Dolly Parton’s look has changed with the decades, but it remains distinctly Dolly, its mainstays blonde wigs, full lips, large breasts, and long nails. Parton is frank about her look’s inspiration: the full-service sex worker in her Tennessee hometown. Her avowal of her style’s origins proves that non-sex workers can wear “slutty” or “trashy” clothing without necessarily appropriating sex workers’ visual codes.
Although Parton’s style is closely tied to her, it has also become associated with imitation. People find something essentially copy-able about Parton’s appearance, and Parton participates enthusiastically in the fun. Fans have come to Parton’s shows in drag since the 1980s. Parton says, “I see so many drag queens out there, I see so many girls that look more like me than I do,” acknowledging that her look is hers, yet it is not her.
She has also spoken about entering a Dolly Parton impersonation contest and losing. Aware of the conventions of drag (which she already follows, really, when she’s made up and in the public eye), she says, “I just over-exaggerated—made my beauty mark bigger, the eyes bigger, the hair bigger, everything.” Exaggerating the elements of her own look wasn’t enough to win her the contest, maybe because she was shorter and older than most of the entrants, but also because Parton’s look isn’t about being Dolly herself. It’s about copying a pre-existing style.
Even beyond the drag community, cultural consciousness understands that Parton’s look is a copy. Dolly the Sheep, the first animal cloned from adult cells, was named for Parton because her DNA came from another sheep’s mammary glands—a nod to Parton’s chest, and a nod to Parton’s ability to replicate high femininity so consistently. Similarly, in her review of Sh!t Theatre’s production DollyWould, a play that looks for similarities between Dolly the Sheep and Parton, Charlotte Pegram writes, “You can’t help but think about the ‘Parton’ clones who dress up like the singer.”
But the originator of Parton’s style is often omitted from this intellectual discussion of the look’s proliferation, perhaps because it makes people. Parton does not retreat from the topic of sex work, and she addresses it often in interviews. On BBC talk show Parkinson for instance, she says, “I really patterned my look—it was a country girl’s idea of glamour—after what they call the town tramp.” The audience laughs, but Parton refuses to let them dismiss her sincerity as a joke: “Seriously, though,” she says. “This woman, I thought, was beautiful. And she had this beautiful peroxide hair, and had it piled on her head, red nails, high-heeled shoes, and I just thought she was the prettiest thing I’d ever seen.” She speaks highly of sex workers, saying the “town tramp” was “precious, and she meant a lot to me,” and that “prostitutes…are some of the sweetest, most caring people I’ve known because they’ve been through everything.” She also respects her style icon’s privacy, refusing to give interviewers her name—albeit using the problematic language, “I don’t think her family probably knew she was a ho,” to say so.
Parton dramatizes the childish innocence of seeing a sex worker as beautiful, without judgment, in her Christmas special A Christmas of Many Colors (2016). In this film, a nine-year-old Dolly approaches the “town tramp” to say, “I wanna look exactly like you when I grow up.” Parton retains this non-judgment of sex work as an adult. The sex worker answers young Dolly, “If I ever had a little girl, I’d want her to be just like you.” Parton herself plays the sex worker, creating a strange mirroring, since Dolly does grow up to look just like the “town tramp” but without actually becoming her. Parton manipulates this mirroring further, drawing a parallel between the characters’ career paths when the sex worker gives t Dolly twenty dollars and says, “I can still remember a time when a twenty changed my life.” This line suggests sex work and music, both non-traditional careers that involve struggle and hustle, are on par.
The parallel between sex work and music feels false. Parton’s family was poor, and she moved to Nashville to find work in the music industry with almost nothing. But, however challenging, music does not carry the stigma of sex work. Parton does acknowledge that she never had to choose to go to into sex work. She knew, when she moved to the city, she could work in a restaurant or “whatever.” “Whatever” is presumably not sex work, since she says of her role as the madam Miss Mona in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (1982), “I am not trying to glorify prostitution, but if I do, may God forgive me. Not everyone is so lucky as me to get a change to portray a whore instead of having to be one”.
Parton’s acknowledgment that she isn’t a sex worker is necessary to avoid outright appropriation of sex worker style, but it’s difficult to say to what extent Parton wants to give credit where it’s due, or how much she wishes to dissociate herself from sex work. She makes sure to say she has not engaged in sex work, but, on the other hand, she does not pretend to be chaste. When interviewers ask if she’s been unfaithful to her husband while on the road, she answers, “I’ve… been accused of being involved with every man I’m ever seen with or worked with. Maybe I have, maybe I ain’t. I never tell if I have.” And when Parton was mistaken for a prostitute in New York City in 1969, Parton did not tell reporters she was insulted (despite sensationalist headlines like “Dolly Parton threatened to shoot man who mistook her for prostitute”) but recounted how she pulled a gun on the man to stop him harassing her, an act of self-defence that should be open to people, sex workers or not, regardless of how they dress. Just as she refuses to let people dismiss her love of her hometown sex worker’s look, she refuses to let interviewers place her on the virgin-whore dichotomy. Her appearance both is and is not a signifier of her sexual values.
The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas’s treatment of clothing and appearance is nuanced. The film doesn’t portray sex workers as deceitful for their way of dressing: Parton announces openly that she has just bought Fredericks of Hollywood lingerie before putting it on, and her openness does not diminish the effect of the lingerie. In contrast, Burt Reynold’s character, Sheriff Ed Earl, appreciates the lingerie but refuses to be pulled into the world of sexy clothing. He does not want to put on a pair of “sexy” underwear Miss Mona buys him because, in the world of the film, men who think about their clothing are deceitful. Melvin P. Thorpe, the TV host who exposes Miss Mona’s brothel the Chicken House, talks hypocritically about fakes, phonies, and crooks while he dons a girdle and crotch and shoulder padding before going on air. The sex workers at Miss Mona’s institution are honest and simple, willing to strip down to their underthings, while this man is dishonest for his “feminine” concern with manufactured appearance.
Thorpe’s hypocrisy deepens when he storms the Chicken House and tears the sex workers’ clothing and blankets off, taking non-consensual nude photographs of them. His violation of their privacy shows how sex workers’ clothing choices are scrutinized and judged, while non-sex workers, especially men, can dress how they choose and create a “respectable” appearance whether they are honest or crooked.
At the climax of the movie, when Miss Mona and Ed Earl become engaged after the closing of the Chicken House, Ed Earl rejects this concern with respectability in favour of honesty, saying, “I don’t give a damn what people say.” Here, he tries to redeem himself for his previous comment that being sheriff of a small town is “a hell of a lot better than being a whore,” after Miss Mona questions his inability to protect her institution from the media. This line illustrates the attitude of fake allies who claim to support marginalized sex workers until they risk too close a tie to them.
Parton’s role in The Best Little Whorehouse as the recipient of Ed Earl’s slur, “whore,” makes me want to think she’s the good kind of ally. The kind who celebrates and thanks sex workers for their creativity, while working to make it more socially acceptable, and hopefully reducing the stigma against sex work. But wearing clothing, makeup, and hairstyles associated with sex workers is complicated because, too often, sex workers remain marginalized while their fashions go mainstream.
Words: Emily Gaudet, Illustrations: Beth Richardson