesting, too. When he meets Clyde, both are wearing working-class flat caps, and Moss behaves throughout like Clyde’s disciple. But he never upscales to a fedora – whether it’s lack of ambition, too deep-rooted a sense of social conformity, or because he’s too nice, he never dresses like a gangster.

    • http://dressedcinema.com Louise Junker

      Thank you for such astute observations! Yes, there was a lot to say about all of the hats in the film, C.W. Moss being one of them for sure, thank you for sharing that.

      I decided not to mention the Nouvelle Vague background, but had I made the connection you made… it’s a shame it’s not in the article. Thank you so much for mentioning it! Did you see the picture Chris used of Theadora Van Runkle on his latest post? Her look with the beret is flawless and so fitting.

    • cw moss
  • ferneta

    Ms. Van Runkle totally inspired me to be a costumer. Thanks.

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