Elvis Broke Fashion Boundaries, Too

Everyone has a personal Elvis. He’s there for all of us, lodged in the collective unconscious, one of the few humans who can rightfully be called an icon, though he’s not always sure what.

There is musical Elvis and Elvis counting race and sex symbol Elvis and Las Vegas Elvis and Mississippi Elvis and rockabilly Elvis and Hollywood Elvis and Warhol Elvis and Imperial Elvis and Elvis impersonator. There’s also Elvis’ caveat: the bloated, pill-addicted burnout died at 42.

First and foremost is Elvis, the legend, a man whose humble origins and meteoric rise have been repeated so often that the details hardly seem to describe a human who breathed the same air as the rest of us. Resurrecting this character is no easy task, and so, for many, the Elvis in Baz Luhrmann’s dreamlike historical biopic “Elvis” will inevitably fail. How could he not? Capturing Elvis is like describing a quasar – a distant, intensely luminous object from an early universe.

Four and a half decades have passed since Mr. Presley died, nearly 87 years since he was born in a modest wood-frame house in Tupelo, Mississippi. Still, he somehow remains as powerful a figure as ever. He is immediately identifiable and simultaneously obscure, a symbol of the working-class South from which he comes; a pop world that he transformed; a culture of erasure that even today leaves in doubt how much Elvis was his own creation and how much borrowed from black culture which is still the barely recognized American mother lode.

There is, more simply, Elvis, a creature of style and fashion – and this Elvis should be the easiest to pin down. Yet even here, Elvis remains incredibly elusive, the person inside the clothes stubbornly clinging to his mystery. While we can’t know for much certainty how Elvis arrived at his indelible image and evolved it, we can at least track what he wore.

At first there were surprisingly conservative stage costumes and jackets that were looser than the 1950s custom, although less for style reasons than to accommodate the outrageous gyrations of Elvis’ pelvis.

As his fame grew and club dates became arenas, visibility demanded more flamboyance from him. One of the results was an almost radioactive gold lamé suit that his manager, Colonel Tom Parker, ordered from rodeo tailor Nudie Cohn which featured on the cover of the 1959 album “50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong”.

Anyone who’s ever visited Graceland knows that Elvis’ domestic tastes — Jungle Room aside — leaned more toward bourgeois kindness than his public image would suggest. Granted, he owned plenty of flashy cars (by some accounts more than 260 in his brief life), a private jet, and had a penchant for diamond-encrusted gum rings and pendants (most famously with his Taking Care of Business, TCB).

But the outfits we most often associate with him that have influenced artists as diverse as Tupac Shakur, Bruno Mars and Brandon Flowers and continue to inspire, if that’s the word, the designers of brands like Versace, Cavalli, Costume National and Gucci, were a far cry from the bathrobes Elvis lounging in at home.

If this lame suit, more than any other unique piece of clothing, argued for Elvis as a sartorial rebel, pushing the boundaries of convention in the days of the Brooks Brothers when gender lines were clearly drawn, it was undoubtedly his pompadour that established him as a gender radical. American men in the Brooks Brothers monochrome 1950s didn’t wear shiny gold suits. Surely they didn’t dye their hair.

Yet under the obvious influence of black musicians like Little Richard, whose teased bouffant tresses still look radically and daringly weird to this day, Elvis not only colored his locks, but shaped them into plunging swirls that he has then waxed and pomaded until lacquered immobility.

Without the pompadour, no Elvis costume can be considered complete. Impersonators would never consider doing without Elvis’ patent leather hairstyle. Austin Butler’s hair in Mr. Luhrmann’s film is blackened like Elvis’. What each has in common with the other is hair that, in its natural state, is a certain shade of blond.

In civilian life, and as his income grew, Elvis became an early adopter of fashion. Like many hipsters and countless musicians of the late 1950s, he favored Cuban-collared shirts, pleated wide-leg pants, slip-on loafers and bomber jackets – a style that menswear brands like Prada are revisiting. with clockwork regularity.

Unlike millions of other Americans then and now, Elvis rarely wore jeans outside of the movies he starred in once Hollywood discovered the handsome working-class hero of the South and the set to work to make 31 films in 13 years. Elvis disliked denim, it was said, because it was too stark a reminder of his humble origins.

Because Elvis was in some ways less of an innovator than a magnifying glass of strength, it seems a stretch to attribute to him, as many do, the original trends for floral-print aloha shirts (which enjoyed a vogue after the release of his 1961 film “Blue Hawaii.””) or skin-tight cowhide suits, like the black leather one he wore for a 1968 television special, or a rockabilly style already entrenched among fans of the rural subculture when he rose to fame.

Yet for anyone who traces the lineage of men’s clothing styles, whether it’s western snap-button shirts, eyelet shoes, argyle socks, penny loafers, or bananas, Elvis is inevitably present. in the pedigree.

Is it perverse to find magnificence in the most parodied element of Elvis’ style evolution? That is to say his famous jumpsuits, the default costume of imitators and trick-or-treaters on Halloween. Usually treated as sartorial jokes, these jumpsuits symbolize the star at his peak, that moment before his fame and life crashed down on him and he crumbled to earth. These glittering garments with their embroideries and studded patterns or gemstone barnacles were the precursors to the stage outfits worn by every pop star – Prince, David Bowie, Harry Styles – who ever invited his fans to erotic feasting from him.

Curiously, unisex one-piece clothing was originally a practical solution devised by Bill Belew, Elvis’ costume designer, to allow him to move freely on stage while maintaining his figure. The upturned collars, like the lace ruffs of a Spanish infanta in a Velázquez portrait, not only framed Elvis’ classic profile, but also seemed to support his noble head.

They did something else, however. Dressed in these jumpsuits, Elvis not only cemented an image destined to endure far beyond that of any other pop star, but made him a near-deity.

If proof is needed, just look at the final concert, in 1977. Though puffy and paunchy, out of breath and with trickles of sweat streaking a stuccoed face of pancake, his characteristic hairstyle stiff as a wig, Elvis wakes nevertheless from a lackluster opening number to reach a state resembling elation.

Dressed in his white Mexican sundial costume, adorned on the front and back with an image of the Aztec sunstone representing five consecutive worlds of the sun, Elvis moves slowly across the stage like a sacred idol, dragged by a stagehand with a bundle of snowy white scarves. draped over one arm. One by one, the wizard hands them over to Elvis, who briefly drapes them around his neck for consecration before tossing it to the eager supplicants.

At this point, Elvis broke the boundaries of fashion and celebrity. And, while very soon he would be dead, at that precise moment Elvis Presley was apotheosized.

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