Theadora Van Runkle began her career as an illustrator of fashion advertisements for department stores in the 1960s. After meeting the legendary costume designer Dorothy Jeakins, she left her job at the May Company to work with Jeakins on the historical epic Hawaii before the designer recommended her for the low-budget feature Bonnie and Clyde.
The production stood out for a number of reasons: its anti-hero point of view; its mix of sex and violence; its poor initial reception and subsequent success, which included 10 Academy Award nominations and two wins; and the popularity of the film’s costumes. In her costume designs for Bonnie and Clyde, Van Runkle ignored the advice of legendary costume designer Edith Head, who suggested the liberal use of chiffon, and instead chose to represent the outsider status of Faye Dunaway’s character, Bonnie Parker, by mixing vintage pieces with bias-cut, mid-length skirts in crepes and tweeds. Parker’s easy style and tomboyish chic appealed to many young women of the time, who were quick to adopt the styles Van Runkle imagined for the alluring outlaw. In fact, journalists were reporting on Van Runkle’s influence on fashion trends as early as January 1968, less than six months after the film’s initial release.
In addition to her drawings for Dunaway, two sketches for Warren Beatty’s character, Clyde Barrow, show Van Runkle’s bold characterizations. One depicts Beatty’s character in two lush color palettes, and the second shows a single costume worn four different ways. Van Runkle also relied on words to communicate her ideas. Here she has noted that Clyde is “all dressed up to rob a bank,” thus adding to his back story as a poor young man whose notoriety rested in part on his image.
Included among Van Runkle’s drawings for the film are renderings for most of the main characters, including those played by Estelle Parsons, Michael J. Pollard and Gene Hackman, as well as minor characters identified as Okies. Together, Van Runkle’s drawings round out a rich visual history that contributed to the film’s success and led to her first Academy Award nomination for Costume Design.
The papers of Theadora Van Runkle are housed in the Academy’s library and can be searched here.
Catch Bonnie and Clyde on a Theadora van Runkle double feature with The Godfather Part II on January 24 as part of the Academy film series, Two Sides of a Costume Designer.