In her 77 years, Dolly Parton has gone from flour-sack dresses, Mercurochrome lipstick and pokeberry nail polish to rhinestone-laced dresses, big hair, high heels and professional makeup artists.
Growing up poor in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee, Dolly learned from the age of 3, when her Aunt Dorothy told her to “look pretty” for the camera, that she “wanted to be different. I wanted to be seen.”
Sometimes that meant foraging in the woods for her beauty products, like wild plants and fruits like blackberries. Sometimes it meant striking one of her Mama’s wooden matches, spitting on the end and use the black to color her eyebrows and beauty mark.
When Dolly used flour as face powder, her Mama teased, “What are you going to do when you get all hot and sweaty? Make biscuits?”
Being the fourth of 12 children, Dolly’s clothes were mostly hand-me-downs, so she was forced to improvise. Sometimes that meant digging through boxes of clothes donated to her little country schoolhouse. She especially liked bright colors, fancy fabrics and lace.
“I’ve told the story many times that I patterned my look after the ‘town tramp,’ a woman who walked the streets of Sevierville with her tight skirts and her high-heeled shoes and her red nails and her red lipstick and her peroxided hair. I thought she was beautiful. But everybody said, ‘She’s trash!’ I laughed and said, ‘Well, if that’s trash, that’s what I want to be when I grow up!’”
That’s how “Dolly Parton: Behind the Seams” begins the story of Dolly’s lifelong mission to be herself and to look the way she perceived herself to be. She’s had to fight against those who advised her to tone it down and follow the latest fashions.
The book came out Oct. 17, published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House. It was co-authored by Holly George-Warren, an Asheboro native and award-winning author of 17 books, including works on fashion, popular music history, biographies and, most recently, “Janis: Her Life and Music.”
George-Warren now lives with her husband, Robert Burke Warren, in the Catskill Mountains of New York.
George-Warren spoke by phone on her way home from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony on Nov. 4. She was asked how the book came about.
“I was contacted by Team Dolly during the (COVID-19) pandemic,” she said. “They had the idea for the book and my name was brought to their attention as a good collaborator.”
George-Warren said her interest in fashion as well as having “written quite a bit about Dolly over the years” looked good on her resume. She said she even once interviewed Dolly.
“I was the lucky girl who got the gig,” she said.
George-Warren’s interest in fashion goes back to her teen years in Asheboro when she was “into vintage clothing. I love clothes from different eras.”
She’s also had a years-long fascination with Dolly. “My mother was a fan of the Porter Wagoner show (which featured Dolly). We got to see Dolly on his show.”
Team Dolly was looking for a publisher for the book and, it just so happened, that George-Warren had signed a deal with Viking for a future book. Dolly’s team was able to sign on with the same publishing company.
Work on the book, for George-Warren, began with researching Dolly in early 2022. Then she had her “day with Dolly” in May of that year. They met in Nashville and “covered a lot of ground. Later, we had followups by email with Dolly’s niece, Rebecca Seaver, who curates her clothes and other materials.”
Seaver had interviewed Dolly’s designers, hair dressers, beauticians, photographers and others. George-Warren used those interviews for first-person sidebars in the book.
The book was completed in early 2023 and went through a period of editing. After the proofs came out, George-Warren was able to attend an exhibition of Dolly’s clothing at Fisk University in Nashville. There was another meeting with Dolly, who was “very complimentary. She said she really liked the book,” George-Warren said.
The 10 chapters of “Behind the Seams” documents Dolly’s progression through the decades. During the early years of her career, she had to fight for her look. She insisted that her looks were who she was. As her fame increased, Dolly’s style became embraced by her fans.
Known for her one-liner comebacks, she was once asked how long it took to do her hair. “Well,” she said, “I don’t know because I’m not there.” She famously has dozens of wigs she wears in public since doing her hair takes so much time.
George-Warren recalled the story of when Dolly was staying with her Aunt Estelle in Knoxville while performing on a radio show. Afterward, she had to wait at a bus stop for the ride to her aunt’s home. One day while waiting for the bus, she took out her guitar to play and sing. A man came along and dropped some money into her guitar case. Then someone else did.
After that day, Dolly would stuff some old clothes into her guitar case, then change into them after the radio show. Dressed in her “raggedy outfit,” she would perform at the bus stop and people would drop their change into her guitar case.
“I made a little money,” she said, “not a lot, but enough to buy some hamburgers from the Jiffy Burger place. Years later, my baby brother, Floyd, and I wrote a song called ‘Nickels and Dimes’ based on my time playing with Aunt Estelle and busking on the street.”
George-Warren said her life after the publication of the book has been “very exciting,” and she’s heard from many of her friends. There was a gala in Nashville for the book, which included her bio. “It was nice to be part of that,” she said.
The book is quite a tome. “Dolly Parton: Behind the Seams” measures 12 and ¼ inches by 9 and ¼ inches, with 327 pages. The glossy pages are filled with hundreds of color photos of Dolly’s dresses, rhinestones and jewelry. And there are photos of Dolly and her family over the years.
“It’s a great Christmas gift,” George-Warren said. “And Dolly loves Christmas.”
George-Warren advises readers to look for the book at independent book stores or online at bookshop.org or Amazon.
There is also an audio book with George-Warren reading parts of it while Dolly talks and some of her songs are played. Look for it on Google Audiobooks.
“What’s interesting to me is Mom was from the North Carolina mountains,” said George-Warren. “A lot of Dolly’s turns of phrase remind me of my Mom. She introduced me to Dolly when I was a kid. I wish Mom was alive for the book. She loved clothes and shopping. What could be a better combination than Dolly and clothes?
“This has been a wonderful project,” George-Warren said. “I’m pinching myself, getting to write a book about Dolly Parton.”