Bellbottoms and Band Tees: The Enduring Appeal of
- Words Brenden Gallagher
- Date November 13, 2017
So much film and TV has idealized ‘70s style. The look and sound of rock’s heyday has had an enduring influence on American pop culture, as filmmakers across genres have sought to capture the laid back yet adventurous cool that defined the era. As the promise of late-'60s counterculture blossomed into a mainstream American obsession, the way that Americans listened to music, watched movies—and even wore clothes—changed over night. Rock ‘n roll hit its high watermark and American culture changed forever.
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In recent years, Alessandro Michele, Diane von Furstenberg, Hedi Slimane, and many other designers from across the fashion world have been inspired by high-waisted pants, leather, embroidery, flowing blouses and other highlights of the era. Teens continue to raid thrift stores and wade through the mothballs of their parents closets for vintage looks. Levi’s, so engrossed with their own '70s archive, has devoted entire collections to the era through their premium Levi's Vintage Clothing line. The bold, visionary fashions of the 1970s continue to resonate in youth culture decades later.
No period film has captured this remarkable style moment quite like Almost Famous. Despite a middling showing at the box office, the film inspired a major '70s style resurgences. A generation of teenage girls wracked with wanderlust wanted to dress like Penny Lane (Kate Hudson) while the decade’s proliferation of facial hair and vintage tees came back in vogue for young men who shopped at American Apparel. One writer has even laid modern “festival fashion” at the feet of the film. The costume design of Almost Famous succeeds at capturing the ‘70s, both by delivering iconic nostalgia and earnest nuanced tribute to the looks of the era. This feat is achieved thanks to the visionary work of Betsy Heimann.
Prolific costume designer Betsy Heimann is best remembered for influencing '90s street style due to her work with Quentin Tarantino on Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. But what she achieved with Almost Famous is no less impressive: she captured the spirit of an era with passion and precision that no other designer has been able to match, and the world noticed. Of her work on the film, she said, “I’ve never been so knocked off in my life ... From Almost Famous, those coats with the fur collars, even Oscar De La Renta made the boots I had created—those embroidered, lace-up knee high boots I made for Kate Hudson, those got knocked off. I mean, it sets huge fashion trends...and I wouldn’t do it any different if I had to do it again today.”
Heimann approached the film determined to authentically capture ‘70s fashion. She “designed every single thing in that movie except the blue jeans.” She cast a wide net sourcing looks for the film, visiting thrift shops up and down the west coast, concentrating on stores in Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles. In fact, traversing the West Coast thrift scene was primarily for inspiration. Thanks to Heimann’s original training as a seamstress, she was able to build costumes from scratch. She told Hypebeast that almost everything in the film was built by her team and then distressed by hand: “Nobody knows that, people think I got everything at vintage stores. I think that’s a testament though, to what good agers and textile artists I was working with who were able to take these brand new things and make them look old, and make them look worn.” Penny Lane’s coat, the iconic piece from the film that launched a thousand retail knockoffs, was fashioned from an Urban Outfitter’s rug and some upholstery.
Not only did Heimann’s skill with materials help her lend the film an air of authenticity, it helped her convey meaning and tone as well. One of the designer’s favorite looks in the film is Penny’s outfit when the groupie is “sold” to another band for a case of beer and asks, “What kind of beer?” Heimann put Hudson in a sheer cream blouse in that scene to convey vulnerability. She revealed, “I had this blouse that I designed and made that was just very sheer because we were getting into the real person inside there.”
The only pieces in the film that weren’t original were the blue jeans. The costume team purchased their denim at the various thrift stores they visited and mined for inspiration. Heimann credits the meticulous eye of the late costume supervisor Michael Dennison for the film’s top notch jeans. She recalls that her and her team picked through bushels of donated denim for just the right pair; “we had masks on our faces and gloves on our hands to dig through the bushels of clothes to find the vintage jeans. Kate wore 501s, but older 501s.”
Though it is often the most tedious part of making art, research is essential to building an authentic world. Heimann’s work on Almost Famous is no exception. Heimann told Dazed,
“I am very close to Joel Bernstein, the famous rock photographer. He gave me all the pictures from the 1973 Time Fades Away Tour he was on with Neil Young...There was a picture of a guy who we lost recently who was a very good friend of Neil Young, and I knew him too. I don’t know what city it was, but he was in this big dressing room backstage standing in the corner, just looking at the camera. It was something very lonely and innocent and ‘here-I-am.’ I said, okay, this is William.”
While anyone has the ability to do research or—granted they have the prerequisite skill—can make alterations, it was Heimann’s passion for and connection to the era that allowed her to deliver truly unforgettable costume design. For Heimann, Almost Famous was a labor of love. Before her career as a costume designer took off in earnest, she worked for artists like Neil Young and travelled in many of the same circles as the film’s fictional characters. Heimann nods to her past with one of Jeff Bebe’s (Jason Lee) T-shirts. Bebe’s name and face on the shirt are modeled so closely on a vintage Neil Young tour shirt that the film had to secure the rights to the design.
Even the minor characters reflect Heimann’s meticulous study of '70s style. Sapphire’s (Fairuza Banks) look is inspired by Janis Joplin. Her feathered vest is a nod to Joplin’s famous feather boa. Her fellow “Bandaid” Polexia (Anna Paquin) is modeled on Bianca Jagger; Polexia’s wardrobe is heavily influenced by '30s fashions that a '70s groupie might have found at a thrift store. Russell Hammond’s (Billy Crudup) understated look was inspired by rockers who cultivated the “country outlaw” look; you can see shades of Greg Allman (who director Cameron Crowe once interviewed for Rolling Stone) and The Eagles’ Glenn Fry in his get-up.
Cameron Crowe was equally invested in the film’s authenticity, allowing Heimann the freedom and space to get every look just right. Crowe insisted on an unusual amount of preparation for the film, including putting actors through extensive band rehearsals. He even brought on his friend, legendary rocker Peter Frampton to serve as “authenticity advisor” on the film. Before he adapted his novel Fast Times at Ridgemont High and launched his film career, Crowe was a music journalist. The film is in fact semi-autobiogrpahical, as Crowe, just like the film’s protagonist (Patrick Fugit), was still a teenager when he wrote his first story for Rolling Stone. Given his proximity to the source material, Crowe’s connection obviously runs deep. When Lester Bangs (Phillip Seymour Hoffamn) first appears in the film, for instance, he wears Crowe’s own vintage The Guess Who T-shirt.
The specificity and authenticity of the wardrobe in Almost Famous ensured that audience members with any knowledge of classic rock would identify with the film. With winks and nods to iconic bands and legendary performers adorning the clothing in every scene, even a rock novice might be reminded of an album cover or vintage photo they once saw. Heimann’s exhaustive, meticulous work on the film ensures the you leave feeling oddly nostalgic, regardless of whether you were around to witness the actual source material. Crowe and Heimann employed a variety of tools in their arsenal while drawing on their vast, personal rock knowledge in creating the world of Almost Famous. Their recreation of the period is truly a labor of love, leaving you wistful for something that exists exclusively in the annals of time, buried deep in the artists’ minds. Their memories are stitched into every piece of fabric used in the film, and it shows.