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Creating Costumes for ‘Elvis’ That “Exaggerate the Wiggle”


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For Oscar-winning costume designer Catherine Martin, creating the looks for the new biopic Elvis came down to sexuality, the swerve of a hip, and a little bit of shake, rattle and roll. She says of working with director Baz Luhrmann, her husband and longtime collaborator: “Baz wanted to make sure contemporary audiences could connect to the rebel nature of Elvis Presley [played by Austin Butler] and both his innate sexuality and the sexuality of his movement connected with his body underneath his clothes. We needed to be sensitive to both the historical veracity and the meaning for the clothes that Elvis wore.” Those clothes were often, she notes, “highly controversial.”

The Warner Bros. film, due out June 24, is a tale of three decades in the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll’s life, beginning with him as a maverick crooner of the 1950s who leaves Memphis for a two-year stint in the Army. Then the film explores his life as a film star in 1960s Hollywood. In his final decade, the 1970s, the singer is a larger-than-life Vegas performer clad in an iconic jumpsuit and cape.

Presley was known for his love of pink and black suits and lace shirts in the ’50s, which first caught the eye of his manager, Colonel Tom Parker (played by Tom Hanks). Those suits were crafted for singing, sitting and gyrating to the music. “We worked on a lot of different ways to structure the jackets to allow fluidity and the sexuality to come through,” says Martin, who is also a producer on the film. “The clothes needed to exaggerate the wiggle. There was a lot of R&D involved.”

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The singer favored pink suits early in his career.

Courtesy of Catherine Martin/ Warner Bros. Pictures

For his 1968 NBC comeback special, Singer Presents … Elvis, a slim-fitting black leather jacket with a Napoleon collar (designed by NBC costume director Bill Belew), tight pants and black leather boots marked the beginning of a new look for Presley. And in a case of “God is in the details,” the NBC logo peacock appears about 30 times in the special since Presley considered it a good-luck charm. He later incorporated peacock imagery into a stained-glass window at Graceland and on a jumpsuit, complete with embroidery designed by Gene Doucette (who made many of the star’s looks in the ’70s).

Martin designed more than 90 costumes for Elvis from scratch in Australia, also working with Prada on a purple-red suit for the King and collaborating with Indiana’s B&K Enterprises, which made many of the original Vegas jumpsuits that defined Presley’s final decade. (The company still does custom work for clients.) “His capes were diabolically heavy with jewels and required physical stamina just to keep on,” says Martin. “One of his tricks to keep in shape for the stage was to rehearse with ankle and wrist weights.” One cape, decorated with bald eagles, “was floor-length,” she adds, “and he wore it for the shortest amount of time. If he had thrown it in the audience, it would have killed someone!”

And no film about the King would be complete without a display of his jewelry and watches (including a vintage Rolex King Midas that Butler wears in the film). “Elvis always had a great affinity for watches and jewelry,” says Martin, “as it was a psychological symbol of his success. The more successful he became, the more he invested in jewelry. As his career progressed, he had his personal jeweler follow him around with a briefcase of jewels.”

Martin notes that besides being the consummate performer, “Elvis was an extraordinary stylist, and he didn’t have anyone helping him. He created the looks himself, [including] how he looked on a day-to-day basis as well as onstage. He was also integral to the decoration of Graceland.”

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Martin (right) adjusting a rhinestone jumpsuit.

Courtesy of Catherine Martin/ Warner Bros. Pictures

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From left: Director Baz Luhrmann, Olivia DeJonge (who plays Priscilla Presley) and Austin Butler (Elvis).

Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

This story first appeared in the June 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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