In celebration of what would be Elvis Presley’s 75th birthday, Graceland is shaking things up with three new exhibits on his style, his childhood and his iconic stage costumes. The "Fashion King” exhibit will be on display through March 2011. The stage costumes and early years exhibits continue through the year.
Celebrating Elvis happens daily at Graceland, the Memphis, Tenn., mansion-turned-museum he bought in 1957 and where he lived until his death in 1977. But not often do visitors get to see so many of his costumes, his personal wardrobe and items from childhood. Many items are on view for the first time.
"There are actually lots of things that have never been on display before,” said Angie Marchese, Graceland’s director of archives. "Only about one-tenth of our collection is actually on display at Graceland. ... Elvis’ father never threw anything away, so we just have so much stuff.”
"From Tupelo to Memphis” chronicles Elvis’ childhood, growing up in Mississippi and moving to Memphis, through his high school years to the recording of "That’s All Right” at Sun Studios in July 1954. The exhibit includes his first-grade crayon box, third-grade and seventh-grade report cards (he got an F in music), a couple of items belonging to his mother and a trunk the Presleys brought from Tupelo to Memphis.
The other two exhibits focus on his style — what he wore personally and what he wore on stage. One chronicles his stage costumes and the evolution of those designs, starting with his return to Las Vegas in 1969 to the late 1970s. Anyone remember the two-piece karate outfits inspired by his infatuation with the sport? The design then evolved into jumpsuits with capes and supersize belts, to the intricately embroidered jumpsuits he wore in the late 1970s.
The first jumpsuit Elvis wore cost $400. As costumes became more elaborate, the price soared to as much as $1,800. One spectacular piece is the King of Spades wool gabardine cape with red satin lining. It’s embellished with stones from Austria and weighs 30 pounds. Elvis wore the cape in 1973-74.
Perhaps the showstopper and most intimate of the three exhibits is "Elvis Presley: Fashion King.” It’s a chance to walk through Elvis’ closet and see what he wore personally, Marchese said. About 200 pieces are displayed boutique-style, as if you’re going shopping in a store. All of the clothes are something Elvis would have worn or purchased.
Along with the handmade shirts, pants, jackets, coats, hats, scarves, shoes (he wore a size 12), ties and jewelry are a couple of guns and badges. "With Elvis, guns and badges were more of an accessory,” she said.
The King also was into bling long before it became stylish. The TCB ring features an 11.5-carat diamond solitaire surrounded by two lightning bolts. TCB stands for taking care of business, Elvis’ motto. The ring, with 16 carats of diamonds, cost about $35,000 in the 1970s. The exhibit also includes a custom Maltese cross necklace featuring more than 200 quarter-cut diamonds.
"The fashion exhibit really gave us an opportunity to explore Elvis’ personal wardrobe, which a lot of it has never been on display before because a majority of our exhibits are about his career,” said Marchese.
When visitors come to Graceland, they usually want to see the pink Cadillac, the house, the gold lame suit, the black leather suit (the pants have a 28-inch waist) and the "Aloha” suit.
"Those are the iconic things people know they want to see,” she said. "A lot of our exhibit spaces are dedicated to iconic things, not his personal sense of style. The fashion exhibit really gave us a chance to explore this collection of clothing we have. We have around 4,000 pieces of clothing in the collection. Only 88 of those items are stage wear.”
Marchese said more than 80,000 items currently are cataloged in the Elvis collection. The largest part of the collection being cataloged now is more than 20,000 documents. "When we get done cataloging, it’s estimated we will have over 1 million pieces of paper, cancelled checks, contracts, receipts, sketches of jumpsuits, letters, fan mail.”
A lot of museums will have one part of the story, such as the object, but no documentation for it. The Elvis collection is likely to have not only the shirt, but the receipt from the store, the canceled check and a photograph of Elvis in that shirt, she said.
While Elvis was a trendsetter, Marchese said it was never intentional. "He was true to himself. It goes back to when he was in high school. He wore his hair long, and he greased it back, and he had the sideburns. He wasn’t afraid to wear the pink shirts with the black slacks with the pink trim going down the sides when all the other boys were wearing blue jeans and T-shirts.
"Elvis was always aware of his appearance and always wanted to look nice, but he was always true to who he was and his sense of style. He didn’t care if people liked it or not. It was just what he liked to wear. He would frequently shop at stores mainly patronized by African-Americans because he liked their clothes. They were bold and kind of made a statement, and he liked that.”