Elvis Jumpsuits; All Access, the greatest-ever exhibit of Elvis Presley's iconic stage costumes from the major concert era of his career, 1969-1977, officially opened today in the visitor center at the music superstar's beloved Graceland Mansion in Memphis, Tennessee. While the permanent exhibits at Graceland relating the story of Elvis' career include 16 of these costumes, the special new exhibit features a dazzling 56 additional Presley stage outfits. The displays chart the evolution of the design of Elvis' stage-wear of this era, from simple two-piece karate-inspired suits to the famed "jumpsuits" with elaborate rhinestone and metal studding and matching capes. A selection of accessories, photographs and performance footage complete the exhibit, which will be in place for two years.
After focusing much of the 1960s on his career as a movie actor, not performing in front of a live audience for over seven years, the triumph of Elvis' 1968 concert television special prompted a permanent return to the concert stage with a sold-out, critically acclaimed month-long Las Vegas engagement in the summer of 1969. Elvis did not want to wear a tuxedo, which was basically the uniform of male crooners working in that town. He was going there to rock. Wanting something different and special, he called upon Bill Belew, who had designed the now-classic black leather suit and other outfits for the '68 special. Inspired by Elvis' great interest in karate, Belew came up with simple two-piece gabardine suits in with tunic-style tops and simple, long karate-style belts knotted to one side with the ends dangling from the hip.
In Elvis' two Vegas engagements of 1970, the first one-piece gabardine outfits (jumpsuits) appeared. Most had high Napoleonic collars, mod Italian-style pointed sleeve cuffs and – as was the fashion of the day – flared legs. This became the basic design for most of the jumpsuits to follow as Elvis continued his regular Las Vegas engagements twice a year and as he toured nationally in concert from late 1970 until his death in August 1977. The first jumpsuits were simple in their ornamentation – for instance, some with metal accents, some with long fringe. All had long coordinating belts knotted and dangling to the side – some in cloth with ornamentation to match the suit, some with fringe, some in macramé. In the early 70s, the jumpsuits evolved with increasingly elaborate metal rhinestone studding, matching capes and coordinating big-buckle leather belts. From a point in 1974 on, the jumpsuit designs featured ever flashier and more intricate embroidery work, some depicting animals – eagles, a tiger, a dragon, phoenixes, a zebra – and the capes were phased out.
Today, the jumpsuits look dated to some of the general public, but Elvis fans and pop culture historians know that these outfits were way cool in the 1970s. "When Elvis began wearing the jumpsuits, he and designer Bill Belew created a new style that many popular entertainers of the time incorporated into their own stage-wear," stated Graceland/Elvis Presley Enterprises archives director, Angie Marchese. "The craftsmanship of Bill Belew and his team - including Gene Doucette, who is a master with embroidery – was exquisite and the designs were cutting edge. Each one of the outfits is its own special work of art."
"You could be daring as a designer and put anything on Elvis and he could make it work," stated Bill Belew. "And the simplest outfits that didn't seem particularly remarkable on the rack transformed into something spectacular when Elvis put them on. He was that beautiful and powerful a presence. As a wardrobe designer Bob Mackie had a perfect muse and a perfect canvas in Cher. I got to have that in Elvis."