At 85, Elvis Presley is still menswear's greatest style icon
If he were still alive today, Elvis would be blowing out 85 candles on his birthday cake. Sadly, a love of cheeseburgers and prescription meds nixed that, but his style legacy will never die (on a toilet or otherwise). In the 42 years that he graced this earth, The Memphis Flash singlehandedly changed the way that men dress; from rockabilly to more-is-more jewellery, Elvis remains one of those rare icons whose fashion legacy has outlived their career. Granted, we're not all wearing lamé jumpsuits these days. But the King remains as big an influence on your wardrobe as ever.
Elvis Was The Godfather Of Bling
Born dirt-poor, in a wooden shack in the Deep South, Elvis rocketed out of his impoverished childhood when he scored his first Billboard number one, 'Heartbreak Hotel', aged just 21. Its success enabled him to fully indulge his taste for ostentatious fashion, and as Tommy Hilfiger once put it, he quickly became "the first white boy to really bling it up".
He did this spectacularly in 1957, donning a gold suit for the cover of the album 50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can’t be Wrong. Elvis’ dazzling outfit, which cost $10,000, was a bling forerunner, showing the world that this poor boy from Mississippi was ready to take his throne as the golden boy of entertainment. During his lifetime, Elvis also splashed out on more than 260 cars, including a limo painted with crushed diamonds (which cost the modern equivalent of half a million US dollars), as well as private jets with gold-plated bathrooms, and mountains of diamond jewellery, which he threw out to fans at concerts as if it were confetti.
Where Elvis led, others followed. Rap's love of bling is obvious, but the King's gold suit has proved especially influential. Artists as varied as Tupac and Brandon Flowers have since given their tailoring the Midas touch, Versace and Costume National have sent models down the catwalk in head-to-toe gold, and Justin Bieber, Bruno Mars and Jared Leto have played it a little safer in metallic gold blazers with Elvis-esque black lapels.
Elvis Pioneered Gender-Fluid Fashion
When Elvis burst into – and arguably birthed – pop culture in the in the mid-Fifties, he bent the era's rigid gender rules and encouraged young men to experiment with clothing, which had previously been a purely female pastime. In a climate of Brooks Brothers conformity, Elvis’ fondness for bubble-gum pink clothing, lace, lashings of mascara and navel-baring cropped shirts, disrupted the status quo. He spearheaded gender-fluidity before it was even a thing, and paved the way for Harry Styles's hot pink suits.
Elvis pushed gender boundaries throughout his career, famously making floral prints cool in the Sixties when he wore a red hibiscus shirt for the movie Blue Hawaii. Prada, Dior, and Saint Laurent have all since adapted the Aloha style.
But the King’s most memorable binary-busting look remains his flamboyant, body-skimming jumpsuits, which opened the door for a new generation of male peacock. David Bowie took Elvis’s jumpsuit silhouette to extremes, wearing spandex catsuits designed to attract an erotic gaze, and Mick Jagger wore a white dress for a gig in Hyde Park, still leaving the stage every inch the virile male. "The flamboyance of Elvis’s stage-wear liberated men to wear clothes that were more outrageous than they had worn since the nineteenth century," says British tailor Edward Sexton. Fifty years on, we're still enjoying the sartorial freedoms he ushered in.
Elvis Was The Original Rockabilly Rebel
Even if you've never been one for the full pompadour look, rockabilly's fashion influence is undeniable, perhaps most apparent in the camp collared shirts that have been ubiquitous for the last few years. It's another Elvis original. The mid-century Elvis look – slicked up quiff, two-tone bowling shirt with a popped-collar, drape jacket, pegged pants and penny loafers – remains Presley’s most iconic and accessible style, epitomised in the 1957 movie Jailhouse Rock, where Elvis stars in all his lip-curling, double-denim-wearing glory. If you're going in Elvis fancy dress, that's the one you pick. But it's not just for costume.
As the late designer Joe Casely-Hayford put it, “Elvis was at the forefront in defining a new anti-establishment visual language." He was the original rebel, but he made that status accessible. "Aside from good looks, he knew the appeal of being an outsider. Even today, a distilled version of his look has filtered down into the wardrobes of any self-respecting teenage rebel."
Elvis’s brand of subcultural cool reached beyond the States, influencing the British Teddy Boys, who in the Fifties added a dash of Edwardian dandy into their sartorial cocktail. Rockabilly style has since been reclaimed by each new generation. Recent interpretations have come from pompadour-wearing musicians like Alex Turner and La Roux, and on the runway, Bottega Veneta has channeled the look in nostalgic brothel creepers and western ties. Comme des Garçons even took boyish Elvis’s quiff to parody heights for its beatnik SS19 show.
Elvis Made Cowhide Cool
It remains one of the defining moments in rock 'n' roll history: Elvis, 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.
As soon as Elvis stepped onto the stage dressed like a Tom of Finland drawing, he was no longer a has-been. He was back, and he was dangerous. Like Marlon Brando before him, or Beyoncé paying homage to the Black Panthers during the 2016 Superbowl, Elvis understood that slipping on a layer of cordovan is an empowering act.
Since Elvis, black leather is the go-to for any on-the-ropes performer looking to reinvent themselves with an outlaw edge. Stars such as Suzi Quatro, Bono, Robbie Williams, Britney Spears and Lady Gaga have all worn interpretations of Elvis’s seductive leather suit, securing its place in fashion folklore, and brands from Saint Laurent to John Lawrence Sullivan have send all-over cowhide down the runway.