After focusing much of the 1960s on his career as a movie actor, not performing in front of a live audience for over seven years, the triumph of Elvis' 1968 concert television special prompted a permanent return to the concert stage with a sold-out, critically acclaimed month-long Las Vegas engagement in the summer of 1969. Elvis did not want to wear a tuxedo, which was basically the uniform of male crooners working in that town. He was going there to rock. Wanting something different and special, he called upon Bill Belew, who had designed the now-classic black leather suit and other outfits for the '68 special. Inspired by Elvis' great interest in karate, Belew came up with simple two-piece gabardine suits in with tunic-style tops and simple, long karate-style belts knotted to one side with the ends dangling from the hip.
In Elvis' two Vegas engagements of 1970, the first one-piece gabardine outfits (jumpsuits) appeared. Most had high Napoleonic collars, mod Italian-style pointed sleeve cuffs and - as was the fashion of the day - flared legs. This became the basic design for most of the jumpsuits to follow as Elvis continued his regular Las Vegas engagements twice a year and as he toured nationally in concert from late 1970 until his death in August 1977. The first jumpsuits were simple in their ornamentation - for instance, some with metal accents, some with long fringe. All had long coordinating belts knotted and dangling to the side - some in cloth with ornamentation to match the suit, some with fringe, some in macramé. In the early 70s, the jumpsuits evolved with increasingly elaborate metal rhinestone studding, matching capes and coordinating big-buckle leather belts. From a point in 1974 on, the jumpsuit designs featured ever flashier and more intricate embroidery work, some depicting animals - eagles, a tiger, a dragon, phoenixes, a zebra - and the capes were phased out.
Today, the jumpsuits look dated to some of the general public, but Elvis fans and pop culture historians know that these outfits were way cool in the 1970s. "When Elvis began wearing the jumpsuits, he and designer Bill Belew created a new style that many popular entertainers of the time incorporated into their own stage-wear," stated Graceland/Elvis Presley Enterprises archives director, Angie Marchese. "The craftsmanship of Bill Belew and his team - including Gene Doucette, who is a master with embroidery - was exquisite and the designs were cutting edge. Each one of the outfits is its own special work of art."
"You could be daring as a designer and put anything on Elvis and he could make it work," stated Bill Belew. "And the simplest outfits that didn't seem particularly remarkable on the rack transformed into something spectacular when Elvis put them on. He was that beautiful and powerful a presence. As a wardrobe designer Bob Mackie had a perfect muse and a perfect canvas in Cher. I got to have that in Elvis."
Elvis Jumpsuits: The perfect Fit
Elvis Presley Enterprises is opening a new exhibit with 56 of Elvis Presley's jumpsuits. Chris McAdory makes sure the case glass sparkles.
Elvis, who wore about 120 jumpsuits through the years, once said, "If the songs don't go over, we can do a medley of costumes."
"Gaudy, vulgar, magnificent," the New York Times wrote when Elvis Presley appeared onstage in a jumpsuit with a cape lined in gold with a scarlet collar.
It was the kind of reaction that helped turn Elvis into a fashion statement from 1969 to his death in 1977, during the major concert era of his career. The jumpsuits began with Elvis' interest in two-piece karate-style outfits and soon evolved into rhinestone and metal-studded jumpsuits with elaborate belts and flashy capes.
Elvis eventually phased out the capes, but the jumpsuits remain as what designers call "works of art" that go on display beginning today in the biggest collection of Elvis stage wear ever mounted by Graceland and Elvis Presley Enterprises.
With 56 jumpsuits, part of Graceland's collection of 88, the exhibition, "Elvis Jumpsuits: All Access," will be on display for two years at the Sincerely Elvis Museum at Graceland, along with photographs and video footage of Elvis in Las Vegas and on tour.
Los Angeles designer Bill Belew, who designed an iconic black leather suit as part of the wardrobe for Elvis' 1968 Comeback Special on TV, came up with the jumpsuits partly to allow freedom of movement for the karate-style moves in Presley's stage act. "You could be daring as a designer and put anything on Elvis and he could make it work," says Belew.
"The simplest outfits that didn't seem particularly remarkable on the rack transformed into something spectacular when Elvis put them on. As a wardrobe designer, Bob Mackie had a perfect muse and a perfect canvas in Cher. I got to have that in Elvis," says Belew.
Another Los Angeles designer, Gene Doucette, who did much of the intricate embroidery and detail work on the jumpsuits, said he was "like a kid in a candy shop" designing for Elvis, who liked to be surprised by designs that ranged from Aztec sun symbols to dragons that combined medieval and Chinese influences. "I had the world's greatest easel in front of me," he says of Presley.
Doucette was a designer for Pzazz Designs, a theatrical embroidery shop that worked with Belew. From start to finish, Doucette says an Elvis jumpsuit could easily take a month of steady work with prices he estimates at $25,000 to $50,000 each in the 1970s. The first jumpsuit that became an icon in itself was the so-called "American Eagle" suit worn in Elvis' 1973 "Aloha from Hawaii" concert, seen by more than a billion people.
Elvis memorabilia consultant John Heath, who has worked with the Elvis estate through the years, says the value of a jumpsuit or other wardrobe items depends on how familiar it is in the public's imagination. Among Elvis outfits he estimates would bring up to $1 million at auction, he includes the American Eagle suit, a 1957 gold lame suit, the black leather suit from the '68 TV special and a "Sundial" suit worn in one of Elvis' last appearances.
Heath says the jumpsuits became popular with Elvis fans because they were like "works of art." To become valuable, a suit had to be worn several times and had to be seen and photographed by as many fans as possible.
Graceland archives manager Angie Marchese estimates the value of the 88 suits in Graceland's archives from $100,000 to "much, much more," with the American Eagle suit rivaling the value of Elvis' pink Cadillac and the gold lame suit.
Marchese said the new jumpsuit exhibition is in addition to other jumpsuits already on display at Graceland. The American Eagle suit is on display in the racquetball court on Graceland tours. It is among eight jumpsuits on display there, along with four in the trophy building and two in the Elvis After Dark Museum.
In all, Marchese says she knows of roughly 120 jumpsuits, about 20 of which are in private collections.
The delicate question that goes almost unanswered is Elvis' waist size from 1969 to 1977. Marchese says Elvis had a 32-inch waist in the 1960s. "Everyone is aware that Elvis in the '60s was very thin, and when he passed away he was larger, but the suits show that he was not as large as people would imagine even in the late '60s or early '70s. The suits did get larger, but you're talking a couple of inches rather than what's in the public perception."
Heath, the memorabilia collector who has an Elvis "Twin Bird" jumpsuit in his collection from 1976, says his own waist size is 36 inches. "I can't get in that Twin Bird suit," he says. But Heath, who has dealt with several Elvis belts as a collector, says Elvis probably wore a 38-inch belt at one point before his death.
Doucette declines to say what Elvis' waist size was at the end. He helped design one last suit commissioned by Elvis that was never worn. That suit, in a shiny silver hue, is what Marchese calls the "mirrored" suit.
"When you design for somebody, certain things are kept personal and private," Doucette says of the waist size. But, he says, like Elvis himself, "If you took any one of these suits to the farthest ends of the Earth, there would be no language barrier. They'd know whose it was."