How Colonel Parker tried to copyright Elvis’ jumpsuit

Humanizing a global icon like Elvis Presley is no easy feat. Consider that 25 years after his death, he still has impersonators officiating at endless cheesy Las Vegas weddings.

Part of that humanization fell to costume designer Catherine Martin, who in the summer publication Elvis showed how stylish this young Southern boy was, how original and rebellious he was in his clothes and his performances.

The riotous and colorful film stars Austin Butler as Presley, Olivia DeJonge as his wife Priscilla and Tom Hanks as his manager Colonel Tom Parker. It is directed and co-written by Martin’s husband and longtime collaborator Baz Luhrmann. The couple lives in Australia.

Martin apologizes at the beginning of our transatlantic call: It’s Luhrmann and he needs help trying to meet up with his daughter in Sydney. The conversation is so normal and soft, which belies the film’s over-the-top extravagance. “OK, bye then, love you,” says Martin, who then returns to the subject of the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll.

A sketch of an all pink "elvis" Costume.

Costume designer Catherine Martin outlined some ideas.

(Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures/Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)

Elvis was truly his own stylist, for he lived long before fashion stylists even existed. Reflect on this amazing achievement: He took over the world not only with his music, but with his looks — the ones he created himself as a working-class teenager from Memphis.

Black artists have always had a keen visual sense, and someone like Frank Sinatra adhered to fashion norms. But Elvis, for a white artist, said, “I’ll lead the charge.” Whether that was because he suffered from stage fright and had to create these larger-than-life personalities to hide behind and take advantage of, he really understood how to create one stage personality.

And so young…

yes, so young He created these looks himself. He started fashion. He gathered influences from all sorts of places and his look was really his. He had noble associates – Lansky Bros. [clothing store] or work with [costume designer] Bill Belew when they developed this high Napoleon collar and jumpsuit. Even then, Elvis had the ability to say, “Yeah, that’s a good idea, let’s move on.” And then it became his calling card.

An all black costume sketch for "elvis"

A costume sketch for “Elvis”.

(Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures/Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)

And we forget, going back about 70 years, how dangerous and menacing his whole appearance seemed at first. It might not look like it in 2022, but it definitely was in 1950’s Jim Crow South. And his clothes had a lot to do with it, not just how he wore them.

That was something Baz really drilled into us. He insisted that Elvis wasn’t turned into a cushy, fashionably simple foray into costume. It really had to be clear that he was questioning so many mores of the 1950s and threatening the status quo. Baz set the tone: We have to work within the historical confines of the 1950’s and the slang of Elvis’ wardrobe, but we know that within that slang we need to select things that show that sexuality and that rebellion.

Austin had 90 costumes. What kind of adjustment sessions did you have? How involved was he in the costumes?

Involved? I think he had post-traumatic stress disorder! We spent hours and hours together in the dressing room. On his rehearsal days he always wanted to have his fitting because he found it very tiring. Sometimes we tried on three different suits, which could take hours, and I don’t know how many overalls. He would do it after a full eight to 10 hour day of rehearsals. He would come in anyway and it’s one to four hours to work through all the clothes. Costumes/dresses are just that when they are hanging on the hanger in the cloakroom. It’s the incredible alchemy between the performer and the garment that creates the magic. Austin has this incredible alchemy.

A costume sketch of Elvis in a white suit and black shirt.

A costume sketch for “Elvis”.

(Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures/Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)

It is interesting that Elvis has always behaved in a rather feminine and extravagant manner, but in contrast to Liberace or Elton John, has always read in a strictly masculine manner. I don’t know what that is – but Austin nailed it perfectly.

Yes. I think that’s what’s so sexy. The contrast – between something flamboyant and potentially gender challenging to the eye, but the performer’s essential masculinity – I find deeply attractive. I can’t analyze exactly what that is yet. I also see it very strongly in Harry Styles, although he goes much further, and Elvis was half a century earlier.

Austin Butler appears on stage in a scene from "elvis"

Austin Butler plays the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll in “Elvis.”

(Warner Bros.)

Colonel Tom Parker. They have called him a “strange disruptor”. This hideous Christmas sweater showcased it perfectly. Didn’t it annoy Elvis?

It definitely bothered him. That was one of the things that unsettled Elvis. But I think Parker did it to unsettle people, to get people on their back foot. It’s so funny with Tom because in the movie he goes through 5½ hours of prosthetics every morning. Of course, I’ve seen him without make-up many times, and even if I’d walked in at 5 a.m., he’d still have started. For all that I had actually forgotten, sometimes he’s Tom Hanks and not Colonel Parker. Seeing Tom in Parker’s clothes every day was kind of a treat to wear so much horrible clothes. And the Colonel had a lot more things that were worse!

I also read somewhere that the Colonel wanted to copyright the jumpsuit.

Yes he has! But NBC’s Bill Belew, who worked on it during his TV special with Elvis, also used it for the Osmonds and the Jacksons and said, “Never mind. You can’t copyright a jumpsuit.” And if you think about it, that jumpsuit with the high collar, it really is a remarkable moment in costume history. How Colonel Parker tried to copyright Elvis’ jumpsuit

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