There are certain movies you can’t help but return to, time and time again. For me, Almost Famous is such a filmic breed - up there with When Harry Met Sally, and really anything written by Nora Ephron.
Though it was only upon my (at a guess) 15th viewing recently I noticed how much the currency of cool is mentioned. Its hypnotic power and near impossibility to truly define. This probably explains my decade-long fandom with Cameron Crowe’s storyboard; a semi-autobiographical portrait of life on the road as a teenage music journalist. More specifically, though, with Penny Lane - the mysterious, self-identifying “Band-Aid”, played by a then 19-year old Kate Hudson.
Her presence, style, everything, exhales an air of cool (Penny’s sartorial prowess will sprout at least a dozen times on the autumn / winter runway). 70s cool! Groupie glam! Gypset! Less a trend, more a mood. An ineffable combination of looking both distinctly dramatic and like you’ve spent less than 60 seconds getting ready.
To mark the film’s 20th anniversary this year, costume designer Betsy Heimann (also responsible for creating iconic uniforms in everything from Reservoir Dogs to Pulp Fiction), takes us behind the seams.
After conversations with Cameron [Crowe] it became clear that he wanted her to wear a coat, and this coat would be her signature piece. It was her cloak and her cocoon, through which she would emerge as Penny Lane. If she put that coat on she was ready for anything. Those were the parameters. I was inspired by an opera coat in the 1920s, which was almost cocoon-shaped. The fur collar was a rug from Urban Outfitters that I cut up. We spent a long time figuring out the right colour, so it was good with Kate’s skin tone. I bought a lot of those rugs. The coat itself was upholstery velvet fabric - heavy weight, for putting on your sofa basically.
I chose to create and present [the clothes] as found objects. 75% of the whole movie was [made up of] bespoke costumes. The main thing I wanted to keep original were the blue jeans. Everybody was wearing authentic Levi’s [in the 1970s], so I went vintage shopping in Los Angeles and Seattle for those. Some of the great rockers I’ve had the fortune to brush up against are still looking for those old Levi’s. Back in the day, 501 Levi’s would shrink to fit, so you’d get yourself a brand new pair and throw yourself in the ocean or in a pool, get yourself all wet and those jeans were moulded to you. Those were your jeans.
Kate [Hudson] wore two vintage pieces in the movie; one was a little embroidered blouse where she’s dancing around the room. That was a Hungarian blouse; very free and easy. I had a lot of vintage fabrics sourced for the film [and] most of the time there would be barely enough to make those skimpy little tops she wore. Lucky for me that bare midriff was [a look] in the late 60s/early 70s.
The script is my bible, my path. When you read a script you have clues. So at one point, she [Penny] says something about going to Morocco and being a different person. It’s obvious to me that calls for a different look. She’s grown up a little bit. I’m always asking who are these people? Where are they? Where are they going to be tomorrow? What’s in their closet? Why does Russell say to her, try to pack a little lighter this time? So you think, 'OK, she’s going to Morocco to be a different person.' It’s all mysterious…She probably went to a thrift store to get that black dress, or maybe she borrowed it from her mother - who knows?
The movie has a great deal to do with the iconography of the fashion. She [Penny Lane] was a beautiful, young girl who tried to smile and laugh her way though some pretty painful experiences. Doesn’t that resonate with everybody? I made these really sheer blouses for her, and there’s this one with ruffles down the front, that she wears in the scene when she’s being really vulnerable, and says “What kind of beer?” There she was. No coat on. It’s so transparent. The clothes are classic - it’s not like a wide-shouldered, 70s look. It’s real. I like to keep it real. I say that all the time…”Keep It Real!”
Emulation is a terrific word. Imitation is tricky. So many people have tried to imitate the look I gave to Reservoir Dogs, for example. It would be better to emulate that, to be inspired by it, then take it to a place where it feels like you. Aren’t we all just human beings trying to be comfortable in our own skin? There’s no how-to. Let’s say you put on that exact coat that Kate Hudson wears in the film. You might go, “Oh My God, this is overwhelming me! This thing weighs a ton! I wanna wear something a bit lighter...” Great. It’s a feeling, you know? Just take it to a place where you feel comfortable.