In the 42 years that Elvis graced this earth, he singlehandedly changed the way that men dress: from rockabilly to more-is-more jewelry, he remains one of those rare icons whose fashion legacy has outlived their career – although, granted, not everyone is wearing flashy sequined jumpsuits these days.
When you think of Elvis, chances are the first image that’ll come into your head is Vegas Elvis: the demigod in heavily sequined white jump suits – open-chested and flared-pantsed – who worked crowds into a frenzy with his intoxicating performances.
He might be better known for his eccentric stage attire, but in the 1950s, before he became the “King of Rock and Roll,” Elvis’ style was one of classic elegance and more restraint. He could still be flashy, of course, but his clothes oozed effortless cool.
There is an attitude in his early style that gives him a certain edge, belying the commerciality of his later looks and contrasting with the sobriety of early 1950s post-war life. Although he wore conservative, every-day garments of white oxford button-down shirts, pleated, high-waisted and wide-leg trousers, blazers and penny loafers, he wore these clothes in a way that was entirely his own. Shirt sleeves were nonchalantly rolled up to the biceps, polo shirts were pink (previously a fashion-don’t color for men), blazers were red or purple checked, a patterned sock would peek out from under his pants hem, and he’d utilize simple jewelry including pinkie rings and silver bracelets – an early hint, maybe, at the flamboyance that would come in the later years.
Young Elvis’ ultimate style power move, though, came in the form of the short-sleeve, Cuban-collar bowling-style shirt, a style he can be seen wearing on a number of occasions. Hawaiian and bowling shirts were all the rage in the US in the 1950s, but Elvis was partial to Cuban shirts, which became a menswear must after he started wearing them.
All of these styles were accessorized by that legendary pompadour (or quaff or ducktail, as it was known then). The mid-century Elvis remains his most iconic and accessible style, epitomized in the 1957 movie Jailhouse Rock, where Elvis stars in all his lip-curling, double-denim-wearing glory.
Elvis did not develop his personal style all himself, however. Bernard Lansky, the Memphis retailer of Lansky Brothers clothing store, helped him establish his signature clothing style of pegged pants, two-toned shoes and other flashy duds that helped him stand out among his peers.
Probably the flashiest suit associated with Elvis, though, was one he reportedly did not want to wear. According to elvisbiography.net, the famous gold lamé suit made specifically for “The Memphis Flash” (a nickname from his early days) became iconic when Elvis wore it throughout his 1957 concert tour across the U.S. and Canada and later on the album cover for 50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong. The gold-leaf tuxedo with silver rhinestones included a jacket, trousers, belt, shoes and necktie. The suit was custom-made at the request of Elvis’ manager, Colonel Parker, who commissioned Nudie Cohn of Nudie’s Rodeo Tailors to design the gold suit, which cost $2,500 at the time.
While fans loved the outfit, Elvis didn’t. The gold pants created problems for him, since the gold sequins would flake off when he slid on his knees while performing, and he also thought the creases were unflattering. This suit has proved especially influential, though, especially with some rappers, and Versace and Costume National have also sent models down the catwalk in head-to-toe gold.
One of the defining fashion moments not only in Elvis’ life, but in rock ‘n’ roll history, is when he dressed head-to-toe in provocative leather, gyrating his way through the ‘68 Comeback Special concert. After years spent making increasingly bland movies in Hollywood, the pressure was on Presley to show the world he was still relevant – and as soon as he stepped onto the stage, he was no longer a has-been. He was back, and he was dangerous. Like Marlon Brando before him, Elvis understood that slipping on a layer of cordovan is an empowering act.
Even when his fashion was at its most over the top off-stage, Elvis managed to pull it off. When he met with a strait-laced Richard Nixon in the White House in 1972, Presley wore a gold-buttoned pea coat-style jacket draped over his shoulders, a shirt with a collar bigger than the lapels on Nixon’s suit jacket, and a belt with a buckle the size of his head. What else would a King wear to meet a President?
“You dress kinda strange,” Nixon is reported to have said.
“Well, Mr. President,” Elvis is said to have replied, “you got your show, and I got mine.”
Although Elvis has been gone for over 40 years, his fashion influence still resonates. Long live the King.