Western styles are becoming the protagonists of 2023 fashion. From the emergence of the “Coastal Cowgirl” trend on TikTok to the many cowboy references found in the spring and fall 2023 runway collections, it’s clear that fashion is ready to giddy up. But, while it may seem like it’s suddenly everywhere, it’s never really gone out of style.
In her 60-year career, the Tennessee-born singer-songwriter, actress, and author has put Western styles at the forefront of pop culture. “[Western style is] her at the core,” says her longtime stylist and creative director Steve Summers, who has worked with the country icon for the past 20 years on everything from stage costumes to album covers to red carpets. “No matter what she becomes, no matter how many people in the world know her and her head, she's still an eight-year-old girl standing on the front porch singing into a tobacco stick with a tin can." Summers is currently working with Parton on a series of costumes for her hosting gig at the 58th Academy of Country Music Awards on May 11.
At 77, Parton has helped bring country fashion to the mainstream, along with other pop culture icons like the late Tejano singer Selena and Canadian star Shania Twain, providing a blueprint for artists bringing their country heritage to the global stage. And, in 2023, when the cowboy aesthetic is having a resurgence, their influence is present. From Beyoncé’s Renaissance tour announcement, which came with a photo of the Houston-born singer wearing a disco-inspired cowboy hat, to the breakthrough of regional Mexican music in the United States, which has come with cowboy-inspired outfits from acts like Becky G and Grupo Frontera.
Although she’s a celebrated country artist, Parton’s body of work dips into other genres, including Southern gospel, reggae, pop, holiday carols, and rock. “Life is performance to people like Dolly,” says Summers. With each project, he adds, Parton’s style undergoes a transformation of its own. “The evolution of Dolly's fashion over the years doesn't have as much to do with style at all as it has to do with projects that she's working on,” Summers says. “Dolly is one of those performers who's incredibly consumed by whatever she's doing right now.” Yet, Summers says that, no matter the aesthetic journey each project may take them on, his mission is always to capture Parton’s essence. “The goal is that she is representing something and as an artist that something is her,” he says.
While Parton’s archive of boundary-breaking outfits are hard to categorize, her incomparable style is easily recognizable. There are glittering details, cinched waist silhouettes, lots of cleavage, and Western fashion influences that border on gaudy. In fact, she joked about her style in her 1995 memoir Dolly: My Life and Other Unfinished Business, saying, “It takes a lot of time and money to look this cheap.” Summers has been responsible for some of the most memorable, including the bright pink trench and leopard print bodysuit Parton sported on the cover of her 2008 album Backwoods Barbie and the leather suit with gold detailing that Parton wore she was inducted into the Rock N’ Roll Hall of Fame in 2022.
“Western can apply to a lot of different genres,” says Summers. “It’s like Dolly, and it can go from throwing on a Western shirt to a glamorous, Nudie suit — it’s everything in between.”
Still, it comes with its own set of challenges. “First of all, dressing her is the easiest thing you'll ever do and the hardest thing you'll ever do — all at the same time,” Summers admits, adding that because the singer is only five-feet-tall, it’s a constant balancing act between the singer’s glamorous and bigger-than-life aura and her height. “My goal is constantly to put things in proportion to make sure that it matches her, to make sure that it has just enough to accentuate her and not too much to overwhelm her.”
Summers is also focused on keeping Parton’s Southern roots intact. “A Western shirt is going to be our staple forever, and I experiment with that all the time,” he says. Even when a project doesn’t involve straightforward Western themes, Summers tries to inject it via Western motifs, like trimming or flowers. One example is the promotional outfits for the 2022 novel Run, Rose, Run, which she co-wrote with James Patterson, that include red dresses with Western-style flowers on the collars.
After three decades working with Parton, Summers has seen Western fashion evolve, taking heritage details beyond geographical roots. Today’s Western appeal is just an example of the style’s endurance in fashion history. “It's obviously a fashion staple right now, and with all fashion, everything is cyclical, so it will come and go and come and go, he says. “But the thing about Western wear is it has come and stayed.”
It’s working beyond 9 to 5.