Less a costume movie and more a fashion one, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970) is typical of its celebrated naughty director Russ Meyer in all the best possible ways.
Meyer fills the screen with a beautiful cast in cute outfits and expects us to take it all seriously. Thing is, he actually has something serious to say. Emphatically not a sequel to Valley of the Dolls made in 1967 (although that was its original intention), this softcore send-up was filmed soon after the tragic murder of actress Sharon Tate – star of Valley of the Dolls. Here Myer admonishes not only the perils of fame itself, but of believing it.
Bursting with hedonistic fun before a shockingly violent conclusion, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is simply alive with colourful sixties outfits. Mainly designed by David Hayes (as ‘De Graff of California’), it does help that his ensembles are worn by staggeringly attractive women of a very particular body type. A fact that of course never escapes Russ Meyer.
With this point in mind we shall take a look at the most enjoyably period costumes the film has to offer and, as difficult as it may be considering the source material, try to keep the images clean:
Pop svengali ‘Z-Man’ Barzell’s (John Lazar) drag-addled shindig: the big news here is that Dolly Read as singer Kelly Mac Namara is dressed in the wide leg patterned jumpsuit originally worn by Sharon Tate in Valley of the Dolls. Though obviously emblematic it is not actually the most interesting outfit at the party. That honour belongs to Edy Williams as salacious porn actress Ashley St. Ives, wearing what can only be described as a mini net dress and chain thong shoes.
Dresses with cut-outs, snippets missing and sometimes just plain see-through were everywhere in the 1960s. Obviously this is an overt example to denote Ashley’s wild personality. Her shoes, such as they are, take inspiration from Paco Rabanne’s imaginative metal work designs that defined his name as a designer.
Also worthy of mention is Erica Gavin as Roxanne in a pale green full length evening dress. A throwback to the Golden Age of movie glamour, this longer line hem really took off during the 1970s.
This blue mini dress worn by Phyllis Davis as Kelly’s Aunt (that’s right, aunt) Susan is a clean example of late modette styling.
Tellingly in an earlier scene Susan has to placate a wardrobe master over his exasperation that a female model dare to have breasts. Yet the truth is that during the sixties, icon Twiggy’s ultra slender body look was in vogue. Unstructured clothing was intended to sit where it touched on her form. This dress, combined with Susan’s clear-cut logic that the model is “just not a boy”, illustrates body attitudes at the start of the seventies; the era of the gazelle was on its way out.
Probably the prettiest and most current outfit in the whole film, this white lace empire line mini-dress with enormous flared sleeves crops up during every single hippie revival on today’s high street. Like it was custom made for Marcia McBroom as band drummer Petronella Danforth (which in the circumstances it probably was), the dress implies carefree romps in the grass and the innocence of an endearingly naive character ripe for harsh lessons in love.
This ribbed polo-neck sweater featuring decorative sleeve buttons and worn with a loose chain belt is typical of fashionable late sixties daywear. That it is coupled with trousers, which were only then becoming popular for women, intones what a trendy young cat Kelly is. Look at her dance too. Groovy.
Kelly slips into this gorgeous peach chiffon nightgown and matching fluffy slippers to bring a ‘square’ around to her way of thinking. As appealing as the ensemble is, it does represents a downward spiral for Kelly’s integrity. This nightgown has been used before by Meyer in several of his films, most notably in Vixen! starring Erica Gavin in 1968.
Something of a signature theme for Petronella, this pale pink frilly nightgown with flared half sleeves and silk belt is an adorably delicate piece. Similar to Petronella’s empire mini-dress, the gown has shades of British designer Ossie Clark’s romantic rejection of the unadorned mod look, as typified by John Bates’ innovative styling for Diana Rigg on spy-fi TV show The Avengers.
In a brief hippie downer interlude, Kelly dons headband and shapeless masculine shirt, while her bandmate Casey Anderson (Cynthia Myers) contrasts girlie femininity in a red mini-coat worn as a dress with elaborate silk scarf.
The hippie era was often about sharing clothes between sexes. While Kelly and her band ‘The Carrie Nations’ could hardly be described as embracing the hippie vibe, even before they moved to L.A., her outfit hints at the potential clash between that culture’s radical philosophy and the life they are currently leading.
Performing here all smiles in blue waistcoat, shirt and high waisted trousers just seconds before something deeply tragic happens in the story; Kelly is again an early masculine trailblazer predating the style of Diane Keaton in Annie Hall – made seven years after Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. Feminine touches are apparent through the tight gathering of her shirt sleeve into the cuff and the loose leg flare of the trousers.
This mustard colour A-line coat is indicative of sharp sixties outerwear. The half belt at the rear, angular hip pockets and military style buttons are suggestive of Pierre Cardin. Here the coat is worn as a dress (minus a sleeve as presumably it is not finished yet) for Cynthia.
Roxanne is a fashion designer hoping to entice Cynthia into a lesbian relationship. For such a figuratively and literally noisy film, their burgeoning love affair is handled with relative sensitivity.
Another stylish coat, this time worn by Roxanne in what looks to be part of a suit. It has a vaguely masculine quality, atypical for her character, featuring wide notched lapels and one button fastening with decorative buttons to the sleeve. Not really something one would normally wear to sit in a meadow, although this point is about as worthwhile mentioning as every female cast member’s hair being freshly blow-dried for every scene. Beyond the Valley of the Dolls exists in a heightened reality.
At Z-Man’s costume party just moments away from his ludicrous unveiling as a transvestite. A dull reflection of the era in that the madman (or woman) is also a fetishistic sexual freak. There is a blink and you’ll miss it shot of Cynthia Myers wearing Burt Ward’s Robin outfit from the Batman TV series. Presumably Z-Man wants his guests to don costumes as a means of unveiling his altergo ‘Super Woman’. Yet when a Peyote cocktail and latent frustration takes hold of his/her mind, the party soon descends into a gruesome climax.
Now back to flower power hippie loveliness, far away from those evil corrupters of the vapid L.A. music scene. This is Kelly as we have never seen her before, wearing a long cotton dress with a slit to the rear and prairie-like flounced hem. Similar to Petronella’s dainty attire, this is throwback to classic romanticism, a idea that would take hold during the seventies in a big way with brands such as Laura Ashley exploding onto the market; this dress is vaguely reminiscent of their Edwardian style designs with its high neck, long skirt and ruffled bodice.
All’s well that end well then, as the proceeding epilogue confirms…
Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is for the most part sharp satire wrapped up as bosomy beehive exploitation. Though if ‘Gay Boy’, ‘Red Head’ and ‘Man Flowered Pants’ in the credits offends your sensibilities, maybe this film is not for you.alignnone size-full wp-image-15160
© 2010 – 2013, Christopher Laverty.