Elvis Aaron Presley is one of the very, very few figures worthy of that ghastly, overused, underachieved word: Icon. Like the Byzantine images from which the word derives, his style is gaudy, mosaic-bright, shimmering, unmistakable. A golden face glowing with golden perspiration, golden medallions chinking against golden flesh, golden cape, swept in supplication to devoted disciples at a Vegas sellout like the halo of an Orthodox saint. But just as no-one in their right mind would start dressing like an 8th century Madonna and Child, Elvis’s fashion choices are best left to the man himself. The Elvis Problem is not with The King. He made his own style, based on a heady mix of testosterone, popular culture, practicality and downright whimsy. Right up until that last couple of bloated, burger-barbiturates-and-bugaboo years, he looked great, however outlandish his choice of clobber. No. The Elvis Problem is with the misguided souls who try to copy him.
Born into dirt-poverty in Tupelo, Mississippi, Presley’s prospects weren’t great. He may be associated with denim, but he never wore it outside movies; it reminded him of times when working-men’s fabric was all he could get. Got a photo of Elvis in jeans? Chances are it’s a film-still. He felt he owed his fans the respect of dressing smartly – they’d paid for their tickets; they deserved a show. And, right up to the end, he gave them one hell of a show.
When he was thirteen, Presley’s family moved to Memphis, Tennessee. His was a predominantly black neighbourhood and Elvis became obsessed with the blues music that black hipsters were grinding out of Beale Street (above). He’d later base his career on the sounds he heard blaring from the road’s honky-tonks, strip-joints, burlesques and wirelesses. But there was something else down Beale Street. Something cool. Lansky Brothers was already supplying fabulous, flashy clothes to the top stars of the day: Count Basie, Lionel Hampton, Duke Ellington, BB King: style-mongers to a man.
Around 1952, Bernard Lansky started noticing a good looking young white guy hanging around his store, saucer-eyed as a poorhouse kid outside a sweetshop. Eventually Lansky invited the shy 17-year-old inside to look around. Elvis ogled the colourful shirts, baggy pants and sharp jackets, but couldn’t afford more than the odd bolero. He told the shopkeeper “When I’m rich, I’m going to buy your store.” Lansky replied “Don’t buy me; buy from me.” Right to the end the ‘Clothier to the King’ boasted he’d put Elvis in his first suit – and his last.
What made Presley different to other rockers of the 1950s was his willingness to find inspiration from wherever it came. At the same time as he was admiring the dapper style of the blues mavericks, he was seduced by the slicked-back, sideburned grease of the long-distance truckers passing through Memphis. Elvis didn’t dye his dark-blonde hair black until the movie Loving You in 1957, but once he did, he never turned back. The sideburns were, throughout his life, an act of rebellion. He kept growing them, kept being forced to shave them off – first by the army, then by his domineering agent Colonel Parker, who needed Elvis to look squeaky-clean for maximum Hollywood cash return.
Parker was responsible for some of Presley’s worst fashion faux-pas. A carnival showman, he knew everything about making a quick buck; nothing about style. Fifty Million Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong, the album claimed, but Colonel Parker could be, especially after he and Presley were introduced to Liberace, another man with a unique sense of style, but not one anyone else should attempt to emulate, not even The King. Elvis hated the notorious gold lamé suit by Nudie of Hollywood. He liked bling, but there was a limit. After the cover shoot, he never wore those ridiculous sparkly pants again, instead pairing the jacket with plain black peg slacks.
A lot of Elvis’s early clothes were surprisingly conservative. Black trousers, simple box-back sports jackets, bombers, knit tops. Denounced from the pulpit every Sunday by Bible-Belt preachers for those saucy hip gyrations, why would he need to be outlandish in the way he dressed? What Elvis excelled in, however, was the way he mixed the respectable with the unacceptable. A black suit with shocking pink shirt and socks. Western-style jackets with pleat-front trousers and white buckskins. A sensible-looking jacket opened to reveal a shirt with orange panelling or black lacing. A basic, short-sleeved shirt, sleeves rolled even further along those biceps and the collar turned up to hide a neck he was convinced was too long. It wasn’t. Later, designers would keep the high collars as a way of framing that chubby, angelic pout.
It’s hard to imagine the kind of society where a rock star would meekly sit while his trademark haircut was shaved before trotting off to do his share of military service without a whimper. Presley had already lost his quiff once – for Jailhouse Rock, where he also wore what, for anyone else, would have been a career-defining jacket. But this time it was serious. A flat-top brush cut and army fatigues were all fans would see of him for the next couple of years. Worried people would forget him, he recorded singles to be released while he was away, but to be extra-sure, he managed to make his first post-military appearance sporting his biggest quiff yet. It’s still not clear how he circumnavigated the army haircut rules, but just listen to those fans going ballistic on the Frank Sinatra TV show and wonder at the gloss of the guy: slimline tux, floppy western bow tie, sharp pocket square, Cuban-heeled boots, enormous, jet-black DA. He looks fantastic. Sinatra looks like he’s sucking lemons.
The early sixties were the movie years. The Colonel trussed his cash cow in increasingly unbecoming getups – aloha shirts, leis, ‘nice-boy’ prep, vaguely-naughty denim, but it was a policy of diminishing returns. The Beatles had arrived. The kids were moving on. Elvis was mainstream fodder and he loathed it.
The ’68 Comeback Special remains one of the most extraordinary gigs music has known. Unplugged, jamming in front of a small audience, Elvis never sounded – or looked – so damn good. He’d been working with designer Bill Belew, who saw Presley’s rangy style as a direct descendant of the dandies of Regency England and Napoleonic France. He designed a black leather suit based on American jeans/jean jackets but with a flair owing more to Beau Brummel than James Dean. High collar. Leather boots. Tight pantaloons. Mussed-up, brushed-forward quiff. Sideburns to rival Mr. Darcy and Lord Byron combined. The King was back.
Belew contined working with Elvis into the 70s. Paisley shirts, striped trousers, scarves; Presley made a half-hearted fist at flower-power but it really wasn’t him. He needed a new look for a new, dynamic stage act he’d been developing. He’d first got into karate in the 1950s and now he was working funky Hong-Kong Fooey poses into the show. But the gigantic stadium audiences could hardly make him out in his old black stage kit. His glaucoma was playing up under the lights. And his shirt kept coming untucked with all those kicks.
Belew’s first jumpsuits were fairly plain affairs. White, sometimes red or blue. All-in-one, open to the waist, with wide belts and a little military braiding or fringing, twinned with yellow-glass shades based on the old motorcycling goggles of his youth. That’s The Way It Is, filmed in 1970, shows Elvis the way he was. Slim, with post-coital haircut and sweat gleaming through a hussar-style shirt slashed to the waist, he is a cross between Napoleon, Marlon Brando and the Prince Regent. Unfortunately Elvis was just about to follow in all those giant figures’ footsteps in a rather different way.
As the great man’s whip-thin girth turned to spandex-stretching gut, Belew designed ever-more-elaborate jumpsuits to draw the eye away from his podgy popstar’s paunch. Jewels, sunbursts, peacocks, tigers, even an American eagle, all embroidered by needlework maestro Gene Doucette. The belts got wider and wider; sparklier and sparklier. One day Presley went missing from Graceland, bowling up in the White House Oval Office several hundred miles away on a whim to meet President Nixon. He was wearing a cape.
It didn’t work. Elvis’s fans still adored every gyration, every karate kick, every toss of sweat-drenched satin scarf, but the rest of the world was beginning to find it all faintly ridiculous. We will never know what he might have come up with next. Would he have reinvented himself yet again? Or just turned into the caricature a million fat old Elvis impersonators perpetuate today in the name of keeping the King alive?
Nearly forty years after his death, whatever we may think of Elvis’s style, it was his and his alone. I admire every hip-swivelling, quiff-combing, chest-baring, flare-flinging, lycra-louching inch of him. That does not, however, absolve anyone else from trying the same thing. Squeezing into a jumpsuit will not send you to Vegas without passing go. Donning a squashy motorcycle hat is more likely to get you a place in the Village People than the Jordanaires. And we all know what happens to superheroes that wear capes. For the love of the King, DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME.