Director Baz Luhrmann hoped “Elvis” would be much more than a biopic of Elvis Presley — he wanted to capture a time with a social history of this captivating figure that also told the story of America.
Starring Austin Butler as Elvis and Tom Hanks as Colonel Tom Parker, his manager, “Elvis” spans two decades. The backdrop is America’s Southern bible belt, the evolving cultural landscape, and the rock ‘n’ roller’s meteoric rise to stardom.
Costume designer Catherine Martin explains there are two costume styles in the movie — “recreations of costumes that existed, and the other fictionalized outfits that are a synthesis of outfits that he actually had that help tell the story.”
The pink suit rockabilly suit Butler sports was just one of 90 costumes he wore. Like all of the costumes Martin designed, it had to facilitate movement and serve the practicalities of filmmaking. “The pink suit is a combination of this very drapey, fabulous wool fabric with a very specific soft, almost cardigan-like feel in the jacket,” she says.
While going through photo archives, Martin also discovered that the singer only ever did the bottom button of the suit jackets. “That extra room of not doing the top button allowed Austin to get in all the fabulous Elvis shoulder rolls,” Martin says.
As the singer’s fame grows, Martin worked on iconic outfits like his jumpsuits and leather jackets. Martin and her team collaborated with Kim and Butch Polston of B&K Enterprises in Charlestown, Ind., who faithfully recreated Elvis’ 1970s stage wear.
That collaboration meant Martin could commission jumpsuits for the movie that were faithfully recreated in the same manner as the originals, right down to the chain-stitch by Gene Doucette, who personally embroidered the King’s actual jumpsuits.
A key collaborator was Elvis’s longtime costume designer Bill Belew, who was the NBC costume designer at the time.
For his 1968 NBC special, Elvis wore a skintight leather suit. Martin notes, “It’s the first time we see the Napoleon collar that became his calling card in the ‘70s, and it was very important to get that proportion exactly right.”
Not only did Martin have to get the proportion right for the high collar, she also had to get the weight of the leather right. His suit was made from horse leather, with a thick biker jacket feel. Martin and her team weren’t able to use horse leather, so she made the suit from the more common cow leather.
Getting the suit right meant trying out different types of leather to accurately recreate it. Martin had access to Presley’s estate and head archivist, Angie Marchese. “She painstakingly measured the leather suit for us.” Once she had that, she could recreate it fitted to Butler’s measurements.