NFSA curator Jenny Gall does a deep dive into costume designer Catherine Martin's epic undertaking for Baz Luhrmann's ELVIS (2022).
Catherine Martin’s favourite phrase when working on a new movie is ‘try harder’. It’s used encouragingly for her team in the workroom and also to motivate herself when she believes that things can be done better. Good enough is not good enough for the 4-time Oscar-winning Australian creative. Nowhere is this dedication to meticulous detail more evident than in Baz Luhrmann’s 2022 film ELVIS.
ELVIS is the biggest creative venture for Bazmark to date. Martin and her colleagues had to assemble over 9,000 individual extras outfits encompassing shoes, underwear, socks, pants and jackets for the large concert scenes – all laid out in advance on a giant Warner Bros sound stage on the Gold Coast. There were 90 costumes for Elvis alone.
The production had two different workshops – one devoted to the background cast and one for the main cast. The team worked around the clock – especially on days featuring crowds of extras – to finish, prepare and dress the cast with the appropriate costumes. To comply with COVID health procedures, there needed to be one-third more clothes in stock to allow for disinfecting worn garments at mass fittings of extras.
In making a biopic about the legendary King of Rock'n’Roll, it was imperative to capture Elvis' persona at different ages and during the eras in which he lived. This meant adapting authentic clothing designs to suit the storyline, rather than creating mere reproductions of period costumes which could risk looking like the outfits of a low-budget Elvis impersonator. As Catherine Martin told The Curb, ELVIS provides lots of visual touchstones that connect the audience with familiar images of the star to tell his story, rather than attempting a strict chronological biography.
‘If you have good costumes, you should be able to read more into it than just that person is wearing a red shirt,’ Martin says. ‘You should be able to feel who the person is and where you are’. Her focus is on integrating what the director and actor are creating into costume choices: ‘I think actors are like flowers and the clothes are the vase’.
Of the ELVIS costumes in the NFSA collection, the Mexican Sundial, or Aztec, jumpsuit best embodies the mythical aura of Elvis the King. Designed by Gene Doucette, this was the suit that Elvis wore during the filming of the 1977 TV special Elvis in Concert as well as in his last concert (in Indianapolis, 1977), which concludes the film. The suit features the Aztec sundial, symbolising the eternal power of the Sun God. The decoration on the legs is a tribute to the New York Chrysler Building – a more contemporary icon representing progress and striving upward for the stars, as Elvis did.
Elvis’ costumes define the trajectory of the narrative. To make every costume resonate with a chapter in the storyline, Catherine Martin subtly modified the iconic looks to better suit lead actor Austin Butler’s physique and tweaked the timeline for when they appeared in the film. Martin and Luhrmann were striving to portray the soul of Elvis’ life story and to celebrate the humanity of the man – both his good and bad traits. The arc of Elvis’ life is one of gradual mental and physical decline. As Martin explained to ScreenHub, ‘We go from purity to more colour and crazier embroidery, underlying that spiral'.
For the crucial scene in the movie when Elvis makes his debut on the Hayride stage in Louisiana, he wears a pink, light woollen suit jacket with black accents on the shoulders, black piping on the jacket edge, cuffs and collar, and black buttons on the front of the jacket and cuff of each sleeve.
He also wears pink, light woollen trousers with a pink-and-black narrow snakeskin belt with brass buckle, and a black lace, short-sleeved button-up shirt. The outfit is anchored by a pair of 2-tone brogues and pink-and-black argyle-pattern socks. Fluidity, matched with the striking pink fabric, is the key characteristic of this outfit.
In conservative society during the 1950s, the colour pink when worn by a man could be interpreted as effeminate. But with the addition of driving rock'n'roll music and writhing dance moves on stage, the visual message was provocatively masculine. Here is a man who is bending gender roles, singing songs strongly influenced by Black music and manipulating expectations with his erotic dance moves to create an emotionally charged, unforgettable performance. The legend of Elvis is born.
Hank Snow, played by David Wenham, required a costume that would define him as the king of the Hayride music scene and feature the eye-catching glitter and appliqué that Elvis would adopt and take to new heights in decorating his outfits throughout his rise to fame. The frog on the ‘Nudie Suit’ embodies these ideas spectacularly.
The Nudie Suit is named after its creator, Nuta Kotlyarenko, also known as Nudie Cohn. Nudie was born in Kiev, Ukraine in 1902 and moved to the USA to escape tsarist Russia.
Mixing folk themes, vibrant contrasting colour schemes and a form-fitting cut, the Nudie Suit plays with masculine and feminine decorative ideals – a style trait Elvis loved to exploit in his clothing.
The yellow shirt was made by Rockmount Range Wear and has embroidered details featuring a wagon and cactus motifs customised with diamantes by the ELVIS costume workroom. A pink scarf is tied at the collar.
The suit is a 2-piece green woollen Western-style ensemble with shawl collar, frog and waterlily motif in appliqué with hand-painted details and bejewelled with multi-coloured diamantes.
The black belt has a silver-and-yellow Western buckle and a fine pair of cowboy boots complete the outfit.
The Blue Wheat jumpsuit is an example of the costume Elvis made famous as his signature look throughout his reign at the Las Vegas International Hotel. In real life, he performed in this jumpsuit and cape at Madison Square Garden in June 1972. In the movie, it is worn in the International Hotel showroom ‘You’re fired’ scene, when Elvis lampoons Colonel Tom Parker (played by Tom Hanks) on stage.
It is a regal garment featuring the famous Napoleon Collar (a consistent stylistic feature of the jumpsuits) and a gold-lined cape which was used to great effect to accentuate the visual impact of his dance moves and underline his status as the King.
The costume has several parts: a pale-blue jumpsuit with high collar, deep v-neck and wide flared trousers featuring sapphires and gold filigree wheat embellishments across the torso, back, arms and sides of the legs; a white wheat leather belt with pale blue leather squares and gold square studs and hanging chain; a pale blue cape embellished with small sapphires; and a gold satin scarf.
To ensure that the costume accentuated Austin Butler’s height, Martin and her team adjusted details from the original garment – the height of the collar, the position of the pocket and the length of the embroidered details.
All the jumpsuits for the movie were manufactured by the company that made Elvis’ real costumes from this era: B&K Enterprises in Charlestown, Indiana who hold the rights to all of Bill Belew’s original jumpsuit designs. A graduate of the Parsons School of Design in New York, Belew designed Elvis Presley’s costumes and personal wardrobe from 1968 until his death in 1977. Martin commissioned 34 jumpsuits made by Kim and Butch Polston’s team and 10 of these made the final cut in the film.
The jumpsuit as a style has passed into the canon of majestic stage wear and is continually reinterpreted by contemporary pop stars such as Miley Cyrus.
‘It was incredibly important for my team and I to become familiar with Elvis’s Southern experience … to tap into the spirit of the location’, Martin told Vogue. The first of these locations to appear in the film is Shake Rag, the Black neighbourhood in Tupelo, where the Presleys lived when Elvis was a boy.
The costume worn by Australian actor Chaydon Jay as the young Elvis references the statue in Tupelo of Elvis as a 13-year-old boy. The costume comprises faded dungarees, an old shirt and a homemade lightning bolt insignia worn around his neck – the sign of Captain Marvel Jr, Elvis’s favourite cartoon character and one of the powerful symbols that recurs throughout the film as the star strives to reach his private Rock of Eternity.
And it is the star's quest for fame and immortality that is the key to Luhrmann’s interpretation of Elvis, as he told ABC Arts: ‘We could call him the original superhero. He is born of dust.’
The clothing is typical of poor working-class boys of the 1940s and its simplicity contrasts strikingly with Elvis’ later love of colour and embellishment in his clothing as the King.
A style icon in her own right, the outfits of Priscilla Presley (played by Olivia DeJonge) tell the story of a woman who moves from an adoring teenager and loyal wife to establish a life of her own after her divorce from Elvis. Martin renewed her collaboration with Miuccia Prada (which dates from the suit designed for Leonardo DiCaprio in Romeo + Juliet, 1996) and commissioned outfits from the Prada archive for Priscilla’s early life with Elvis.
Priscilla’s wedding dress, however, was reproduced by the costume team in Australia as a labour of love, with meticulous stitching involving hundreds of tiny pearl beads on the sheer sleeves and bodice of the 1960s gown. Priscilla Presley told British Vogue about her original dress, which was purchased from the department store Westwood and faithfully recreated for the film. ‘It was white, with long lace sleeves and pearl embellishments. It wasn’t extravagant, it wasn’t extreme — it was simple and to me, beautiful.’
The floor-length silk chiffon wedding dress has a mid-length train with an elaborate beaded neckline and sleeves covered with seed pearls. A white rhinestone tiara and 3-inch layered veil crowns the outfit. While the bridal scene features fleetingly in the film, the outfits of Elvis and Priscilla are so ingrained in collective memory that the small scene stands out, and the wedding outfit becomes a symbol of innocence that will transform into disillusionment over the film’s narrative.
The outfit that perhaps best epitomises the skill and dedication of the Australian team in the ELVIS costume department is the jacket and leather trousers worn by Priscilla in the Las Vegas tarmac scene, when she and Elvis are exchanging custody of their daughter, Lisa Marie, and Priscilla pleads with Elvis to address his addictions and enter rehab.
The costume comprises a mid-calf leather coat, camel-coloured leather boot-cut trousers, cream sheer lace high-neck sleeveless top and a tan leather satchel with stitching detail and real fox-fur feature. The coat needed to be created within a 2-day turnaround in the workroom. The team worked together to learn the skills necessary to piece together multiple hides and stitch decorative crocheted defining bands along the edges of the garment.
The re-creation of the outfit was based on the ensemble Priscilla wore to the divorce court in 1973, with the trousers contrasting with the previously characteristic skirts and mini dresses to represent a woman taking control and moving ahead with her life.
When asked about providing for the legacy of her costume designs, Catherine Martin is adamant that ‘it is important that work made in Australia stays in Australia'.
The NFSA is proud to be custodians of the Bazmark archive so that future generations might revel in the exceptional talent and skill of Catherine Martin and Baz Luhrmann’s shared artistic vision.
A selection of costumes and props from ELVIS were on display at the NFSA as part of the Australians & Hollywood exhibition, from November 2022 to January 2024.
Main banner: Detail from costumes from ELVIS (Baz Luhrmann, 2022), from the collection of the National Film and Sound Archive.