Everyone has a personal Elvis. He is there for all of us, lodged in the collective unconscious, one of the few human beings who can legitimately be called an icon, although it is not always certain what.
There is the Elvis of the musical, the Elvis of the races, the Elvis of the sex symbol, the Elvis of Las Vegas, the Elvis of the Mississippi, the Elvis of rockabilly, the Elvis of Hollywood, the Elvis of Warhol, the Elvis imperial and the Elvis imitator. There’s also Elvis’ warning: the bloated, pill-addled man died of exhaustion at 42.
First there is Elvis, the legend, a man whose humble origins and meteoric rise have been rehearsed so often that the details barely seem to describe a human being who breathed the same air as the rest of us. Resurrecting that figure is no easy task, and thus, for many, the Elvis of Baz Luhrmann’s dreamily overwrought historical biopic “Elvis” will inevitably come up short. How could it not be so? Capturing Elvis is like describing a quasar, a remote and intensely luminous object from an early universe.
Four and a half decades have passed since Mr. Presley’s death, nearly 87 years since he was born in a modest frame house in Tupelo, Mississippi. Yet somehow he remains as potent a figure as ever. He is instantly identifiable and simultaneously dark, a symbol of the working class South from which he emerged; a pop world that he transformed; a culture of erasure that even now leaves in question how much of Elvis was his own creation and how much borrowed from black culture that remains the barely recognized American mother lode.
There is, more simply, Elvis, a creature of style and fashion, and that Elvis should be easier to pin down. Yet even here, Elvis remains tantalizingly elusive, the person inside the clothes stubbornly clinging to the mystery of him. While we can’t know with much certainty how Elvis came to be and his indelible image of him evolved, we can at least trace what he was wearing.
At first there were surprisingly conservative stage suits and baggier jackets than was customary in the 1950s, though less for style than to accommodate Elvis’ outrageous pelvic gyrations.
As his fame grew and club dates turned into arenas, visibility demanded of him greater extravagance. One result was a nearly radioactive gold lamé suit that his manager, Colonel Tom Parker, commissioned from rodeo tailor Nudie Cohn and which appeared on the cover of the 1959 album “50,000,000 Elvis Fans Ca n’t Be”. Wrong.”
Anyone who has visited Graceland knows that Elvis’s domestic tastes (Jungle Room aside) tended more toward bourgeois gentility than his public image would suggest. True, he owned many flashy cars (by some accounts, more than 260 during his brief lifetime), a private jet, and had a penchant for diamond-encrusted bubblegum rings and pendants (most famously with his Taking Care logo). of Business, TCB).
But the outfits we most often associate with him, which have influenced artists as different as Tupac Shakur, Bruno Mars and Brandon Flowers and continue to inspire, if that’s the word, designers from brands like Versace, Cavalli, Costume National and Gucci, were a far cry from the bathrobes Elvis wore at home.
If that lamé suit, more than any other single garment, argued for Elvis as a clothing maverick, pushing the boundaries of convention in an era of Brooks Brothers, when the lines of demarcation between the sexes were clearly drawn, it was undoubtedly his pompadour that established him as a radical genre. American men in monochrome Brooks Brothers of the 1950s didn’t wear shiny gold suits. Surely they didn’t dye their hair.
Yet clearly influenced by black musicians like Little Richard, whose tousled tresses even today look radically and audaciously queer, Elvis didn’t just dye his hair, he trained it into curlicues, which he then waxed and pomaded into immobility. lacquered.
Without the pompadour, no Elvis costume can be considered complete. Impersonators would never consider going without Elvis’s patent leather hairstyle. Austin Butler’s hair in Mr. Luhrmann’s film is blackened like Elvis’s. What each has in common with the other is hair that in its natural state is some shade of blonde.
In civilian life, and as his income increased, Elvis became an early adopter of fashion. Like many hipsters and countless musicians of the late 1950s, he preferred Cuban-collared shirts, wide-leg pleated pants, slip-on loafers and blouson jackets, a style revisited by menswear brands like Prada. with the regularity of a clock.
Unlike millions of Americans then and now, Elvis rarely wore jeans outside of the movies he starred in once Hollywood discovered the handsome, working-class southern hero and put him to work making 31 movies in 13 years. Elvis didn’t like denim, it was said, because it was too strong a reminder of his humble origins.
Because Elvis was in some ways less an innovator than a force magnifier, it seems like a stretch to acknowledge him, as many do, with the original trends of floral print aloha shirts (which came into fashion after the release of his 1961 film “Blue Hawaii”). ”) Or skintight cowhide suits, like the black leather one he wore for a 1968 TV comeback special, or a rockabilly style already well-entrenched among fans of the rural subculture by the time he rose to fame.
Yet for anyone tracing the lineage of menswear styles, whether it’s snap-button denim shirts, lace-up shoes, argyle socks, loafers or toupees, Elvis is inevitably up in the pedigree.
Is it perverse to find magnificence in the most parodied element of Elvis’s stylistic evolution? That is, his famous jumpsuits, the default costume for impersonators and trick-or-treaters on Halloween. Typically treated as sartorial jokes, these jumpsuits symbolize the star at his peak, that moment before his fame and his life came crashing down on him and he crashed to earth. Those shimmering garments with their embroidery and patterns of nailheads or glued-on gem barnacles were precursors to the stage wear worn by all the pop stars (Prince, David Bowie, Harry Styles) who once invited their fans to feast their eyes. eyes with him erotically.
Interestingly, at its core, unisex one-pieces were a practical solution devised by Bill Belew, Elvis’s costume designer, to allow him to move freely onstage while maintaining his silhouette. The raised collars, like the lace ruffs of a Spanish infanta in a Velázquez portrait, not only framed Elvis’s classic profile, but also seemed to support his noble head.
However, they did something else. Dressed in those jumpsuits, Elvis not only cemented an image destined to endure far beyond that of any other pop star, but made him almost godlike.
If proof is needed, just watch the final concert, in 1977. Though bloated and paunchy, out of breath and with rivulets of sweat running down a pancake-studded face, his trademark hairdo stiff as a wig, Elvis nonetheless wakes up. himself from a lackluster opening number. to reach a state similar to exaltation.
Dressed in his white Mexican Sundial suit, adorned 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, followed by a stagehand with a bunch of props. snow white scarves. wrapped in one arm. One by one, the assistant hands them to Elvis, who places them briefly around his neck to consecrate them before tossing them to the eager supplicants.
At this point, Elvis has pushed the boundaries of fashion and stardom. And while he would soon be dead, at that very moment Elvis Presley was in awe.