When talking about The King’s clothing choices, it seems natural somehow to begin at the end.
Vegas Elvis is inevitably what comes to mind when we think about Elvis Presley’s sense of style. The sequined jumpsuits, the high collars and exposed chest, those mutton chop sideburns and singular aviator sunglasses — all of it seemingly singed forever into our collective memories. The Memphis Flash’s last hurrah.
This infamous latter-day look made its first appearance, albeit in a somewhat tamer form, during Elvis’s ‘68 Comeback Special concert. Presley was coming off the back of several prolific years spent in Hollywood (he made a total of 31 films in just 13 years) but the results were proving ever more bland. He hadn’t performed in front of a live audience in seven years. A younger generation of artists had ushered in a new era of rock ‘n’ roll, a genre of which he had at one point been crowned sovereign ruler. In many ways, the King was poised to fail.
Instead, we get a ‘comeback special’ that delivers on every promise implicit in the title, in no small part thanks to Elvis’s outfit. He wore a head-to-toe black cordovan leather ensemble that managed to capture a little bit of Brando in The Wild One, a touch of Jim Morrison from The Doors, maybe even a hint of Tom of Finland, and yet somehow remained a 100% Elvis. It showed he still had it — and then some. It remains one of the defining moments in rock ‘n’ roll history and would set the tone for Elvis’s costume-like style choices both on and off stage leading into the 1970s. It wasn’t quite the one-piece jumpsuit, but he was nearly all the way there.
The all-leather combo was the creation of famed costume designer Bill Belew, who would go on to outfit Elvis for the remainder of his career. The infamous jumpsuits were his branchild too and, think of them what you will, they were expertly designed, meticulously made, and altogether unforgettable. What’s more, despite Belew’s maximalist excesses, Elvis somehow made all of it look pretty great.
His extreme late-life get-up even made its way to the White House in 1970. In meeting the notably square Richard Nixon, Elvis opted for wearing his signature sunglasses and Napoleonic collar, alongside a pea coat-like jacket with gold buttons and a matching girdle, which featured a buckle big and bright enough to be reasonably mistaken for a championship belt. ‘You dress kinda strange,’ Nixon is said to have remarked. ‘Well, Mr. President,’ came Elvis’s alleged reply, ‘you got your show, and I got mine’.
While out of context all of this seems rather extreme — which, of course, it was — it’s worth pointing out that Elvis’s particular brand of style and swagger paved the way for countless artists to follow, including Mick Jagger, David Bowie, Freddie Mercury, Elton John, and many others.
What’s more, the bejewelled jumpsuits and custom jewellery represented something of a natural evolution. Elvis always exhibited an irrepressible mixture of artistry and sensuality and his wardrobe clearly said as much, even right from the beginning.
True, there was more restraint in those early days, but even 1950s Elvis had an edge. With every unbuttoned shirt and rolled-up sleeve, the young Mr Presley was channelling the rebellious spirit of the time, as embodied by his fellow heartthrobs James Dean and Marlon Brando, among others. That said, by his own account, Elvis admitted that on stage he would wear clothes ‘as flashy as you can get them’, while ‘in public I like real conservative clothes, something that’s not too flashy’. Indeed, in many ways a young Elvis wore things that were typical of the time — with the notable exception being anything made of denim. He may have sung about blue suede shoes, but the King had no time at all for blue jeans. They reminded him of the poverty of his youth, so he never wore any unless an onscreen role demanded as much, as was the case with his memorable double denim look in Jailhouse Rock (1957).
In those early years, Elvis shopped mostly at Lansky Bros. on Beale Street in Memphis. It was here that his early look was born. Popped collars, pegged pants, sack suits, two-tone loafers — the whole rockabilly caboodle. They also outfitted Elvis for his early TV appearances and he remained a loyal customer throughout his life. Even when he died it was Bernard Lansky, the proprietor of Lansky Bros., who chose the suit and tie that Presley was buried in. ‘I put his first suit on him and his last suit on him’, as Lanksy put it.
Back then, there were always hints of what was to come. A flash of jewellery here, a splash of colour or a loud pattern there. But it was arguably in 1957 that Elvis first turned it up to eleven when he donned a gold lamé suit on the cover of 50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can’t be Wrong. It was made by legendary designer Nudie Cohn and came with a $10 000 price tag. But, despite seeming like the ultimate Elvis statement piece, it turns out the man himself didn’t much like it. He only wore it a handful of times and when the possibility of reviving the look for the 1968 comeback was floated, Presley nipped the subject in the bud saying: ‘I always hated that suit’.
Even so, Mr Presley was well known for his extravagance. Over the course of his short life he splashed out on private jets and gold-plated bathrooms, he bought in excess of 260 cars (including a limo painted with crushed diamonds), and his fondness for expensive custom jewellery was legendary (the ‘Taking Care of Business’ bling was perhaps best known, but represented just the tip of a pretty literal berg of ice). They didn’t call him the King for nothing.
The hair, of course, was another constant — albeit only in appearance, since apparently a great deal of cosmetic enhancement went into maintaining that famous mane as the years went by. It was all stagecraft to begin with anyway, since Elvis was actually a natural blond. His hair was dyed black throughout his career (an unheard of practice for men at the time) and there has been a great deal of speculation over the years as to the exact nature of his haircare routine. Some believe it was Black & White pomade that gave it the shine and structure needed to maintain that signature pompadour; others say his ’do required three different types of hair wax to achieve the desired effect, in addition to any number of tinctures administered in a daily scalp massage.
It would be all too easy given the extravagance that characterised his life — and the gulf of time separating us from the date of his death — to dismiss Elvis’s continuing influence on culture in general and menswear in particular. He single handedly changed the way men dress. From rockabilly fashion to custom jewellery, from Cuban collars to Hawaiian shirts; if Elvis wore it, you could bet everyone else would be clamoring to do the same.
He also pushed the bounds of conventional masculinity. Forever preening over his appearance with a comb perpetually tucked in his breast pocket, he also wore jewellery, makeup, and floral shirts (most memorably in 1961’s Blue Hawaii). His favourite colour was pink, which he wore often, including in a famous appearance on The Milton Berle Show in 1956 for which he donned a famous bubblegum pink jacket. But even on a much more basic level, he simply encouraged young men to take an interest in their appearance and experiment with new looks, a practice formerly seen as being all but exclusively feminine. He was spearheading gender-fluidity decades before anyone had coined the phrase.
In many ways, he was the conduit for a wave of change washing over mid-century America which swept away a culture of conformity in favour of one prioritising self-expression. And Elvis’s style was unambiguously that. An expression of individuality. An outpouring of his authentic self.
It’s a sentiment that feels disarmingly contemporary for an artist whose heyday was well over half a century ago. It seems appropriate, therefore, that Elvis Presley has returned to the headlines in recent times thanks to the release of Baz Lurman’s latest film project, a biopic about The King simply entitled Elvis. What’s more, the current menswear scene — what with its loose fits, resort shirts, accent loafers, colourful palette, and increasingly gender-bending inclination — seems to have been pulled right out of the Elvis playbook. Maybe Elvis never left the building after all.