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The Costume Designer Behind ‘Almost Famous’ Breaks Down the Film’s Most Iconic Outfits, From Band Aids to Bandmates

Ellise Shafer
·9-min read

Two decades after Cameron Crowe’s “Almost Famous” hit theaters for the first time, its story of a rookie music journalist traveling the nation with a band on the brink of stardom remains timeless—as do the costumes, even with their ’70s flair.

Costume designer Betsy Heimann already had an impressive arsenal of credits behind her before the film’s debut in 2000, including “Reservoir Dogs,” “Pulp Fiction” and Crowe’s “Jerry Maguire.” However, the autobiographical nature of “Almost Famous,” which was based off of Crowe’s own adventures on tour with bands like Led Zeppelin, The Allman Brothers and The Eagles, allowed Heimann to, as she puts it, “keep it real.”

She found a wealth of inspiration in Crowe’s own tour photographs, in addition to those of photographer Joel Bernstein from Neil Young’s “Time Fades Away” tour in 1973. Though Heimann handmade all of the staple pieces in the film, she trekked down the coast of California in search of vintage Levi’s 501s and 714s, and had a textile artist on-hand to make each item look like it was 30 years old.

“I made huge closets for all the actors and I would photograph them in every one of the outfits, and then I’d put them up on a board and Cameron and I would go through them,” Heimann tells Variety. “We would discuss every scene in the movie and every costume that we were looking at.”

The result was a series of outfits that have helped to make “Almost Famous” not only a time capsule of Crowe’s life in 1973, but also of fashion, even though the film was made nearly three decades later. From Penny Lane’s fur jacket to Stillwater’s tour garb, Heimann breaks down how she created each iconic look from start to finish.

William Miller’s Laid-Back Look

I saw Joel Bernstein’s photograph of one of the guys on tour with Neil, his name was Larry Johnson. Sadly, he’s no longer with us. But Larry was my inspiration, this one photo, for William. He’s standing in a backstage dressing room that’s very old-fashioned, with wood benches and wood paneling, and there he is, all alone in the corner of the room and he’s just looking into the camera sort of helpless. It was a very candid shot, not that he was ever helpless, but this was a mood that was captured where I said, “Here he is.” This particular outfit is very similar to what Larry was wearing. It was big in the day, it’s still big now, the t-shirt with a shirt over top. The only way you can tell the difference is the cut of the t-shirt and the shape of the collar on the shirt. But, at this point in the film, he’s a little more grown-up. And that’s just kind of what I was trying to slowly do through the film. I think this is a similar outfit to what he was wearing when he says, “I was there! I was there! They sold you!” And he’s like, “Look at me, I’m a man! I’m growing up. I have feelings and this is what happened.”

The Essence of Stillwater

My references for them were mainly The Allman Brothers and The Eagles. The musician as cowboy outlaw. Country rock, not metal. So I emulated a lot of pictures that I had of The Allman Brothers and The Eagles from Cameron. Billy [Crudup] has on one of those Henleys that I made which is total rock ‘n’ roll cowboy. Even this striped t-shirt [on Jeff Bebe], we made these t-shirts because they wouldn’t fit right otherwise.

Lester Bangs’ “Detroit Sucks” T-shirt

For me, Lester Bangs is the conscience, he’s the mentor in the sense that William’s mother isn’t into it, his father’s dead, and there’s nobody but Lester. This t-shirt we decided was a joke. Creem Magazine was in a town called Birmingham, Michigan, and Cameron had a picture of Lester wearing this t-shirt, so we had to be true. He was such a big influence on Cameron. He was such a good friend to Cameron. So that is a homage to the real Lester Bangs. It could possibly be sarcastic because, at one point in our research, he said that Detroit was rock ‘n’ roll’s only hope. So the fact that he’s wearing “Detroit Sucks,” I think is a joke. When it’s real, you gotta keep it real. So we made the shirt. I went online today, and they’re still selling this t-shirt and advertising it with “Almost Famous.” I don’t understand, it’s crazy.

Penny Lane’s Fur Coat – and Hat

This was my dream. This coat, this way, it fulfilled my vision completely. This coat was inspired by many conversations with Cameron, and I understood what the coat meant to Penny Lane and what the coat meant to Cameron, and what the coat should mean to Kate [Hudson] to help her with her character. And I was inspired by a drawing that Erté did in the 1920s, late ’20s early ’30s, of a woman in a type of opera coat. There was always the big fur collar and they were very cocoon-shaped, where it’s smaller in the bottom than it is at the top. I made the coat out of cut velvet upholstery fabric, and it definitely was an homage to the opera coat of the 1920s and ’30s and also an homage to Afghan coats. There was a coat made out of yak fur, and the coat would have the yak fur on the inside and the tanned hide on the outside, but it would have the yak fur cuffs and collar. And that was very prevalent in the ’70s, so I took the ’20s idea and turned it into a ’70s thing. She could play her part when she had that coat on. She’d take the coat off and she’d have this little miniature top on and she’d be so bare and vulnerable, but then she’d put the coat on and it’d be, “Okay I’m safe.”

This hat was inspired by Janis Joplin. There is a picture of Janis Joplin wearing a hat like that, so out of character for her. And Cameron said to me, “I want the hat!” He goes, “I want the Janis Joplin hat,” and I said “You got it,” and she’s wearing it. They’re just playing dress up. She’s bored. Who knows where Russell is.

Polexia in Pink

Polexia was the homage to vintage. She was very sensual… I wanted her clothes to be very body conscious, so that she could just melt right into you. So then I thought, what about those 1930s dresses, because they’re so beautiful and they were always made out of silk velvet and they were like a chemise. They were like a slip dress. And then I put the little lace collar on and I put some buttons down. Again, I took the ’30s and I brought it into the ’70s. There was a painter, I think he was from the 1800s, William Ladd Taylor is his name. And he did a painting called “Elaine the Fair.” There was something very renaissance about it, and I felt a connection with that for her, too.

Sapphire’s Rainbow Vest

This is the most fun of all! She’s leather and lace. She’s the rock chick, she’s a mother hen and she’s been there, done that. She’s in the car with Black Sabbath. They’re all out in the street, this one’s in the car. She’s wise. So I thought that it would be fun to do the feather boa thing on her. This was easier said than done, and I was so excited when it worked. We got these boas of all different colors and we cut them and made the vest shape out of muslin fabric. Then, we cut the pieces of feathers like a little jigsaw puzzle and in alternating pieces so we got that rainbow effect. We taped it down, we sewed it down and there she is. And only she could have made that work because it doesn’t have much hanger appeal. I will say, all of Sapphire’s jewelry was courtesy of Fairuza Balk herself. I thought it really worked for showing she’d been all over the world, she’d collected stuff, she’d been on the road and these were all her little trophies. She’s the only one that wore her own stuff in the movie.

Anita’s Airline Outfit

Back in the day, PSA Airlines was a real airline and this is really what they wore. We did a lot of research about this because PSA was no longer in existence when we made the film, and Cameron found out that there was an ex-flight attendant in San Diego and she still had her uniform. So there we went, off to San Diego, and collected this uniform. And she had pictures of her and her cohorts, living the life, flying PSA. When something is real in a film for me, like real research, like this stewardess, I gotta keep it real. It’s gotta be authentic, as authentic as I can be. And in this case, I was lucky. So we made the hat, we made the whole outfit, but we had the pieces. It was a very exciting moment for us.

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