Hidden For Years At Graceland, His Clothes Have Left The Building

By Guy Trebay (New York Times)Nov 15, 2003
THE weeping fans and screaming mobs seem a universe away from the hush of a knoll at Graceland. The musical genius born in a two-room house in Tupelo, Miss., died in a kind of squalor not far along the road here, amid the wreckage of his own global fame. The public man has been well delineated. The private one remains somehow fugitive, and yet his presence can be powerfully felt here at a storage place near his homestead shrine where the air smells of must and where the documents of a singular life are stored. Among the nearly one million Elvis artifacts in Graceland's collection are 6,000 items of clothing. In the fine stitchery, extravagant ornament, opulent patterns and the thrift of generic store goods, another part of the Elvis myth can be discerned. He had large feet, for instance, and until nearly the end, a teenager's narrow waist. He had linebacker shoulders and a big head, and not just as a result of the pompadour and all the adulation. That Elvis Presley was a clothes hound is not lost on anyone remotely familiar with the late legend. Since his death on Aug. 16, 1977, the legacy of Elvis Aaron Presley as an American style setter and icon has blurred into many others, not least of which is the King as a sequined sight gag, bloated, drugged and lacquered, barricaded behind his celebrity and his wraparound shades. Like much about Elvis, the reality tends to be more nuanced and complex. And now, after decades in storage at Graceland, which has never exhibited more than a fraction of his wardrobe, Elvis's clothes will become known to the public in "Elvis Fashion: From Memphis to Vegas" (Universe Publishing), a book due in early December. The book marks a change in both the cult and the culture of Elvis, opening the closets and the archives to reveal unexpected aspects of a man about whom it is easy to feel that everything is already known. "For years, Elvis Presley Enterprises had a fortress mentality," said John Strausbaugh, author of "E: Reflections on the Birth of the Elvis Faith." In its zeal to safeguard Elvis's image, the singer's estate may inadvertently have trapped it in the amber of misconception and false memory. The flamboyant Elvis of the studded jumpsuits was just one incarnation. There were other and more radical Elvises that, if they did not outright alter American sartorial tastes and habits, prefigured important pop cultural trends of the next 30 years. "One of the really important ways in which he influenced fashion is that he bought his clothes at Lansky's," explained Ann Powers, the senior curator at the Experience Music Project in Seattle, referring to the landmark Memphis haberdashery whose clientele in the 1950's was primarily black. Ms. Powers said that Elvis was "a white man dressing in black people's clothing," just as he was a white man adapting black music to his own use. Beyond that, he was a highly singular white man who chose for himself the most extravagant of raiment, garments that, Ms. Powers suggested, flouted not merely the unwritten dress codes of segregation but migrated freely across the boundaries of sex. It was Elvis's hip swiveling, but also his pink clothes, his voluminous trousers and his eyeshadow that armed critics with what they called "evidence" of his power to destroy the morals of American youth. "We did a lot of ethnic business in those days, and in the ethnic business they went into the high-fashion mohairs, the silks and wools, the purples and the chartreuse and the gold lamé," recalled Bernard J. Lansky, the store's proprietor, who is 77. It was Mr. Lansky who sold Elvis his famous gold lamé jacket in 1956, for the impressive sum of $125. "Elvis was working as a movie theater usher at Loews theater, and he used to go down to the churches around town and see what the people doing the gospel music wore," Mr. Lansky said. "He liked the way they operated. He knew what was happening. He was sharp." Indeed, the designer Tommy Hilfiger said, Elvis was "the first white boy to really bling it up." He was one of the first performers of any race, Mr. Hilfiger added, "to view himself as being very sexy and masculine but with a certain femininity." With his shoe-blacked hair and eyebrows (his natural color was sandy brown), his rolled sleeves and smudgy eyes, he was an instinctive manipulator of symbols, a forerunner of the modern celebrity and the progenitor of an image whose life span extends to generations barely aware of his music, as even a casual stroll through the sideburns and pompadours of the Lower East Side or Williamsburg makes plain. "From the early pictures you can see him transforming himself, and picking out the sharpest duds he can find," Mr. Strausbaugh said. "He completely understood on some level, maybe just intuitively, the need to craft and manipulate one's image and that clothes have a lot to do with that." It helped, of course that Elvis always, from the very beginning, loved clothes. "My favorite hobby is collecting these real cool outfits," he once told a reporter. "I'd almost rather wear them than eat." It is Elvis the lifelong dandy who was retrieved 10 years ago from the wardrobe room at Graceland, a converted second-floor bedroom closed to the public, fitted with cedar-lined closets and shoe racks and decorated with a fake-fur cocoon bed with a stereo in the canopy. The bed was first put in storage and is now displayed in his parents' former apartment, adjacent to the celebrated Jungle Room, with its Polynesian furniture and shag carpeted floor and ceiling. The clothes, mismatched socks included, were photographed, entered into a database and moved to an archive on the grounds of Graceland, its location kept secret to safeguard a collection whose market value is inestimable. "Elvis tends to do well at auction," said Margaret Barrett, head of the popular arts department at Christie's, which sold a single Elvis shirt for $29,000 in 1999. The jumpsuits, Ms. Barrett noted, have fetched as much as $150,000 apiece. "What people like the best," Ms. Barrett said, "is being able to say that he actually wore this on his body." It was in the Aladdin's cave of the archive building that Julie Mundy fell upon these unknown treasures when she visited Graceland to research her book. "There is not a lot left from the early career from the 1950's," said Ms. Mundy, referring to the pink shirts, lamé tuxedos, trousers that were exaggeratedly baggy at first and then just as exaggeratedly pegged. One reason for this is that Elvis's manager, Colonel Tom Parker, had many of the early clothes cut up to include as souvenirs in a four-record boxed set of flip sides from 50 of Elvis's big hits, released in August of 1971. "They put an envelope inside each with a swatch," said Todd Morgan, the media director at Graceland. "That's how a lot was lost. Who knows what all was in his closet when they gathered that up?" As Elvis's wealth grew, his tastes changed, the radical rockabilly and black styles of the 50's becoming the conservative suits and porkpie hats of the 60's. The "square" clothes Edith Head designed for his film career gave way to flamboyant jumpsuits, cape collars, patchwork leathers and the glitter that he wore when he resumed his concert career. "They do have absolutely everything," Ms. Mundy remarked of the Graceland archive, and a visit there confirms the existence of a trove replete with fake-fur hats and patent leather boots and concha belts and jogging suits and karate outfits and Hermès scarves and wool gabardine jumpsuits made by the people who sewed costumes for the Ice Capades. There are also riding breeches and high-collared tuxedos and silk pajamas and both boxer shorts and briefs bought in bulk by Presley himself from a nearby Sears. And there are the Rat Pack styles made by the tailor Sy Devore, and dress clothes designed for Elvis by the Las Vegas costumer Bill Belew that would not look out of place on a Gucc

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