As the forthcoming Elvis biopic starring Austin Butler and directed by Baz Luhrmann is due to hit screens in June, Penny McCormick looks back at Elvis Presley’s style file and famous fans …
“Before Elvis there was nothing,” John Lennon famously declared. However, Elvis Presley didn’t invent rock ‘n’ roll. He created an art form – an intoxicating blend of rhythm and blues, mixed with gospel and hillbilly music that propelled rock and roll to the forefront of popular music. His fans range from presidents to fellow musicians – among them Bob Dylan, Jon Bon Jovi and Bruce Springsteen, who admitted “Elvis is my religion. But for him, I’d be selling encyclopaedias right now.” Bill Clinton proclaimed: “It’s always been my dream to come to Madison Square Garden and be the warm-up act for Elvis.” Boris Yeltsin apparently listened to Are You Lonesome Tonight? during times of stress, such as in August, 1991, when he prevented a coup by standing on top of a tank. One of Deborah, Duchess of Devonshire’s biggest regrets was not visiting Graceland, Elvis’s home in Memphis, Tennessee, the best-known private residence in the world and, after The White House, is the most visited in the US.
Indeed, when Elvis famously visited The White House in 1972, a strait-laced President Nixon looked him over and commented, “You dress kinda strange.” Elvis was wearing a gold-buttoned peacoat-style jacket draped over his shoulders, a shirt with an outrageous Cuban collar (to match his sideburns) and one of his signature belts with an oversized buckle. “Well, Mr President,” Elvis is said to have replied, “You got your show, and I got mine.”
What Nixon failed to recognise was that Elvis had carefully cultivated an image that reflected the freedom and excitement of his music. Over three decades he was literally clothed in controversy. In the 1950s his wild outfits insulted post-war conservatism and liberated teenage America, yet showed his love of fashion. “My favourite hobby is collecting these really cool outfits and I’d almost rather wear them than eat,” he once declared. He popped up his shirt collars and preferred high-waisted pegged trousers, two-tone shoes and loose-fitting suits. Unlike the men of his era he was comfortable wearing colour, pioneering bubblegum pink and black. He happily clashed patterns. He paired sports coat with dress pants, bright green jackets with polka dot shirts and wore tuxedo jackets without a tie. A decade before the Dandy revolution of the 1960s, Elvis dazzled with colour, silk and lace, carrying it off with nonchalant aplomb.
Elvis’ costumes spearheaded gender fluidity, paving the way for Harry Styles’ hot pink suits and Alessandro Michele’s Gucci muse, Jared Leto.
When he started making money Elvis had his shirts made bespoke – adding elastic to the cuffs and elbows to give the sleeves a more billowing look. He got his grandmother to embroider his shirts with distinctive details, which mirrored his singular jewellery. Though this became increasingly excessive, it started with his “TCB” (“taking care of business”) signet ring, a deft bit of personal, and later profitable, branding. As Tommy Hilfiger put it, Elvis became “the first white boy to really bling it up”. The gold suit he wore for the album 50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong, which cost $10,000, was the influential forerunner to rap and fashion’s love of bling (cf Tupac, Bruno Mars and Versace). As for his stage wear, throughout his career Elvis was dressed by an impressive list of tailors and designers. In Memphis, the Lanksy Brothers designed his iridescent silk shirts, box jackets, and straight trousers before he was dressed by Hollywood’s finest – from the flamboyant Nudie Cohn, the Rat Pack tailor Sy Devore and the Oscar-winning designer Edith Head.
In the 1970s, Bill Belew created Presley’s most iconic image – the white jumpsuit – originally a modest design based on a karate gi. Starting with a few tassels and beading, the suits developed into works of rhinestone-encrusted art featuring tigers, eagles, peacocks, flames and rainbows. These costumes represented his patriotism, his Native American ancestry and his passion for martial arts. They also spearheaded gender fluidity, paving the way for Harry Styles’ hot pink suits and Alessandro Michele’s Gucci muse, Jared Leto. Another defining fashion moment was Elvis dressed head-to-toe in leather for the 1968 Comeback Special concert – Bono, Robbie Williams and Lady Gaga have all worn interpretations of this leather suit, as relevant today as it was then. I can’t wait to see how Oscar-winning costume designer Catherine Martin recreates this iconic wardrobe in the forthcoming Elvis biopic starring Austin Butler, directed by her husband Baz Luhrmann, to be released on June 24. I predict a rock ‘n’ roll summer.
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