‘Elvis’: The stories behind 3 key costumes in Baz Luhrmann’s biopic

Oscar-winning costume designer Catherine Martin tells IndieWire how to create the outfits that signal the rise, return and rise of Elvis’ “superhero.”

In “Elvis,” there are three transformative moments that define Elvis Presley (Austin Butler) as the king of rock: his exuberant 1954 performance at the Louisiana Hayride, where he was discovered by the innovative but overprotective manager, Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks); his surprising 1968 NBC “Comeback Special,” where he rediscovered his rock ‘n’ roll roots; and the start of his legendary run at the International Hotel in Las Vegas, where he launched his final glamorous era in 1969.

What Butler wears in each of those transformative moments — a pink and black suit, a tight black leather-on-leather outfit, and a white jumpsuit, respectively — helps convey Presley’s rock persona in the ’50s, ’60s and 70. “What I take away from Elvis is how singular a star-maker he was and how independent of convention he was,” costume designer Catherine Martin told IndieWire.

“You just don’t think about [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 hilarious biopic directed by her husband, Baz Luhrmann. The four-time Oscar winner said she was interested in Presley’s ability to blend elements of blues, country, gospel and rock into a personal aesthetic, the swagger of which masked lingering stage fright. She was also intrigued by the fuzziness of his on-stage and off-stage wardrobes — which accounted for nearly a hundred costume changes for Butler during production — and how the fearlessness of those fashions made him a stylist before there was such a thing.

It was Martin’s task as a costume designer to bridge the three decades of Presley’s career. “If you look at his clothes, the 50s are rebellious,” she said. “Then he goes into the military and is transformed into a kind of 60s movie star, dressed in a more classic wardrobe. I think he may have lost his way a bit during his period. of directing, but he was the highest-paid movie actor for part of that time and he was always on the cutting edge of something.

“Then it bursts into the ’68 special and you see a reinterpretation of the quintessential ’50s biker rebel with the black leather jacket and pants,” Martin said. “And then in the 70s he becomes a superstar and a superhero in a white jumpsuit. So he went on that trajectory in his own clothes. If you think about it, Elvis dressed up perfectly for every part of his life. and he made good choices to make the story of his life.

Elvis, Austin Butler

“Elvis”

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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 black artists of the time who frequented the Lansky Bros. of Memphis — the current owners Martin spent time with on a research trip to Tennessee.

“The pink suit was based on looks that Elvis actually wore from the late ’40s through the mid-’50s that Lansky specialized in,” Martin said. “Elvis loved the black and pink jumpsuit and wore lace shirts on a number of occasions in the 50s with black and white shoes.”

Because Luhrmann wanted contemporary audiences to be clear about Presley’s provocative nature and sexuality, they used items from her wardrobe to amplify these storytelling points. Martin said that Luhrmann preferred the cardigan shape of the Hayride suit’s shirt/vest hybrid “because it allowed Elvis’ overtly sexual movements to really read because it’s unstructured and loose.”

Elvis

“Elvis”

Warner Bros.

“The 68 Comeback Special”

Bill Belew’s design that helped Presley reclaim some of his biker edge in front of millions of viewers in 1968 was the hardest for Martin to pull off because the “Comeback Special” sequence was shot early and there was so much attention focused on it. “It was a watershed moment because we realized we had just made a carbon copy of the costume and it became cartoonish,” Martin said. “So we had to find a synergy between Austin’s physicality and his portrayal of Elvis – a balance between historical reproduction and actor physicality.”

They adjusted the height of the Napoleonic collar of the outfit, the length of the jacket, as well as the scale and the placement of the pockets. “It’s imperceptible, but what it means is that the clothes work with Austin, instead of wearing some sort of Halloween costume,” Martin said.

Elvis

“Elvis”

Warner Bros.

The Las Vegas years

The range of jumpsuits Butler wears to Vegas concerts were also designed to match his physique. Martin and his team collaborated with Kim and Butch Polston of B&K Enterprises in Charlestown, Indiana, who faithfully recreated Presley’s ’70s stage costumes courtesy of Belew. This means they were able to replicate the look of the originals, including the intricate chain stitch embroidery done by Gene Doucette, who personally embroidered Presley’s own jumpsuits.

Although the flamboyant Liberace also wore jumpsuits (and encouraged Presley to shed his rockabilly image in favor of flashier outfits), Martin said, “You don’t associate jumpsuits with anyone but Elvis. And what an amazing style choice and a really interesting gender nexus – but you never think it’s not inherently masculine. And he’s played with those kinds of contrasts throughout his career.

The first white jumpsuit Elvis puts on was the most important for Martin. “It was the apotheosis of his power as a performing animal,” she said. “We had to find the right cut, the right detail of the pants, the width of the shoulders. We made subtle changes, but we had to make it feel relevant to Austin rather than being a slave to Elvis.

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