Written by Megan C. Hills, CNN
Delving into the archives of pop culture history, “Remember When?” is a new series offering a nostalgic look at the celebrity outfits that defined their eras.
When Elvis Presley made broadcasting history in 1973, he was dressed in a white bell-bottomed jumpsuit, embellished with a bald eagle made from red, gold and blue studs. As the Memphis singer crooned away on a stage in Honolulu, his concert “Aloha from Hawaii” was being simultaneously broadcast in 40 different countries.
The historic event — the first ever satellite concert for a solo artist — was seen by more than 1.5 billion people. Presley wore a patriotic all-American outfit — a rebel act against fashion norms of the time with its glamorous, gender-fluid take on menswear.
Speaking to CNN Style over email, Graceland’s vice president of archives and exhibits Angie Marchese said Presley would have been aware of the “gravitas of a worldwide audience” and worked with his longtime costume designer Bill Belew to perfect his ensemble. “He told Bill, ‘I just want the suit to say America.’ This was one of the few occasions when Elvis made a special request of his designer,” Marchese said.
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The iconic jumpsuit now sits in Presley’s former home-turned-museum Graceland as a highlight of an exhibition titled “Elvis: Dressed to Rock,” which features more than 100 pieces from the later stages of his career. Just like the King of Rock’s music has endured, so too has the image of him in a sparkly white jumpsuit, paired with a rockabilly pompadour coiffed to perfection.
Actor Austin Butler will appear as Presley in the movie “Elvis,” which opens in the US on June 24. In the trailer, Butler can be seen cycling through a rainbow array of jumpsuits with his arms outstretched. Baz Luhrmann, the film’s director, told IndieWire that even if newer generations don’t know Presley’s music, they know “he’s the guy in the white jumpsuit.”
Elvis Presley in a white fringed jumpsuit in 1973. Credit: Mark and Colleen Hayward/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
The birth of the jumpsuit
Presley’s jumpsuit wasn’t his first challenge to the dominant fashion norms of the time, although his career started in the conservative mid-1950s. Zoey Goto, the author of “Elvis: From Zoot Suits to Jumpsuits,” explains to CNN over email that Presley emerged onto the scene at a time when “heritage and respectability” informed menswear and Ivy League-style suits dominated.
“The style template at that time was teaming loose, sack suits from Brooks Brothers with button down Oxford shirts, crisp club ties, cuffed pants and penny loafers,” she added.
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Then Presley came onto the scene, wearing bubblegum pink blazers, crop tops and Zoot suits – an outfit consisting of a jacket with dramatically defined shoulders and oversized lapels, paired with wide legged trousers. Zoot suits were typically associated with people from minority backgrounds, with Goto suggesting Presley would likely have been inspired by Southern Black musicians wearing the outfit – further shaking up convention. “[His wardrobe] was seen as highly effeminate and suspicious by conservative society, although his fans lapped it up,” Goto explained, adding that he expertly blended masculine and feminine elements.
Presley’s pelvic thrust, heavy make-up and provocative performances would go on to upset television critics and the Catholic Church. Even Frank Sinatra would criticize rock’n’roll as Presley’s hits such as “Heartbreak Hotel” climbed the charts, telling the magazine Western World that the genre was “the most brutal, ugly, degenerate, vicious form of expression” and adding it was a “rancid smelling aphrodisiac.”
However, Presley’s rebellious swagger spoke to a newer post-war generation and young men in particular, who would begin to experiment with more flamboyant styles as the Peacock Revolution took hold in the 1960s — with Goto saying he had “paved the way” for the movement. Presley responded to Sinatra publicly at a press conference, saying: “If i remember correctly, [Sinatra] was also part of a trend. I don’t see how he can call the youth of today immoral and delinquent.”
Elvis Presley’s Peacock Jumpsuit worn during concert apperances in 1974, shown at the press preview “A Rock & Roll History: Presley To Punk” at Sotheby’s 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 like a man. “He made it ok for young men to dress differently from their dads,” as Goto puts it.
“He birthed youth culture by giving teenagers their own unique voice as a consumer group, with tastes and aspirations that often contrasted greatly with their parents’ values,” she continued.
As time went on, Presley moved away from music and into movies as the British Invasion took hold, with The Beatles leading the charge. But he started to fade into the background as middling to bad reviews for his films rolled in, and his music — mostly tied to movie soundtracks — slipped into irrelevance.