In “Elvis,” there are three transformational moments that define Elvis Presley (Austin Butler) as the King of Rock: his rambunctious 1954 performance at The Louisiana Hayride, where he was discovered by the innovative yet overprotective manager, Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks); his surprising ’68 NBC “Comeback Special,” where he rediscovered his rock ‘n’ roll roots; and the start of his legendary run at Las Vegas’ International Hotel, where he launched his final, glam era in ’69.
What Butler wears during each of these transformational moments — a pink-and-black suit, tight black leather-on-leather outfit, and white jumpsuit, respectively — helps convey Presley’s rock persona in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s. “What I came away with about Elvis is what a singular star maker he was, and how unbounded by convention he was,” costume designer Catherine Martin told IndieWire.
“You just don’t think of [his birthplace of] Tupelo [Mississippi] as being a style center of the world,” said Martin, who also served as producer and production designer on the delirious biopic directed by her husband, Baz Luhrmann. The four-time Oscar winner said she was interested in Presley’s ability to blend elements of the blues, country, gospel, and rock into a personal aesthetic, the swagger of which masked a persistent stage fright. She was also intrigued by the blurring of his on and off stage wardrobes — which accounted for nearly a hundred costume changes for Butler over the course of production — and how the fearlessness of those fashions made him a stylist before there was such a thing.
It was Martin’s task as costume designer to bridge the three decades of Presley’s career. “If you look at his clothes, the ’50s is rebellious,” she said. “Then he goes into the Army and is reformed into a kind of slick ’60s movie star, wearing a more classical wardrobe. I think maybe he lost his way a bit during his filmmaking period, but he was the highest paid film actor for part of that period and he was always on the cutting edge of something.
“Then he breaks out in the ’68 special and you see a reinterpretation of the quintessential rebel of the ’50s biker with the black leather jacket and pants,” Martin said. “And then in the ’70s he becomes a superstar and superhero in a white jumpsuit. So he tracked that trajectory in his own clothes. If you think about it, Elvis costumed himself perfectly for each part of his life and he made good choices for making the story of his life.”
The Louisiana Hayride
The loud pink-and-black suit that Presley wears in the film during his shocking performance at The Louisiana Hayride was not based on his actual wardrobe. It’s a composite of what he liked to wear, the type of ensemble influenced by the Black performers of the day who frequented Memphis’ Lansky Bros. — the current owners of which Martin spent time with during a research trip to Tennessee.
“The pink suit was based on looks that Elvis actually wore in the late ’40s through the mid-’50s and that Lansky specialized in,” Martin said. “Elvis liked the black-and-pink combination and repeatedly wore lace shirts through the ’50s along with black-and-white shoes.”
Because Luhrmann wanted contemporary audiences to be clear about Presley’s defiant nature and sexuality, they used elements from his wardrobe to amplify those storytelling points. Martin said Luhrmann favored the cardigan-like shape of the Hayride suit’s shirt/jacket hybrid “because it allowed Elvis’ overtly sexual moves to really read because it’s unstructured and floppy.”
“The ’68 Comeback Special”
The Bill Belew design that helped Presley reclaim some of his biker edge in front of millions of TV viewers in 1968 was the hardest for Martin to get right because the “Comeback Special” sequence was shot early on and there was so much attention focused on it. “It was a watershed moment because we realized that we just made a carbon copy of the suit and it became caricatured,” said Martin. “So we needed to find a synergy between Austin’s physicality and his interpretation of Elvis — a balance between historical reproduction and the actor’s physiognomy.”
They adjusted the height of the outfit’s Napoleonic collar, the length of jacket, and the scale and placement of the pockets. “It’s imperceptible, but what it means is that the clothes are working with Austin, instead of his wearing a kind of Halloween costume,” Martin said.
The Las Vegas Years
The array of jumpsuits that Butler wears for the Vegas gigs were also designed to fit his physicality. Martin and her team collaborated with Kim and Butch Polston of B&K Enterprises in Charlestown, Indiana, who faithfully recreated Presley’s ’70s stage costumes with the permission of Belew. This meant that they were able to replicate the look of the originals, including the complex chain-stitch embroidery all done by Gene Doucette, who personally embroidered Presley’s own jumpsuits.
Even though the flamboyant Liberace also wore jumpsuits (and encouraged Presley to ditch his rockabilly image in favor of flashier getups), Martin said, “You don’t associate jumpsuits with anyone else but Elvis. And what an extraordinary style choice and a really interesting gender nexus — but you never think that he’s not inherently masculine. And he did play with those kind of contrasts throughout his career.”
The first white jumpsuit that Elvis dons was the most important to Martin. “This was the apotheosis of his power as a stage animal,” she said. “We had to find the right fit, the right detail of pants, broadness of the shoulders. We made subtle changes but needed to make it feel germane to Austin as opposed to being slavish to Elvis.”