When Elvis burst onto the scene in the 1950s, he revolutionised not just the sound of America, but also the style. Zoey Goto, author of the new book ‘Elvis Style: From Zoot Suits to Jumpsuits’ – out now – looks at The King’s key style moments – from his youthful hand-embroidered rockabilly wear, to his diamond encrusted Caddy.
Elvis gets kitted out in denim for his role in ‘Jailhouse Rock’, 1957. In his off-screen wardrobe, Elvis tended to avoid denim as it reminded him of work-wear and the poverty of his childhood. However, by endorsing a range of jeans for Levi’s and through his movie wardrobe, Elvis had become, in the collective mind at least, the archetypal 1950s denim wearer.
By the mid 1960s, Elvis was having a major image crisis. By starring in a string of predictable musical comedies, Elvis had become alienated from the youth culture that he had previously had such a hand in creating. Yet just as others were writing him off, Elvis set the record straight with the ’68 Comeback Special concert – donning this white, plantation suit for his legendary career resurrection.
Elvis sporting his famous pompadour hairstyle. The timeless style continues to influence contemporary performers, with Bruno Mars (who, incidentally started his show business career as an Elvis impersonator), Justin Timberlake, Rihanna and Gwen Stefani adopting variations of Elvis’ rebel ‘do.
Elvis had a thing for cars and is thought to have brought over 270 during his lifetime. This 1960 Fleetwood Limousine was the most lavish Elvis-mobile, with the exterior covered with 40 coats of crushed diamonds and white fur carpeting inside. The ‘King of Kustomizers’ George Barris had created this pimped up beauty at a cost of $65,000 – the equivalent to almost half a million dollars now.
Nixon meets Elvis in 1970 and is persuaded to honour the singer with a badge from the Federal Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. “You dress kind of strange, don’t you?” the president was reported to have remarked. “Well, Mr President, you got your show and I got mine,” Elvis replied. The bizarre meeting is currently being playing out on the big screen with the cinematic release of ‘Elvis & Nixon’.
The ‘Concho Jumpsuit’, an early example of Elvis’ legendary Las Vegas stage-wear. Victoria Broackes from the V&A Museum observes that Elvis’ style-defining jumpsuits were originally created for their functionality. “Elvis was a black belt in karate, and wanted to incorporate karate moves into his performance: the jumpsuit made this possible,” she said. This jumpsuit was worn during the Golden Globe Award-winning documentary ‘Elvis: That’s The Way It Is’ in 1970.
Elvis gave these fantastically egocentric jeans to his girlfriend Linda Thompson in the 1970s. Their names run down the front of each flared leg in sparkling rhinestones and the back pockets are branded with Elvis’ TCB logo.
Elvis understood the power of branding. In the 1950s he was the first star to market himself as a product, with an avalanche of Presley endorsed ranges. By the 1960s Elvis had designed his personal TCB logo (Taking Care of Business) that he splashed across his home interiors and the jewellery worn by his entourage. Decades later, stars such as Pharrell and Kanye would be follow in his self-branding wake.
Elvis having his collar popped in the 1950s. Although Elvis never worked with a fashion stylist, he gratefully took advice from the designers who dressed him. Bernard Lansky of the Lansky Brothers store in Memphis is said to have been the first person to turn up his collar, a look that became one of Elvis’ style trademarks.
A bachelor no more – on the May 1, 1967, Elvis wed his long-term girlfriend Priscilla. The eight minute long Las Vegas ceremony was followed by a $10,000 wedding breakfast that included Southern fried chicken and a press conference. The newlyweds are pictured here about to be whisked off in Frank Sinatra’s private jet for their Palm Springs honeymoon.
Elvis hits the surf for his role in ‘Blue Hawaii’, 1961. The film’s commercial success became both a blessing and a curse for Presley, providing a blueprint for future films that became increasingly creatively stifling. “The problem is, they keep trying to make ‘GI Blues’ and ‘Blue Hawaii’ over and over again, and all they do is move the scenery around a little,” Elvis accurately observed.
Elvis wearing the outfit that heralded a new chapter. On March 24, 1958, a date that was christened ‘Black Monday’ by the fans and media, Elvis was inducted into the army. It was a major turning point in Elvis’ career, marking the transition from rockabilly rebel into family entertainer – or, as John Lennon said in a slightly more pessimistic tone, “Elvis died the day he went into the army”.
Elvis’ taste for bling stage-wear was exhibited in 1957 when he sported a sensational gold suit worn for the album cover of ‘50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong’. What the outfit lacked in subtlety, it made up for in impact – as Elvis showed the world that the poor boy from Tupelo was ready to take his throne as the golden boy of entertainment.
Elvis’ early stage performances provoked both outrage and admiration. A young Roy Orbison described the awe with which he watched his first Elvis concert in 1955. “First thing, he came out and spat on stage. In fact he spat out a piece of chewing gum… his diction was real coarse like a truck driver’s…I can’t overemphasize how shocking he looked and seemed to me that night”.
Elvis’ hot pink shirt. “In the 1950s my father introduced pink and black into Elvis’ wardrobe, at a time when it was considered feminine,” recalls Hal Lansky of the Lansky Bros. store, where Elvis was a regular customer. “Back then ‘real men’ wouldn’t wear pastel pink but it soon became a 50s thing, with pink clothing, Cadillacs and flamingo motifs becoming popular”.
As a young upstart musician, Elvis was keen to forge a visual identity using his shoestring budget. Also looking for ways to stand out from the crowd, Elvis would ask his grandmother, Minnie Mae, to customise his clothing. Endearingly, she hand-stitched this Lansky Bros shirt with Elvis’ initials and a record motif.
Zoey Goto’s book is out now.