"Behind the Seams": 6 major revelations about Dolly Parton's famed "town tramp" sense of style

The Leading Lady of Country's fashion is explored in her latest book “Behind the Seams: My Life in Rhinestones"

By Joy Saha

Staff Writer

Published October 19, 2023 5:32AM (EDT)

Dolly Parton attends the Dolly Parton Album Press Conference at Four Seasons Hotel on June 29, 2023 in London, England. (Mike Marsland/WireImage/Getty Images)
Dolly Parton attends the Dolly Parton Album Press Conference at Four Seasons Hotel on June 29, 2023 in London, England. (Mike Marsland/WireImage/Getty Images)

In addition to being a music icon, Dolly Parton is a fashion icon.

The Leading Lady of Country, who is known for her acclaimed collection of country and Christmas ballads, is also revered for her famed look of big hair, long manicured nails, bold makeup and flashy rhinestones. Fashion has long been a staple feature of Parton’s career — so much so that it’s also the main focus of the singer-songwriter’s latest book, “Behind the Seams: My Life in Rhinestones.”

Released on Oct. 17, Parton’s literary work “documents her life and career in clothes and costume,” as explained by The Guardian. Parton invites her fans to take a step inside her vast closet through a series of 450 photos of her most famous looks, including the rhinestone-studded gowns she wore in Hollywood films like “9 to 5” and “Rhinestone” or the country-style getups she wore on “The Porter Wagoner Show” in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

“Behind the Seams: My Life in Rhinestones” is a joint effort with Parton’s niece, Rebecca Seaver, and music journalist Holly George-Warren. In addition to fashion photographs, the book includes profiles and remembrances from Parton’s favorite designers, makeup artists and stylists.

“From early on I loved the big hair and makeup, the long nails, the high heels, the flashy clothes,” she wrote. “But believe it or not, I had to fight for that look.”

From Parton’s go-to makeup hack to the provocative inspiration behind her signature look, here are 6 revelations about Parton’s legendary style:

Parton always patterned her look after the “town tramp”
Dolly PartonDolly Parton attends the 61st Annual GRAMMY Awards at Staples Center on February 10, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. (Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic/Getty Images)

The “town tramp,” Parton explained, is a woman who wore high heels and tight skirts — a look that was deemed “trashy” and “cheap” by many.


“She was flamboyant. She had bright red lipstick, long red fingernails. She had high-heeled shoes, little floating plastic goldfish in the heels of them, short skirts, low-cut tops, and I just thought she was beautiful,” Parton told The Guardian. “When people would say, ‘She ain’t nothing but trash,’ I would always say, ‘Well, that’s what I’m gonna be when I grow up.’”


Parton previously spoke about her “town tramp” look on the "WorkLife with Adam Grant" podcast. In it, she recalled how many of her vocal critics urged her to change her look, namely her voluminous hair and gaudy attire. Parton, however, decided to ignore the so-called advice she received and instead, stay true to herself:


“The way I look and the way I looked then was a country girl's idea of glam, just like I wrote in my 'Backwoods Barbie' song," Parton explained. "People wanted me to change, they thought I looked cheap. But I patterned my look after the town tramp.


"It was really like a look I was after," she continued. "I wasn't a natural beauty. So, I just like to look the way I look. I'm so outgoing inside in my personality, that I need the way I look to match all of that."

Parton’s grandfather and father both hated the way she dressed
Dolly PartonDolly Parton 1978 (Chris Walter/WireImage/Getty Images)

Her grandfather, a preacher, would even physically punish Parton over her unconventional sense of style:


“I was willing to pay for it,” she said. “I’m very sensitive, I didn’t like being disciplined — it hurt my feelings so bad to be scolded or whipped or whatever. But sometimes there’s just that part of you that’s willing, if you want something bad enough, to go for it.”


Years later, Parton wrote the song “The Sacrifice,” which appeared on her 2011 album “Better Day.” That experience of wanting to express her individuality no matter the cost was summed up in these lyrics: ‘I was gonna be rich no matter how much it cost / And I was going to win no matter how much I lost / Down through the years I’ve kept my eye on the prize / And you ask if it’s worth the sacrifice.’

Record label executives wanted Parton to “tone done” her look
Dolly PartonDolly Parton at the 58th Academy of Country Music Awards from Ford Center at The Star on May 11, 2023 in Frisco, Texas. (Christopher Polk/Penske Media via Getty Images)

Many criticized her style while others poked fun at it. Nevertheless, Parton persisted and chose to stay true to herself. 


“That was what my mama always used to say: to thine own self be true. I put a lot of stock in that,” she told The Guardian. “Everything I do, whether it’s my personality, how I conduct myself and business, or whatever, if I do it my way, according to what I understand and believe, there’s a strength in that. You can think, ‘I can stand by this, I can live by this.’”


And although Parton did care what people thought, she said she “never cared so much that it keeps me from being me.” 


Parton also explained how her extravagant looks actually “came from a very serious place.” Growing up in Tennessee, Parton saw women who built their lives around bearing children and growing their families. Her own mother and aunts knew how to be good mothers, she said. But that was not her calling in life:


“My mom and my aunts — I grew up with women knowing how to be good mothers, but that was just not what I felt God had in mind for me. Because somebody’s got to entertain those people, to write songs about them,” Parton said. “I can write a song as if I had a house full of kids, I can write a song as if I’ve got a cheating husband, even though I never did. But I know what it’s like; I’ve seen it, been around it. There’s nothing in this world that’s foreign to me, that I don’t get or understand.”

Parton’s signature style was inspired by provocative lingerie catalogs
Dolly PartonDolly Parton performs on the Pyramid stage during day three of the Glastonbury Festival at Worthy Farm in Pilton on June 29, 2014 in Glastonbury, England. (Jim Dyson/Getty Images)

In particular, Parton was inspired by the Fredericks of Hollywood catalogs, she told People in a recent interview.


“I was kind of influenced by those early days, with women that I would see, like the loose women in our town, or just people that I’d see in magazines and the Frederick’s of Hollywood catalog,” Parton said. “I mean, that spoke to me.”


The looks within those catalogs, Parton continued, “seemed to be my style and seemed to fit my personality, so I just went for it.


“I was never one to care as much about what other people thought of me as I felt about what I thought of me, because I felt if I was comfortable in whatever I was wearing, then people would be comfortable around me.”


Parton added, “Even though I'm sure people might have been uncomfortable thinking they would be uncomfortable looking like I did, if I seemed comfortable in it, they were willing to accept it. So I just kind of grew in the business kind of like that, being a little bit over the top about most things."

Parton goes to sleep with a full face of makeup
Dolly PartonDolly Parton (Bob King/Redferns/Getty Images)

She revealed that she’s been doing it for decades now:


“When I arrived in LA in the '80s,” Parton wrote, per Insider, “I started sleeping with my makeup on, partly because of the earthquakes. I thought, ‘I'm not heading out on the streets without makeup in case there are cameras out there! I'm going to be ready to go!’”


Another reason why she refrains from taking off her makeup before bed is for her longtime husband Carl Dean: “I don't want to go to bed looking like a hag with Carl,” she said.


"It doesn't matter when you clean your face," Parton clarified, "as long as you clean it once a day. After I wake up, I do all the little rituals, and then I start over again and go out every day and look good all day long."

Jumpsuits became Parton's “go-to look” on stage to stop fans from getting a “peep show”
Dolly PartonDolly Parton performs onstage during the 37th Annual Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony at Microsoft Theater on November 05, 2022 in Los Angeles, California. (Amy Sussman/WireImage/Getty Images)

Parton said that compared to skirts and dresses, jumpsuits became her go-to concert attire amid the 70s:


“A new popular style in the '70s were form-fitting jumpsuits and pantsuits with big bell-bottom pant legs — in fact, this is one of my favorite styles of all time. I have them in a rainbow of colors,” she wrote.


Parton continued, “Practically speaking, wearing jumpsuits on stage prevented folks in the front row from getting the kind of ‘peep show’ that wearing a miniskirt could sometimes accidentally offer.”


She added that jumpsuits are “pretty” and “workable.”


“I like looking elegant onstage, and I love it when you can see the silhouette of my legs when I wear sheer bell bottoms — that's pretty, but it's workable.


“Since I had a real small waist and was short, I thought the jumpsuit style showed off my body better. And with a jumpsuit, you don't have to wear a belt," Parton wrote. "Those jumpsuits became my go-to look in that decade — and my big ol' bell bottoms were ringing louder than most."

By Joy Saha

Joy Saha is a staff writer at Salon. She writes about food news and trends and their intersection with culture. She holds a BA in journalism from the University of Maryland, College Park.