Elvis Presley’s white tracksuits have forever changed the way men dress

Written by Megan C. Hills, CNN

Delving into the archives of pop culture history, “Remember When?” is a new series that offers a nostalgic look at the clothes of the celebrities that defined their eras.

When Elvis Presley made broadcast history in 1973, he was dressed in a bell-shaped white jumpsuit, embellished with a bald eagle made up of red, gold and blue studs. As the Memphis singer hummed on stage in Honolulu, his “Aloha from Hawaii” concert was broadcast simultaneously in 40 different countries.

The historic event – the first ever satellite concert for a solo artist – was seen by over 1.5 billion people. Presley wore an all-American patriotic suit, a rebellious act against the fashion norms of the time with his glamorous and gender-fluid take on menswear.

Speaking to CNN Style via email, Graceland Vice President of Archives and Exhibitions Angie Marchese said Presley would be aware of the “gravitas of a worldwide audience” and would work with his longtime costume designer Bill Belew. to perfect his ensemble. “He said to Bill, ‘I just want the dress to say America.’ This was one of the few occasions that Elvis made a special request to the designer for him, “said Marchese.

The iconic suit is now housed in Presley’s former home turned Graceland museum as the highlight of an exhibition titled “Elvis: Dressed to Rock,” which features more than 100 pieces from the later stages of his career. Just as the music of the King of Rock survived, so too did the image of him in a sparkling white jumpsuit, paired with a perfectly combed rockabilly tuft.

Actor Austin Butler will appear as Presley in the film “Elvis,” which premieres in the United States on June 24. In the trailer, Butler can be seen pedaling through a rainbow array of suits with outstretched arms. Baz Luhrmann, the director of the film, told IndieWire that even though the younger generation are unfamiliar with Presley’s music, they know he is “the guy in the white tracksuit.”

Elvis Presley in a fringed white jumpsuit in 1973. Credit: Mark and Colleen Hayward / Hulton Archive / Getty Images

The birth of the suit

Presley’s jumpsuit was not his first challenge to the prevailing fashion norms of the time, although his career began in the mid-1950s. Zoey Goto, the author of “Elvis: From Zoot Suits to Jumpsuits,” explains to CNN via email that Presley emerged on the scene at a time when “heritage and respectability” informed menswear and style suits. Ivy League dominated.

“The style pattern at the time was to pair Brooks Brothers baggy sack dresses with buttoned Oxford shirts, smart ties, cuffed trousers and penny loafers,” he added.

Then Presley walked on the scene, wearing bubblegum pink blazers, cropped tops and Zoot suits – an outfit consisting of a jacket with dramatically defined shoulders and oversized lapels, paired with wide-leg trousers. Zoot dresses were typically associated with people from minority backgrounds, with Goto suggesting that Presley would likely have been inspired by southern black musicians wearing the dress, further disrupting convention. “[His wardrobe] he was seen as highly effeminate and suspicious by conservative society, although his fans appreciated him, ”Goto explained, adding that he expertly blended male and female elements.

Presley’s pelvic thrust, heavy makeup, and provocative displays would continue to shock TV critics and the Catholic Church. Even Frank Sinatra would have criticized rock’n’roll as Presley’s hits like “Heartbreak Hotel” climbed the charts, telling Western World magazine that the genre was “the most brutal, ugly, degenerate and vicious form of expression” and adding that it was a “rancid smelling aphrodisiac”.

However, Presley’s rebellious swagger spoke to a new postwar generation and young men in particular, who would begin experimenting with more flamboyant styles when the peacock revolution took hold in the 1960s – with Goto claiming to have “paved the way” for the movement. Presley publicly responded to Sinatra at a press conference, saying, “If I remember correctly, [Sinatra] it was also part of a trend. I don’t see how he can define today’s young people as immoral and delinquent ».

Elvis Presley’s Peacock suit worn during concert appearances in 1974, shown at Sotheby’s “A Rock & Roll History: Presley To Punk” press preview on June 20, 2014 in New York City. Credit: Slaven Vlasic / Getty Images North America / Getty Images

Nowadays, the King of Rock is an undisputed cultural icon who helped redefine what it meant to dress as a man. “He made young men dress differently from their fathers,” as Goto says.

“It brought youth culture to life by giving teens their own unique voice as a consumer group, with tastes and aspirations that often contrasted markedly with their parents’ values,” he continued.

As time went by, Presley moved away from music and moved to movies as the British invasion took hold, with the Beatles in the lead. But he began to fade into the background when mediocre reviews for his films rolled in and his music – mostly related to movie soundtracks – slipped into irrelevance.

Elvis Presley on stage during his 1972 Madison Square Garden concert in New York City.

Elvis Presley on stage during his 1972 Madison Square Garden concert in New York City. Credit: Thomas Monaster / New York Daily News Archive / Getty Images

In 1968, Presley was in desperate need to redefine his image and did so at a return concert in Las Vegas. Dressed in a gritty two-piece leather biker suit, evoking the rebellious spirits of James Dean and Marlon Brando, he has claimed his place as King of Rock.

But its brightest chapter was yet to come, as Presley moved to Las Vegas for various show residences. It was around this time that Presley began wearing her flamboyant skintight jumpsuits – typically with a cape and accompanying belt – created by costume designer Belew and embroidered by Gene Doucette. In a piece for The Guardian in 2010, Doucette said that Belew was the man of ideas behind the suits, which he “allowed. [Presley] to move around the stage without worrying about his clothes getting caught in something. “Drawing inspiration from the tall Napoleonic collars and the demands of Presley’s high intensity performances, karate and dancing, the suit quickly became his staple.
Elvis Presley's cape previewed to the press for the Gotta Have Rock and Roll online auction at Gotta Have It!  store on July 25, 2012 in New York City.

Elvis Presley’s cape previewed to the press for the Gotta Have Rock and Roll online auction at Gotta Have It! store on July 25, 2012 in New York City. Credit: Laura Cavanaugh / Getty Images

Well beyond his 30s, at this point, the singer would continue to advocate a different kind of male sensuality, proving that he is still capable of pushing boundaries. “Bodysuits that accentuate Elvis’s body fell very much into the seductive zeitgeist of fashion as men began to occupy the erotic gaze,” said Goto.

Although Presley had jumpsuits in many colors, he seemed 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 business tactic” he had learned after seeing blues musicians in Memphis dressing in white amid backing singers in muted tones, allowing him to stand out. on stage. Marchese added that his favorite color was more specifically “a whitish shade”, which appeared white under the stage lights as a pure white shade would “blow Elvis away” and make him impossible to see.

“When Elvis took the stage in Las Vegas, he had spent a decade peeking behind the scenes in Hollywood and was a veteran of show business. Then, he packed the suits as part of a larger and more epic theatrical experience he had. delivered to the public in the 1970s, “Goto said.

Carrying on the legacy

Presley died in 1977, but his lasting legacy would continue to influence the icons of the future, according to Goto. “He has constantly freed men from wearing clothes previously considered exclusively for women … which opened the door to a wave of androgynous glam rockers including David Bowie.”

Musician David Bowie poses for a portrait as “Ziggy Stardust” in June 1972 in London, England. Credit: Archives Michael Ochs / Getty Images

Among those who have followed in his footsteps are Mick Jagger, whose chest and navel suits took Presley’s designs to the extreme, and Elton John, who upped the power in flashy rainbow suits. Harry Styles even auditioned to play Presley in Luhrmann’s upcoming film and cited it as a direct influence on his gender-fluid wardrobe.

“I think (for) the people I’ve always admired and admired in music, clothes have always been a big part of the thing. Like Bowie, Elvis Presley. He’s always been part of the thing,” Styles told Dazed Magazine.
Styles' onstage wardrobe often includes a bodycon suit, as shown here during a performance at BBC Radio One's Big Weekend festival in 2022.

Styles’ onstage wardrobe often includes a bodycon suit, as shown here during a performance at BBC Radio One’s Big Weekend festival in 2022. Credit: Dave J Hogan / Getty Images

From impersonators in Las Vegas chapels to Disney’s Lilo & Stitch, Presley and his jumpsuit remain a pop culture icon. Auctions and displays of his elaborate wardrobe are hugely popular, with a studded white jumpsuit and cape worn by Presley in 1972 selling for more than $ 1 million last year. In 2017, a three-month exhibition featuring over 200 artifacts celebrating Presley’s wardrobe was held at O2 in the UK with support from Graceland.

As with Presley’s musical legacy, Belew’s and Doucette’s suit designs for the singer continue to hold a strong place in the hearts of his fans. From his 1974 Peacock jumpsuit, his most expensive stage dress, which was embroidered with turquoise feathers, to his beloved rainbow beaded Fringe dress, the King of Rock will forever hold a place 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 clothes and somehow feel that you are getting to know Elvis on a whole different level.” , said Marchese.

“He created an image that has continued to shape and define generations. An image that survives to this day.”

Top image: Elvis Presley on stage at the International Convention Center in Honolulu Hawaii on January 14, 1973.