The Legacy of Grey Gardens

Grey Gardens has proven to be something quite rare, especially for a documentary: an instantly identifiable American touchstone. Though responses to the film were initially bemused, its irresistible charms have made it one of the most beloved and acclaimed nonfiction films ever made (it was voted the ninth greatest documentary of all time in a 2014 poll conducted by the influential magazine Sight & Sound). Moreover, it boasts a legacy that can be traced all over the pop culture landscape, from television to theater to music. Its most direct descendants are the Broadway musical Grey Gardens (2006), which earned Christine Ebersole a Tony for her performance as Little Edie Beale, and the made-for-HBO drama Grey Gardens (2009), starring an Emmy-winning Jessica Lange and a Golden Globe–winning Drew Barrymore in the roles of Big and Little Edie. Additionally, references to the Beales have appeared everywhere from the Rufus Wainwright song “Grey Gardens” (from the 2001 album Poses) to the television series Gilmore Girls, 30 Rock, and RuPaul’s Drag Race.

Perhaps the film’s legacy can be felt most fabulously in the world of fashion. Little Edie Beale has proven an influential figure thanks to her richly textured, bohemian, anything-goes style of dress, which included items made from old tablecloths and curtains, skirts turned into capes, and all manner of scarves. There have been at least two Vogue spreads inspired by Grey Gardens, and in 2007 designer Marc Jacobs created the Little Edie bag for his fall collection. Says designer Todd Oldham: “Little Edie is just a total original. I can’t say that I knocked off anything line for line, but I definitely mopped a few of her color combinations . . . It must be in her DNA, but she always had the most amazing sense of proportion. The costumes were always well-suited to her frame and shape.” And designer John Bartlett: “When I’m thinking fashion, when I’m thinking about Grey Gardens, to me, what I always take away from it and what I always want to remember is that there are no rules . . . Edie reminds us—they both remind us—that you can be beautiful any which way, as long as you are expressing yourself.”