As viewers will come to discover with the theatrical release of ELVIS on June 23, the evolution of Elvis Presley’s fame was far more expansive than his roster of hit records and film appearances. Similarly, the most fascinating discovery for frontman Austin Butler throughout his research was actually the “context” of the rock icon’s life.
In an interview with ICON from a hotel room in Sydney, Australia, the actor recalled how the culmination of Black and country cultures informed the musical style and sartorial choices of Presley. “He becomes this prism which comes something that feels,” Butler pauses, “it explodes into the world as this new thing.”
Early on this “new thing” was satin boxy-cut blazers, cigarette pants and lace shirting. Long hair slicked back into a sort of quiff and black smudged eyeliner. A far departure from the clean cut look from the fifties. As the decades continued and Presley’s fame catapulted globally, the “thing” evolved into bright white jumpsuits, shoulder pads and bold accessories. Indeed, Presley was not only famous for his music, but his decade-defining style.
Award-winning costume designer Catherine Martin was appointed the role of conceptualising the garments, an important pillar to the film. As wife and longtime collaborator of Baz Luhrmann – she won two Academy Awards for both Moulin Rouge! and The Great Gatsby – it was a mammoth task only she could take on.
ELVIS was the result of over 90 wardrobe changes on Butler alone as well as 9,000 costumes for the extras. Where do you start? For Martin, it was building a great team behind her.
“Whether it’s Kerry Thompson who heads up the department, as the wardrobe supervisor, or Jan Hurley who was on charge of all of the extra’s styling, it’s that kind of very solid support and a collective understanding of what we’re all going for,” she tells ICON. “It’s that support that allows you to be as detailed as we were. Because without a lot of eyes, you could never ever get 9,000 costumes on extras alone, on set.”
While 9,000 costumes is certainly an intimidating number, Martin reveals it wasn’t the most challenging aspect to get right. Instead (and perhaps most fascinating) was finessing the perfect “wiggle” with costume. You know the move. The full body, hip-thrusting shake that had the women scream and the men gawk.
“That was something Baz was really focussed on – the body and how you were able to make sure that this intense sexual energy that came through movement and song emanated in the clothes,” the designer explains. It was all in the fabric and the movement.
Martin clarifies, “Trying to find a fifties look that connected people to Elvis’ punk-like raw sexuality. His shockingness, totally out of the box look that was shocking to the older generation and appealing to adolescence. Who for the first time in history, had a disposable income, who could buy records, clothes. There was a whole industry making product for teenagers. Working how to make pants that were still fifties but gave you that wiggle, the sexuality.”
Priscilla Presley’s wardrobe also required a lengthy process. With an equally iconic look – at a time of no social media – Martin wanted to ensure that her ensembles were not blatant remakes or copies. She approached the beloved Italian designer Miuccia Prada to craft the wardrobe for pieces that connected her iconic style, but were also appealing in modern times.
“Because Baz and Muiccuia in their own ways looked to the past but always translate it for the future,” she says. “We looked at all of Priscilla’s clothes and we looked at the archives and we made a synergy between the two and then we made a lot of clothes for her in-house as well.”
ELVIS releases in Australian cinemas from June 23, 2022.