Coats of Many Colors
Photographers Stacie Huckeba and Madison Thorn go behind the scenes for Dolly Parton’s Behind the Seams: My Life in Rhinestones
By Randy Fox
“It costs a lot of money to look this cheap.”
It’s a great quote and one beloved by her fans and the press. The truth, however, is seldom that simple. As the new book, Behind the Seams: My Life in Rhinestones by Dolly Parton with Holly George and curated by Rebecca Seaver amply demonstrates, there’s nothing genuinely cheap about the fashions of Dolly, no matter which definition of the word you subscribe to.
Featuring Dolly’s personal reminiscences on the outfits along with 450 archival photos and new photos by Stacie Huckeba and Madison Thorn, the book is scheduled for publication in October, with pre-sales just announced. Huckeba says the book evolved from another archival project for Dolly that she and Thorn worked on.
“We started on the archival project in the fall of 2021, and in June 2022, we segued into the book,” Huckeba says. “Madison had blown me away with the way she was photographing items for the archive and her eye for detail. When I got asked to do the book, I wanted to bring her on as the full Assistant Director of Photography. Our work is very compatible, but she brings a different element. I knew she would be an essential asset.
So many outfits, so little time
With over 300 outfits going back to the early 1960s and only two and a half months allotted for the photography, the pair had to work frantically but also meticulously. “Every time we took a phone call or a Zoom meeting, we’d get off the call, look at each other, and say, ‘How are we gonna do that?’” Huckeba says. “We wore gloves all the time so we never touched the clothes with our bare hands, and because we were working with paper backdrops, we had to wear shoe covers.”
Two “set-ups” on either a dress form, a mannequin, or positioned flat on a paper backdrop were shot for each garment. In addition to positioning and lighting the outfits, the pair had to create their own “special effects” techniques.
“It was interesting to try and make these outfits come alive,” Thorn says. “Because Dolly is such a presence in and of herself, photographing the clothes without Dolly in them was like, “How are we going to make this glow?”
“Together, we came up with a lot of unique ways to do that,” Huckeba says. “We used leaf blowers, and I had an old pottery banding wheel we attached fishing line to to get the fringe to spin. We also had teeny tiny super strong magnets attached to fishing line so we could make sleeves come up or to spread out capes.”
A learning experience
With her degree in commercial photography, Huckeba had training in photographing objects in their best light. Still, most of her career has been in portrait or editorial photography — as was the case for Thorn.
“I had no experience shooting objects,” Thorn says. “When I came in as Stacie’s photo assistant on the archive project, they stuck me on shoes at first. I totally ego-tripped over the whole thing and was mad about it. They were talking about all these other grandiose artifacts, and I was stuck on shoes. I had to check myself and say, ‘These are going to be the best photos of shoes I can possibly take.’”
“And she really did,” Huckeba interjects. “I'd go through the files at night and say, ‘What the ... How can that amazing photo just be of shoes!”
Thorn notes the secret of excellent object photography is not different from any other type of camerawork. “Out of a thousand sequins or rhinestones on a dress, you pick out the one you want to make shine the most,” she says. “That's artistry in photography in general: What you want people to focus on.”
Both women say the job was incredibly satisfying and gave them greater insight into fashion and Dolly's taste, talent, and success.
“I've been wearing Chuck Taylors for about 20 years,” Thorn says, “so I didn't know anything about fashion at all. I have an appreciation of it now. It's an art form.”
Huckeba agrees, “There's a specific art form in the story you can tell through clothes. Understanding the garments, how they were made, and how Dolly used them tell very specific stories. Every time she reinvented herself, she uses clothing to formulate the narrative. So I feel it gives insight to both Dolly's talent and genius.”
Behind the Seams: My Life in Rhinestones is now available for pre-order through Dolly Parton’s website and other fine online retailers.