The glamorous Dolly Parton will step onto the Grand Ole Opry stage on Saturday to mark her 50th anniversary as an Opry cast member — and she’s been planning her outfit for months.
In a rare, behind-the-curtain event with Nashville media in September, the Opry invited her creative director Steve Summers and production manager Rebecca Seavers to discuss all the work that goes into Dolly’s definitive look. Seated in plush and colorful chairs, they were surrounded by a gallery of 24 eye-catching ensembles that she’s worn for appearances at the Ryman or at the Grand Ole Opry House across the past five decades.
Seavers observes that she has embellished the singer’s six-inch heels with rhinestones up to the very second that the country legend (who is also her aunt) takes the stage. Meanwhile, pointing out one of the newer costumes in the exhibit, Summers confesses that he frequently buys pants for Parton – who is 5’2” — in the children’s department at Macy’s.
Get more Dolly details in this chat moderated by Grand Ole Opry tour operation manager, Laura Leigh Jones Robertson. Find out more about Dolly Week at the Grand Ole Opry.
LLJR: How did you start to work with Dolly?
RS: My mom and her are super close. My mom was working with her hair and makeup. She ran her fan club back in the ‘70s, so I grew up on tour and doing things on set for films and TV. It’s been ingrained in me that working in entertainment and being in production is what I wanted to do, because all of my family is musical and we are all creatives in some right. [My talent] is behind-the-scenes.
I love to perform and be creative, but I love putting things together, and I’ve always been fascinated with fashion and costuming. Dolly recognizes that. … When she sees somebody in her circle that has talent at something, she really wants to support that and nurture it. She really has done that for me and for Steve, for her people. I think that’s a brilliant quality that she has and that not a lot of people carry.
SS: I started working for her in 1991. I was a backup singer and dancer for her at Dollywood, her theme park. I performed there for about five years only. I started doing the sets and scenery for them and designing some wardrobe for them because I basically complained a lot about the [costumes]. … So it’s kind of an evolution of me being the whiniest person on stage. Finally they said, “Well, if you think you can do better, then why don’t you design something?” So I did, and it actually worked.
It got to be where I was performing, and I was designing the stage sets and the wardrobe for shows and I couldn’t do all of that anymore. … So I had to pick. I never enjoyed being on stage, so I went with the behind-the-scenes stuff. They made me the entertainment manager. One of my first projects that I had to do was to design Dolly’s museum. It’s called Chasing Rainbows at Dollywood. She and I got really close during that process. It got to be where I would have to take a leave of absence at Dollywood to come direct a show for her or to work with her. Finally it was like, “Just pack up, move to Nashville.” So I did.
RS: When the butterfly calls, you fly! I worked at Dollywood right out of high school. I was singing in a family show and Steve did all the costuming, and we met then. But he had known me before that. I had watched Steve at shows at Dollywood and was like, “He’s so talented and tall and beautiful.” Like, we all had a big crush on Steve. So now that he’s in the family — because he is, he’s family now — I feel connected because he’s been doing so much for Dolly, for so many years. It’s just a big sparkle family.
LLJR: Dolly had a big hand in picking some of these outfits. Tell us about Dolly’s personal touch on the exhibit here.
RS: When we first got the call that we were going to do this, we had worked with you all to pull everything that she had worn at the Opry through the years. It was a beautiful collection. Then Dolly went through it and she was like, “There’s not enough sparkle here. I want more.” That’s just true Dolly fashion. … She wanted to bring it up [a notch], so she handpicked a few of these items that were at the Chasing Rainbows Museum at Dollywood in a permanent exhibit. She was adamant. She was like, “I want those pieces there because those are my favorites. Those are important parts of my career and my life.” And so she definitely made the collection have a glow-up.
SS: I can’t speak for other celebrities because I don’t work with other ones, but she’s hands-on everything. We don’t do anything that she’s not a part of. Now there are certain parameters that we all just know to do. There’s certain things that we’re going to get accomplished that she doesn’t have to have input in. But when it comes to the public, this is just a different kind of show for her. And every show that she does, she participates in somehow. …
When you guys came to us and said, “We want to do an exhibit to go with her 50 years,” the first thing that we said was, “Well, in order to curate it, you need to show us all the pictures that you have.” All the collateral, which is what all these pictures are called, that have Dolly performing over the years, and we’ll pull together the exhibit based off of that. Then we weed through those to come up with how many cases we have and how many mannequin forms we’ve got, and what can we do to accommodate?
LLJR: Does Dolly have a lot of opinions when she sees something before it’s designed or after?
SS: Both. When it comes to the design process, it’s never as simple as saying, “OK, we’re going to make a dress.” What does she have to do in the dress? Does she have to sit in it? Does she have to stand in it? Does she have to walk in it? Is she seen with other people in it? Is she sitting in a car before she arrives in it? If she’s standing on a platform, how close is the audience to the platform? Can you see up her skirt? Does she have to sit on the stage?
Does she have to sing in the outfit? Because that determines how tight it can be. Does she have to wear a body microphone in it? Does there have to be a pocket sewn into it? Is she performing with other people? What does the backstage look like? Is she indoors? Is she outdoors? Does she have to walk upstairs to get to it? There’s a million questions that have to get asked before you ever put one thing to pen or paper….
It starts with research. If you’re going to do a TV show, Rebecca usually gets on the phone and calls the producers of the show and finds out what she’s going to have to do. You know, if you go on Jimmy Fallon, you’re going to have to do a skit. They’re going to want you to perform something or play a game with him. Well, what does that entail? So there’s all this backstory that happens before you ever start designing anything. And usually that comes in the research and that’s what Rebecca works on.
Once we get to what’s she physically going to do, then I start designing it. Once it’s designed, then I make an alternate. Then I usually make another alternate on top of that. So there’s usually three different choices. That’s where Dolly gets involved. She looks at the choices and then makes the decision as to what she wants to wear. You’ve got to keep in mind that she has spent 30 years training me how to show up with what she wants. So it’s not like there’s a lot of gray. You know, she’s very, very clear…
But then it comes into embellishments, and there’s no such thing as enough. She’ll be the first to tell you that. You know, less means less, more means add. Keep going. I tell Rebecca all the time, “When in doubt, add. Just keep adding more. We’ll get there eventually.” By the time she’s bleeding rhinestones, then I’ll know we’re done.