Clothes of Many Colors: Meet Dolly’s Dresser

Some fun frippery for The Atlantan. I covet this guy’s job.

by Candice Dyer | The Atlantan magazine | December 27, 2011

Dressing Dolly Parton requires some tricks that, on the spangled surface, seem counterintuitive.

“She has such a larger-than-life personality that your brain tells you to go big and over-the-top at the outset,” says Steve Summers, the designer behind Parton’s signature rhinestones and Swarovski crystals. “But, at 5-foot-2—or 5-foot-7 in heels—she’s an unbelievably tiny person that could easily be swallowed up by her clothing,” Summers says. “So I’ve learned to start very small—refined and fitted—sticking with monochromes to elongate her, and then I add that Dolly sparkle.”

Photography by Zack Arias

Summers, 47, began sharing the stage with the famed country music star in 1991 as a singer and dancer at Dollywood. But the country music legend quickly discerned additional talents in his set-dressing. “Dolly liked my eye, so she had me design Chasing Rainbows,” he says, referring to the theme park’s hallmark museum.

Eventually, Parton sent Summers to F.I.T. in New York and appointed him creative director of Dolly Parton Enterprises—making her image coruscate on several fronts. “I read her scripts and coordinate photo shoots and interviews—anything that involves her public persona, which relies heavily on exaggeration. But she is even kinder and more modest behind the scenes than she is onstage—that part of her is very real.”

Summers divides his time between Nashville and Atlanta, where his partner, Mark Williams, heads an architecture firm. They live in Midtown and often shop at St. John Boutique because the “unconstructed suits are easy to alter.”

“Most people don’t have a clear and accurate body image,” he laments, “so they don’t know how to dress to make the most impact.” Unlike his indelibly defined employer, who remains “spectacular and such a beautiful figure to decorate.”

Summers’ Hots
Classically tailored 1950s-era suits, Prius hybrids, lunch at MetroFresh, making your own coffee

Summers’ Nots
Lateness, safari prints, ponchos, reality TV, micromanaging

Every community reels from the death of a beloved teen-ager.

When Inda Allen died at 16 from a blood clot, Bean Creek, a historically African-American neighborhood in the mountains of northeast Georgia, lost not just a scholar, athlete, fashion model, and soul-stirring vocalist, but also a symbol of hope.

Social harmonies

“Inda was way beyond her time in realizing that black and white people need to work together as a family,” says Sabrina Dorsey, who received the first scholarship from the fund established in her friend’s honor. “Because of Inda, who extended her generosity and loyalty to everybody, white and black friends could go to each other’s homes, really for the first time. She was a bridge that unified us. We were still riding separate school-buses at the time.”

The high school junior died in 1987; the White County school system did not desegregate its bus system until 1990.

Allen was quick to lend clothes, money, and comfort, and she once won a talent show by singing “We Shall Overcome” in a crystalline, a capella voice that hushed the rowdy cafeteria. She was a choir stand-out at Bean Creek Missionary Baptist Church, which established the Inda Allen Scholarship Fund to support African-American students with ties to the community’s families.

A way to heal

Administered by a board of eight members, the fund provides annual scholarships of $1,500 to a recent high school graduate; $1,000 for vocational-technical instruction; and $1,000 to a nontraditional student who is going back to school later in life. Among the largest local awards at White County’s academic banquet, they are underwritten by churches in the Sautee-Nacoochee Valley and an annual pot-luck dinner and silent auction for Thanksgiving — “when we eat together, pray together, and reflect on the past year,” says board member Nara Sellers Allen.

“Inda was academically motivated and committed to giving back to her community,” she says. “So we look for applicants who demonstrate her ideals and ambition. Part of the criteria is an essay about what education means to them and what they plan to give back. We also like for them to update us later on with progress reports, to let us know how they’re doing.”

A legacy of pride

Dorsey used her scholarship to study computer processing.

“I think Inda would be amazed and proud that, all of these years later, her memory is still helping people better themselves,” she says. “She was so dedicated to helping people. I miss what she stood for.”

Inda Allen — a beautiful memory that still lights the way, today and tomorrow