Interview with Bill Belew
Source: Elvis Australia
April 5, 2020
Q: Did Elvis approach you for the 68 Special?
A: Actually it was Steve Binder who was the producer of the show, and also directed it. He had gathered together a group of us that were from the east. Because he wanted something different than what was being done in Hollywood at that time. And, my first experience working with Steve was on the Petula Clark Special when Petula came to America. We did that special and was received with great applause and accolades from everybody. And so, when Steve was approached to do Elvis, he asked if I would do the wardrobe on it cause he wanted to keep us all together.
Q: What was your idea for the black leather outfit?
A: Actually when we started talking about it, Steve said what he wanted literally to do was to base it around a concert, of Elvis and the boys. And he said 'What are your thoughts about what he will wear?' And I thought about it and then I said 'I've seen him in leather jacket, but I've never seen him in leather'. And I said 'Why don't we do'--- because at that period, everybody wore denim. I mean, wore blue jeans and denim jackets. And I said 'Why don't I have a denim jacket and a pair of jeans'. I said 'Why don't I take those and I have those copied in black leather?' And Steve said, 'I love the idea you said. Will you do a sketch of it?' and I did a sketch for him. And that's how it came about. And, in looking at Elvis, the one thing that struck me when I met him, that he was a very good looking man. And, a lot of things that during the period when I started designing are based upon things that, or periods that I go through in my life. And I've always been a great fan of Napoleon. And when I looked at Elvis, I said he's the one person that I could do the Napoleonic collar with it, because it'll frame his face. And like a lot of things that you do for women, when you're designing their clothes, is to draw your attention to their face. And I thought well if I have the collar up there, people will notice his face and it'll frame it, and however I do it and that's how the collar came about.
Bill Belew's Early days
Q: It was your idea not Elvis.
Q: When Elvis made his comeback in Las Vegas, tell me what he wore.
A: Well, when Joe had called me, saying that Colonel Parker would like me to do Elvis wardrobe for Vegas and would I be interested and I said yes. What we wanted to do at the time, was experiment of what would be the best look for him. And, of course, that was really my first time to work in Vegas. Having worked on the stage in New York it's quite different. But the lighting there was still in its early stages. And we found that the color that worked the best was white. It allowed them to change the colors on him, whereas black would absorb all the color. And it was hard to highlight him. And we experimented with blue which was one of his favorite colors. Red. But it just ended up that white was the best thing and, of course, you know, you want the star to be the person, you know, and not the wardrobe.
Q: Black held more heat.
A: Yeah, also that, too, you know. It's great. It makes you look thin. But at that time goodness knows, that was not one of my worries to making him look thin. I mean, I've always been very lucky in that, as I say now, when I talk to the fan clubs. Bob Mackie had Cher, I had Elvis Presley. I mean, it was a fabulous body to design for. He really wore and had a flair for clothes.
Q: Were they made out of gabardine?
A: For the special, I used at that time which was a very hot fabric. And a lot of men's clothing were being made it of it, was called a stretch wool jersey. And so when we went to Vegas, I contacted Ice Capades, and I talked to some friends of mine there. And I said, 'Would ya'll be interested in making Elvis Presleys clothes for Vegas?' Because I would like to use what is known for ice skaters as stretch gab, or gabardine. And, it allows skaters to do their splits, their turns, and everything. And I thought it would be great for Elvis because the one thing he said that he wanted to incorporate in his act was his karate. And I thought I've got to find something that will allow him to do that. The wool jersey that we used for a lot of these suits on the special, although it looks great, it's very warm. And, I knew that he was a person that perspired a lot when he performed. So I didn't want to add any more heat than I absolutely had to his wardrobe.
Bill Belew talks about Elvis's 68' Comeback
Q: His costumes became more and more jeweled. What was his favorite?
A: Well I know he liked the dragon suit. I know he liked the peacock. He liked the leopard. And, of course, I think possibly his favorite was always the Aloha Hawaii suit, the American eagle, you know.
Q: Didn't you have short notice to make a cape?
A: Right, right. Well I had this grand idea when we were going to open in Hawaii. And we had long discussions about what the suit was going to be because Elvis said, it's the only time that he really expressed any concern about what he was going to wear. He said 'Bill, I just want the suit to say America'. And we batted around a lot about what we were gonna do. And I remember when I was in Europe, I had seen the American Embassy there. And there was a big controversy at the time about it, the American eagle being across it. And I said 'I've got it'. I know what'll work cause I had thought about the American flag and I said no, no. and I said the American eagle. And he said 'That's great. I like that', and so we did that.
So I said 'We'll do this cape, and you'll come out, you'll have your back to the audience and you'll open it up. And then go into the overture and bam you'll turn, and there you'll be'. And the cape was to be floor length. So we made the cape. The cape went to Hawaii. And Elvis put the cape on, went to step forward, and fell over backward. The cape was so heavy that he couldn't even walk in it. And I got the call that said 'Bill, that the cape is great but Elvis can't move in it'. So we immediately went in production, made a short cape, for him to wear for it. But I always had this, all these years I always carried this image in my head of Elvis making the step forward and then bam. Laying there amongst all this cape. And I can see him howling with laughter, too.
Q: How long did you have to make the new cape?
A: We had just a little over a day. We worked literally 24 hours on it.
Q: Elvis also had trouble with fringe?
A: A lot of the things that I did for Elvis in the early days were a lot of things that I and other kids were wearing at that time. So a lot of the things were trimmed in macrame and fringe and beads of that period. And, of course, you know, with all the movement and playing his guitar, it just never dawned on me the fringe would get all wrapped up in him. It wasn't until later when I did a couple of other things for other stars, and I was using fringe and I'd see them all wrapped up in it. And I'd think oh my god, what must it have been like for Elvis, with all this fringe swinging around him.
Elvis Presley jumpsuit design by Bill Belew.
Q: The fringe was so long at Inglewood that he got tied up.
A: Right, yes. Oh yes.
Q: What was the idea behind the gypsy suit?
A: It was just an idea like anything else. I had just seen a picture of a gypsy costume and I just thought well that would be interesting. I was always trying to think of interesting things, because so much of what we did and the progression Elvis costumes were really dictated by the fans. A lot of it I would've been interested in starting much earlier. But the one thing that I never in all the period I designed for Elvis, I never wanted any mention of his masculinity be brought up by oh, you know, why was he wearing this or why is he doing that? So it was really just a progression of the fans. The more we did, the more they would applaud. And, the more they would do. And so it finally got to the point where I figured well, we can do the jewels, and there won't be any question, you know, about what he's wearing.
Q: Tell us about the Sun Dial.
A: Again, I was reading something in a magazine and happened to see this article on the Aztecs. And I saw the Aztec sun and I thought, you know, wouldn't that be a great design? And just used it.
Q: It seemed so intricate and difficult to make.
A: No. There were others that were much more difficult but it was very intricate in the fact that it was very heavily embroidered. And it took quite a while to work the pattern out and to do it.
Q: You worked on future costumes.
A: Well the last thing I was working on and we had actually done a prototype of it. And, it was called a laser suit. And I had met an electrician who was into lasers. And lasers at that point were still relatively new. And laser shows were becoming very big. And so, I designed what I thought was going to be ultimately the jewel suit. It was called the diamond suit. And, what we did, there were certain points, and it had very large stones that would tell him where he could puncture himself. And that's where the laser would shoot. And we had these strategically placed on the suit. And as I say, you know, whenever he would touch himself then the laser beams. And, we had it almost to the point where it was ready to be shown to him. And I was in fact, the morning I heard of his death, I was on my way to the studio because we were gonna put it on the figure. And the electrician and I were going to test it. And, that's it.
Q: If Elvis had gone to Europe what were your ideas?
A: The laser suit was it. Yeah, that was the one, you know. but it just didn't--- yeah.
Q: Tell us what it was like to work with Elvis. Any funny stories besides the cape?
A: He just was so great in that he never questioned anything I ever did. A lot of times Joe would call and say. There is one funny story. We had just started out in Vegas. And I did not know this about Elvis, that Elvis was a night person. And in those days I was considerably younger so, maybe probably 11:30, 12:00s probably when I went to bed. And so I was in bed. And I think it was like about 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning and the phone rang. And of course, the only thing at that period in my life was, it's my mother. Somethings happened. My mother, they're calling. So I pick up the phone and it was Joe Esposito saying, 'I want to talk to you. Elvis wants to order some more clothes'. And all of a sudden, I realized I don't have any paper or a pencil or anything. And I had a bedside table that I had made beside my bed and it was covered in velvet. So the only thing I could do is I took my finger, and I started writing Joe's notes on the velvet and thinkin', god please let me remember everything he tells me. So I'm writing all this down and Joe's giving me all this information. And I immediately got up, turned the light on after we hung up, and got pencil and paper and sat down and started deciphering all my notes. From then on, there was always pencil and paper by my bed. I said, this is never gonna happen again.
But basically, the wardrobe that I did for the stage, he never said, you know, later on I did find out that, which I liked and it made me laugh, is that it would arrive and he would model it for the boys. And I've seen pictures of that from some people, of him modeling the wardrobe, and laughing and having a good time.
And then, of course, when public relations got to the point where he was speaking so much and meeting so many people, he said would I do his personal wardrobe? Because it was a body that was hard to fit, in that to go in and get something off the rack, it had to be altered. And like so many people he was not a person that was into having a lot of fittings on everything. So, I guess there were a lot of interesting things that I did for him, and probably one of the biggest things was, of course, when he met President Nixon. And he called and said, you know, 'I want you to do a suit because I'm going to meet the president'. And I always remember that being such a big thrill for him because, I remember I had worked for Kennedy. And I was doing a show in New York for which Jacqueline Kennedy had asked us to be one of the people that came to the White House for his birthday party to perform. And I know what that was like, being a small-town southern boy. There's nothin' like meeting your president.
And, so, one day I was up at the house after Elvis had come back. And normally all I did, I was in the living room and we conducted all of our meetings. And, I was asked to come back into the bedroom and I thought oh god now what's gonna happen, you know. I'm going back. And he and Priscilla were in bed and he all the books out and the pamphlets and everything from the president. He said I want you to see all this and he said see how great it is. And we were sittin' there and we were lookin' at the books and the things that were autographed for him. And I said, 'I know how you feel because I know what it was like when I met President Kennedy'. I thought it was the greatest thing that had ever happened to me. And later I happened to work with Tish Baldridge and she said 'What could I do for you?' And I said 'Somewhere in the vaults, there's a picture of me meeting President Kennedy. I would like to have it'. And Tish Baldridge was just absolutely fabulous. I don't know how she ever found it. God she did and I got the picture and it still sits on my table, in my living room. But as I said to Elvis, I said 'I know how excited you are. You know, I just I can, I'm right there with ya'. And it was like a little boy, you know. We just had a piece of candy and boy we were just having a good time. And I think I have a book and a couple of other papers that he gave me that night. He said 'I want you to have these, from my visit, at the White House'. Terrific.
Q: Was it kind of a purple suit?
A: No, it was dark navy blue.
Q: What were you thinking when you designed it?
A: Well it was very similar to almost everything else that I had done for him. The basic clothes, you know. And the only thing that I did, is add the cape to the suit, which sometimes we did sometimes we didn't, you know.
Elvis Presley jumpsuit design by Bill Belew.
Q: Tell us about your TCB.
A: I was absolutely amazed. You know, I had seen the guys with their TCBs. And one day, I was up there and we were discussing some wardrobe things. And he was, which he did most of the time, he was sitting on the floor in front of me, as we were talkin'. And he said 'I have a gift for you'. And he opened it up and there was a TCB. And I just couldn't believe it. I thought, gosh, I'm one of the guys now. Really.
Q: Tell us some memories of Colonel Parker.
A: I had very little to do with the Colonel. Almost all of my dealings were with Elvis.
Q: Where did you work?
A: In Los Angeles. I lived in Los Angeles at that period in my life. Yeah, because I was doing a lot of television and other things at that time.
Q: Did Elvis ever tell you anything that's always stayed in your mind?
A: No, no, not really. I think the only thing for me is, he called and said that Sonny West was gonna get married, and he wanted a suit. And so a tuxedo. So I designed a tuxedo for him. And he said to me, 'Go down to Schwartz and Albusser and have them make me some jewelry'. And I said 'Oh no, no, Elvis. That's too personal. You do that yourself', you know. 'No, no, no, you go on down there. You design me some jewelry'. And so I went down there and that's how I met Saul and Abe. And as time progressed we got to know each other.
And it's just one of the best stories of how generous this man was. And, Saul was tellin' me that there was a lady that had been coming in for quite some time, and had been admiring an emerald and diamond ring. And it was very expensive. And, she just would come in. And look at it and they'd been trying to talk to her about putting some money on it, paying it off. No, no, no her husband wouldn't allow her to do it. So anyway she was there that day when Elvis walked in. And, she looked at it and he took it and put it back into the case. And Elvis said to him, you know, 'What's that all about?' And he said well, you know, and told him the story about her. And, how she'd always wanted this ring and she was afraid her husband would get upset if she bought it. And, he said, 'Go and box it up and give it to her'. And he said 'You really?' He said, 'Do it', and so he did. He went to the lady and she said 'What's this?' And he said, 'That gentleman over there, Mr. Presley, would like for you to have this ring'. And she got very emotional and she said 'No, no you can't do this' and he said, 'Anybody that wants something that bad, should have it'. And he said 'I want you to have it. And please, accept it with my love and my gratitude'. And I just thought that was the neatest thing in the world. Just the neatest thing.
Q: Is there a favorite story you'd like to tell his fans?
A: Oh. I guess the only, which god one fan told me something I didn't even know. I guess is really the splitting suit in Vegas. I just think, I was ready to die. I just wanted to go underneath the table. I just felt so embarrassed, when I found out that the suit had split. Needless to say, I went back and made sure that never happened again. But for me, there were a lot of things, you know, about him but, it's for me there have been a lot of people, a lot of wonderful people, that in so many ways that he opened the door in designing clothes for people, that he opened for me that I probably would never have gotten to them had it not have been that entre, you know. Because he did--- the special caused a lot of talk, and a lot of interesting. I still find it, you know, to this day I still there are times that I play it. It's still wonderful, you know.
Q: Tell us about that story.
A: I had forgotten about this one. When Joe called us and said the cape and the belt had been thrown in the audience, we were not prepared for that. We, of course, immediately went right into production and made it. And at that time I was doing a show with Flip Wilson. And I had again created Geraldine for Flip. He knew what she was like. But, not visually what she was like. So he said 'I leave it to you to create Geraldine'. So I had to stay in LA because that Friday night we were going to be taping that, and the clothes had to go to Hawaii. So, the plane had been sent, tickets, everything were set. So I said to Nicky, who did the embroider work on the clothes for Elvis. I said 'Nicky, do me a favor, please. Take these and go to Hawaii, and deliver them for me'. And Nicky said 'Oh sure, great'. So he gets on there.
And there is an empty seat for Elvis clothes. So, little while after they were in the air, the airplane stewardess came by and she said, 'What is that in the seat beside you?' And he said, 'That's Elvis Presleys belt and cape. I'm delivering them to Hawaii for his special'. And a little bit later, Nicky said 'I hear this murmuring'. And he said it's the stewardess. She said, 'Elvis cape is up in that seat'. And he said a little bit later she came back and she said, 'Could I touch that?' And he said, 'Sure'. And she reaches down and she went back she said, 'I touched Elvis cape'. I had forgotten how funny that was till Nicky reminded me of that story. 'I've touched Elvis cape'.
Bill Belew also designed for The Osmond Brother's
Bill Belew also designed for The Osmond Brother's.
Q: You wouldn't be surprised now to know how many people would love to touch the clothes.
A: Exactly. Exactly.
Q: Your designs are so original that everywhere you see Elvis you see your work. How does that make you feel?
A: Terrific. I think probably one of the neatest and coolest things that ever happened was, I think maybe it was either like three or four years ago in Esquire. Versace said, 'The one thing that I envy is Bill Belew having the job of dressing Elvis Presley. That job I would've liked'. And I have the article and every once in a while when I'm down, I pull it out and I read that and I thought, that ain't bad kid. Look from a little hick town in the south. That's pretty good that Versace wanted to design for Elvis, too.
Q: You made Elvis happy and you made millions of fans the world over happy. A thousand years from now they'll still enjoy your work.
A: It's so nice to have been a part of his life, really.
Q: It's so nice to have you sit down and talk with us. Thank you.
A: Oh, my pleasure, always.
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Tupelo's Own Elvis Presley DVD Video with Sound.