Elvis: Visual Look, Costume Design, Style

Among other issues, Baz Luhrmann’s extravagant biopic, Elvis, explores how his Memphis upbringing shaped the music and style of the King of Rock’n’Roll

Austin Butler in Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis.
Austin Butler in Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis.
Photograph: Warner Brothers

The opulent Luhrmann-directed biopic portrays the king of rock’n’roll as an audaciously counter-cultural artist whose music and image had challenged the prejudices and stereotypes of the world around him.

“I try and make movies that deal with what’s going on now,” the director said. Luhrmann and his wife and collaborator, costume designer Catherine Martin, have created an on-screen portrait of the teenage Elvis. He wears lace blouses and carries his cassette tapes in a glossy leather manbag. Heavy-lidded and pouting under a sailor cap, he swivels his hips on stage with boundless energy.

In Luhrmann’s lush retelling of the mythology, the title role, played by the 30-year-old American actor Austin Butler, is cast as a beautiful innocent ensnared by the wiles of his greedy manager, Colonel Tom Parker, played against type by Tom Hanks.

The film explores how Elvis’s upbringing in largely Black neighborhood in segregated Memphis shaped his music and his style.

British singer Yola, who plays Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the queer, Black “godmother of rock’n’roll” revered by Lizzo as a hero, recalled Luhrmann saying: “We need to put the story into context, to show that Elvis came from a Black world.”

The young Elvis is shown mesmerized by gospel in a church service and singing with BB King in the blues venue Club Handy on Beale Street, Memphis.

Newspaper headlines on screen state: “Elvis the Pelvis belongs in the Jungle,” or “The White Boy with Black Hips.” They testify to the prejudice and hostility with which the Black roots of his hits were met by the establishment. Luhrmann concurred: “Elvis was at the center of culture, for the good, the bad and the ugly. You can’t talk about America in that period without talking about race.”

Austin Butler and Olivia DeJonge in Elvis.
Austin Butler, Olivia DeJonge in Elvis. Photograph: Warner Brothers

Fashion in Elvis is based on the lengthy collaboration between Luhrmann, Martin and the designer Miuccia Prada, who has created clothes for Luhrmann’s films for 30 years and who dressed the entire cast for the recent Met Gala in New York.

Some of the costumes actually rework outfits that Elvis and other characters wore in real life, while others take artistic license from the Prada and Miu Miu archives.

Luhrmann has spoken of his love for “the color and the dazzle, but also the darkness of popular culture,” a perspective he shares with Prada, who fuses subcultural currents with high-gloss glamour.

Meanwhile, Martin described costume design as “a process of supporting the storytelling and characterization. In ballroom dancing they say that the woman is the flower and the man is the vase. In a film, I am the vase and Baz and the actors are the flowers.”

the film gives audiences antidote to the tragedy of Elvis in its portrayal of his wife, Priscilla Presley, who “went from being this quintessential 1950s female, to being her own woman in the 1960s and 1970s, in a story that reflects the journey of women in that century”, said Martin. “She survived being Elvis’s wife – imagine that,” said Olivia DeJonge, who plays Priscilla.

Prada’s lavish costumes–including citrus skirt suit, and beaded top worn with brocade kick-flare trousers–were created for DeJonge. They are deliberately modern in feel, designed to bring Priscilla Presley to life for contemporary audiences. DeJonge, who met Presley for the first time at the Cannes screening, recalled that “by the end we were holding hands and crying.”