Theadora Van Runkle
To Die For
Published: December 28, 2011
Theadora Van Runkle wrought her magic in a highly visible yet often overlooked corner of the movie industry: She was a costume designer. The illegitimate product of an ill-fated relationship between Eltsey Adair and Courtney Schweppe, of the Schweppes carbonated drink family—she was born Dorothy Schweppe—Van Runkle didn’t break into the field until she was nearly 40. But she did so with a literal bang. A commercial illustrator who specialized in fashion ads, she briefly worked for an established costume designer who subsequently recommended her for “a little Western over at Warner Bros.” It turned out be Arthur Penn’s 1967 classic Bonnie and Clyde, for which Van Runkle earned an Oscar nomination.
The film’s star, Warren Beatty, had originally hoped François Truffaut would direct Bonnie and Clyde, and Van Runkle’s costuming paid homage to these New Wave aspirations. The clothing in the film was, as The Guardian put it, an “astute fusion of Texas 1932 and Paris Left Bank 1967.” Beatty as Clyde was a dandy, with a cream-colored fedora reminiscent of Pretty Boy Floyd. Faye Dunaway as Bonnie wore knee-length skirts, which subsequently had a noticeable effect on the miniskirt fad, and beret sales went through the roof after the film came out. (It’s hard to believe now, but Bonnie’s influential look was so unusual at the time that Dunaway reportedly had to be convinced Van Runkle wasn’t trying to make her look ugly.)
A self-taught designer who learned to make clothes by using patterns from Vogue, Van Runkle went on to clothe some of Hollywood’s biggest stars. Her work can be seen in films ranging from Steve Martin’s The Jerk—remember that sorry-ass bathrobe?—to Peggy Sue Got Married, with the memorable silver dress that Kathleen Turner’s character wore to her high school reunion. She brought the fringe, the lingerie straps, and the sequins to The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas and the hilarious, over-the-top Rodeo Drive outfits—quite possibly the best thing about the movie—to 1989’s Troop Beverly Hills. (We seem to remember a truly incredible red-and-black jacket with a sequined bird the size of Shelley Long’s head jutting from one shoulder.)
Van Runkle was, it appears, a fighter, willing to stand up to big-name directors for what she believed. While working on The Godfather: Part II, she decided to dress a 1958 Cosa Nostra family party at Lake Tahoe almost entirely in mohair suits. Francis Ford Coppola was not pleased; he wanted tuxedos. But Van Runkle argued that the Corleone family was trying to blend in and appear WASP-y, thus forgoing tuxedos. Coppola eventually gave in, and Van Runkle was nominated for yet another Oscar. She died on Nov. 4 from lung cancer at the age of 83.
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