When Elvis Presley made broadcasting history in 1973, he was dressed in a white bell-bottomed jumpsuit, embellished with a bald eagle made from red, gold and blue studs. As the Memphis singer crooned away on a stage in Honolulu, his concert “Aloha from Hawaii” was being simultaneously broadcast in 40 different countries.
The historic event — the first ever satellite concert for a solo artist — was seen by more than 1.5 billion people. Presley wore a patriotic all-American outfit — a rebel act against fashion norms of the time with its glamorous, gender-fluid take on menswear.
Speaking to CNN Style over email, Graceland’s vice president of archives and exhibits Angie Marchese said Presley would have been aware of the “gravitas of a worldwide audience” and worked with his longtime costume designer Bill Belew to perfect his ensemble. “He told Bill, ‘I just want the suit to say America.’ This was one of the few occasions when Elvis made a special request of his designer,” Marchese said.
The iconic jumpsuit now sits in Presley’s former home-turned-museum Graceland as a highlight of an exhibition titled “Elvis: Dressed to Rock,” which features more than 100 pieces from the later stages of his career. Just like the King of Rock’s music has endured, so too has the image of him in a sparkly white jumpsuit, paired with a rockabilly pompadour coiffed to perfection.
Actor Austin Butler will appear as Presley in the movie “Elvis,” which opens in the US on June 24. In the trailer, Butler can be seen cycling through a rainbow array of jumpsuits with his arms outstretched. Baz Luhrmann, the film’s director, told IndieWire that even if newer generations don’t know Presley’s music, they know “he’s the guy in the white jumpsuit.”
The birth of the jumpsuit
Presley’s jumpsuit wasn’t his first challenge to the dominant fashion norms of the time, although his career started in the conservative mid-1950s. Zoey Goto, the author of “Elvis: From Zoot Suits to Jumpsuits,” explains to CNN over email that Presley emerged onto the scene at a time when “heritage and respectability” informed menswear and Ivy League-style suits dominated.
“The style template at that time was teaming loose, sack suits from Brooks Brothers with button down Oxford shirts, crisp club ties, cuffed pants and penny loafers,” she added.
Then Presley came onto the scene, wearing bubblegum pink blazers, crop tops and Zoot suits – an outfit consisting of a jacket with dramatically defined shoulders and oversized lapels, paired with wide legged trousers. Zoot suits were typically associated with people from minority backgrounds, with Goto suggesting Presley would likely have been inspired by Southern Black musicians wearing the outfit – further shaking up convention. “[His wardrobe] was seen as highly effeminate and suspicious by conservative society, although his fans lapped it up,” Goto explained, adding that he expertly blended masculine and feminine elements.
Presley’s pelvic thrust, heavy make-up and provocative performances would go on to upset television critics and the Catholic Church. Even Frank Sinatra would criticize rock’n’roll as Presley’s hits such as “Heartbreak Hotel” climbed the charts, telling the magazine Western World that the genre was “the most brutal, ugly, degenerate, vicious form of expression” and adding it was a “rancid smelling aphrodisiac.”
However, Presley’s rebellious swagger spoke to a newer post-war generation and young men in particular, who would begin to experiment with more flamboyant styles as the Peacock Revolution took hold in the 1960s — with Goto saying he had “paved the way” for the movement. Presley responded to Sinatra publicly at a press conference, saying: “If i remember correctly, [Sinatra] was also part of a trend. I don’t see how he can call the youth of today immoral and delinquent.”
Nowadays, the King of Rock is an undisputed cultural icon who helped redefine what it meant to dress like a man. “He made it ok for young men to dress differently from their dads,” as Goto puts it.
“He birthed youth culture by giving teenagers their own unique voice as a consumer group, with tastes and aspirations that often contrasted greatly with their parents’ values,” she continued.
As time went on, Presley moved away from music and into movies as the British Invasion took hold, with The Beatles leading the charge. But he started to fade into the background as middling to bad reviews for his films rolled in, and his music — mostly tied to movie soundtracks — slipped into irrelevance.
By 1968, Presley badly needed to redefine his image and did so at a comeback concert in Las Vegas. Dressed in an edgy two-piece leather biker outfit — evoking the rebellious spirits of James Dean and Marlon Brando — he reclaimed his place as the King of Rock.
But his sparkliest chapter was yet to come, as Presley took to Vegas for various show residencies. It was around this time Presley would begin to don his flamboyant skin-tight jumpsuits — typically with an accompanying cape and belt — created by costume designer Belew and embroidered by Gene Doucette. In a piece for the Guardian in 2010, Doucette said Belew was the ideas man behind the jumpsuits, which “allowed [Presley] to move around onstage without worrying about getting his clothing snagged on something.” Drawing inspiration from high Napoleonic collars and the needs of Presley’s high intensity, karate and dance-filled performances, the jumpsuit swiftly became his staple.
Well into his 30s at this point, the singer would go on to champion a different kind of male sensuality, proving he was still capable of pushing boundaries. “Elvis’ body-accentuating jumpsuits fell very much within the seductive fashion zeitgeist as men started to occupy the erotic gaze,” Goto said.
While Presley had jumpsuits in many colors, he appeared to gravitate towards whiter hues — with a number of them currently on display at Graceland. Goto explained that his continued use of white was a “show-biz tactic” he’d learned after watching Blues musicians in Memphis, who dressed in white amidst backing vocalists in muted hues, allowing him to stand out on stage. Marchese added his go-to color was more specifically “an off-white” shade, which appeared white under stage lights as a pure white hue would have “blown Elvis out” and made him impossible to see.
“By the time Elvis hit the Vegas stage, he’d spent a decade peeking behind the curtain of Hollywood and was a veteran of the show business world. So, he packaged up the jumpsuits as part of a larger, epic stage experience that he delivered to audiences during the ’70s,” Goto said.
Carrying on the legacy
Presley died in 1977, but his enduring legacy would go on to influence future icons, according to Goto. “He consistently liberated men to wear clothing previously considered exclusively for females … which opened the floodgates for a wave of androgynous glam rockers including David Bowie.”
Among those who followed in his footsteps are Mick Jagger, whose chest and navel-baring jumpsuits took Presley’s designs to the extreme, and Elton John, who amped up the wattage with flamboyant rainbow jumpsuits. Harry Styles even auditioned to play Presley in Luhrmann’s upcoming film and cited him as a direct influence on his gender-fluid wardrobe.
“I think (for) the people I have always admired and looked up to in music, clothes have always been a big part of the thing. Like Bowie, Elvis Presley. It’s always been part of the thing,” Styles told Dazed Magazine.
From impersonators at Vegas chapels to Disney’s Lilo & Stitch, Presley and his jumpsuit remain a pop culture icon. Auctions and exhibitions of his elaborate wardrobe are wildly popular, with a studded white jumpsuit and cape Presley wore in 1972 selling for more than $1 million last year. In 2017, a three month exhibition featuring more than 200 artifacts celebrating Presley’s wardrobe was held at the O2 in the UK with Graceland’s support.
As with Presley’s musical legacy, Belew and Doucette’s jumpsuit designs for the singer continue to hold a strong place in his fans’ hearts. From his 1974 Peacock jumpsuit, his most expensive stage outfit, which was embroidered with turquoise feathers, to his beloved rainbow-beaded Fringe suit, the King of Rock will forever hold a spot in fashion history.
“Seeing Elvis’ wardrobe connects people to him in a way that a guitar or gold record doesn’t. You can study these outfits and, in some way, feel that you are getting to know Elvis on a whole other level,” Marchese said.
“He created an image that has gone on to shape and define generations. An image that still endures today.”