In one scene from Elvis, Baz Luhrmann’s riotous remixing of the life of the man considered the king of rock ‘n’ roll, Austin Butler, assuming the role of Elvis Presley, is made to perform in a tuxedo with tails. He had, until then, been raising eyebrows (and heart rates) with his onstage gyrations, flying in the face of 1950s social mores—so the new look was devised to make him seem more respectable.
Returning from the set, Presley rips off his jacket, visibly bothered by the costume’s inauthenticity—and, all-importantly, how difficult it was to move in it. “I can’t sing if I can’t dance,” he declares.
In that moment, the film’s audience sees the monumental significance of clothing to the performer—an idea that costume and production designer Catherine Martin handled with the utmost care, having worked with the Elvis Presley estate and studied the holdings at Graceland, Presley’s Memphis, Tennessee home.
As Martin explains, perhaps the most remarkable element of the Elvis look—the billowing trousers, dainty lace shirts (he owned them in several colors), dandified neckerchiefs, drooping eyeliner—was that it was completely self-invented. “I think one of the things the Graceland archive allowed me to see was a world that formed Elvis,” says Martin. “Both his mother and father were products of the Depression, and his father kept every single receipt and every single check that ended up back at the bank. I saw the kind of financial simplicity that he came from, and how extraordinary his fashion choices actually are because he’s completely self-created. He lived in a time before stylists and before people helped to create the image. This was totally Elvis creating the look himself.”
As Presley’s career evolved between the ’50s and the 1970s, so too did his style. There’s Rockabilly Elvis, a fresh-faced, blue-eyed teenager with a God-given pout that sent knees buckling. There’s Army Elvis, who cut a cool figure in his nationally issued uniform. There’s family-man Elvis, a squeaky-clean, Hollywood leading man dressed in Hawaiian shirts and slicked-back hair dyed dark as shoe polish. And then there’s the version most easily remembered (for better or for worse): Vegas Elvis. In the final era of his all-too-short life—Presley died in 1977 at just 42 years old—the “Jailhouse Rock” singer zipped himself into leather jumpsuits bedazzled all over. Martin costumes all of these iterations, as well as the many characters in Presley’s life—from his wife Priscilla Presley (played by Olivia DeJonge) to his hollow-hearted manager, Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks).
Given Martin’s careful work, viewers will come away from Elvis with a heightened appreciation for how Presley presented himself. His look was scrappy, unconventional, and completely uninhibited—it took his unique sensibility to bring clashing elements into alluring harmony. “He just put things together because he thought they worked,” Martin adds. “Baz has a great saying: ‘Taste the enemy of art.’ Like when you get so self-conscious about doing the right thing, it kind of takes all the wind out of your sail. [Presley] was never worried about wearing things that skewed camp. Somehow, he transcended those things. He just thought they were beautiful and powerful and strong, and he felt good in them—and people loved seeing him in those outfits.”
Ahead of the release of Elvis this Friday, Martin talks us through her research process, the biggest challenges she faced, and the details to look out for in the film’s jaw-dropping costumes.