Back on January 8, Elvis’ 84th birthday was celebrated in many ways. One was the 12th Graceland Auction. There’s lots of cool stuff I want to report on, starting with his famous red velvet shirt. The shirt topped the field of 233 entries with the highest winning bid. Ten bids ran the price up to $37,500 (including 25% buyer’s premium).
The most interesting thing to me is that it was so bid so high in spite of a large section of the fabric being cut off.
Didn’t matter. It was still Graceland Auction’s big star. I try to predict how things will be bid compared to the estimate. I have a fairly good average. On this one, I was pretty sure bidders wouldn’t care about the flaws that much. I thought it would hit its estimate of $30-50,000, and it did.
We are talking about the custom-made red velvet shirt that Elvis wore during the evening show at the September 26, 1956 Mississippi-Alabama Fair & Dairy Show in Tupelo.
According to the auction website:
“This shirt is perhaps one of the most significant artifacts of clothing from a key period in Elvis’ life. Any Elvis-worn clothing from the 1950s is rare enough–we have seen few examples. But a shirt possibly worn by Elvis at one of the most important 1950’s concerts in his career is unprecedented.”
This shot from the back shows the irregular cut removing the bottom part of the shirt. Here’s a look at the full length.
The auction website does a superb job with background on this iconic red velvet shirt. Here is the text as written by Jeff Marren and Laura Pickett.
“1956 was one of the most pivotal years for Elvis because it was during the course of these 12 months that Elvis rose to superstardom and international acclaim. With his Sun contract being purchased by RCA, Elvis produced not one, but two million-dollar-selling albums this year with several huge hits including “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Don’t Be Cruel” and “Hound Dog”; he appeared on national television more than ten times; performed over 140 concerts in more than 75 cities; starred in his first Hollywood feature film, Love Me Tender; and signed a seven-year contract with Paramount Pictures.
“This momentous year catapults Elvis from the edge of fame into the stratosphere, and as his popularity gains momentum, it’s evident that he is destined for greatness and success like no other entertainer before him.
“In August of 1956, Elvis began filming for his first movie role in The Reno Brothers, later renamed Love Me Tender to capitalize on the success of his smash hit. After shooting wrapped for Love Me Tender in mid-September, Elvis returned to his hometown of Tupelo, Mississippi on September 26, 1956 to perform a pair of shows on the stage of the Mississippi-Alabama Fair & Dairy Show.”
“The international phenomenon returned to great fanfare and pride among his hometown folk who welcomed him with a giant banner that read Tupelo Welcomes Elvis Presley Home.”
“Tupelo mayor James Ballard presented Elvis with a guitar-shaped Key to the City, and Mississippi governor J.P. Coleman read a proclamation during the fair honoring Elvis.”
“It was during these two concerts that Elvis famously wore two different velvet shirts, he sported the blue velvet shirt in the afternoon performance and the red velvet during the evening show.”
“The shirts are rumored to have either been gifted to him by Natalie Wood or made for him by his mother. While the facts surrounding the origins of the shirts vary, the fact that he wore these special shirts on several occasions, including his Tupelo homecoming performance, is undisputed. And despite advance planning, it was not without a bit of drama that he was able to wear these special shirts during this famous homecoming.
“Alanna Nash recalls in her book entitled Baby Let’s Play House: Elvis Presley and the Women Who Loved Him that the “heartbreak blue” shirt:
…almost didn’t make it to Tupelo. Barbara Hearn was Elvis’s date, and early that morning on Audubon Drive, where the Presleys were having remodeling work done, “Elvis handed me something on a clothes hanger with a laundry cover on it. He said, ‘Hold this.’ There was a bit of confusion, and lots of people around, and I stood there holding it until I thought, ‘Gosh, I’m not a closet rod here,’ and I laid it on the sofa.”
They rode down together in Elvis’s new white Lincoln Mark II, and when they arrived at the dressing tent, Elvis suddenly turned to Barbara. “Where’s my shirt? Do you have my shirt?” “What shirt?” “The shirt I gave you to hold this morning.” Oh, gosh! She didn’t know he meant to bring that shirt! Barbara felt really bad, but Elvis was very sweet about it. They just quickly called somebody in Memphis who hadn’t left yet, and they brought it on down.
“Elvis so treasured these fabulous shirts that the performances in Tupelo were not the only occasion on which he would wear them. Elvis can also be seen wearing both the red velvet shirt and the blue velvet shirt in the earlier promotional photos taken for Love Me Tender shot at the beginning of September 1956.”
“Furthermore, the red velvet shirt is donned by Elvis on the cover of his album For LP Fans Only which featured recordings from 1956 but was not released until February 1959. He wore these shirts again in mid-October at home on Audubon Drive as seen in photos of him playing with the dog, Sweet Pea, that he gave to his mother.”
‘…and on January 1957 after rehearsals for his last appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show with a vest over the shirt.”
“He also appears wearing one of the velvet shirts in an image used in Baby Let’s Play House by Alanna Nash in which Elvis is sitting in a theater next to Natalie Wood and Nick Adams.”
“Offered is very likely the red velvet shirt which Elvis cherished, as evidenced by the many times he lovingly wore it for significant events. This iconic shirt from so early in Elvis’ career and the start of the cultural revolution that his music and style would spark is a quintessential relic from a pivotal time in entertainment history.”
“Unequivocal photomatching is nearly impossible with a shirt of this construction and fabric, and this is further complicated by the very small number of photographs from the period, especially from the evening concert on September 26, 1956.”
(Here are two photos of the red shirt at the evening show)
“And this is further complicated by the very small number of photographs from the period, especially from the evening concert on September 26, 1956. That being said, photos that do exist from the concert, and the early September Love Me Tender publicity photo shoot, do show strong similarities to the offered shirt.”
“The placement and shape of the buttons, the style and shape of the ruffled seams and the position of the seams at the chest all show at least a passing correlation to the same areas on the offered garment. The shirt has most likely shrunk somewhat, either from improper cleaning or a poor storage environment, and a portion has been removed from the bottom. This may have been done to remove a damaged area of the fabric, though we cannot be sure.
“The strongest evidence that this is the shirt worn by Elvis in Tupelo and elsewhere in 1956 and early 1957 is our consignor herself. The shirt originates from Marilyn Pritchett Pruit, who was married to Elvis’ cousin for a period starting in the late 1960s and was given the shirt at Graceland in 1969. Her letter of provenance, which accompanies the shirt, states:
On Dec. 21, 1968 I married Jesse Earl Pritchett, son of Nashville Lorene Presley Pritchett. Nash was the baby sister of Vernon Presley, Elvis’ father. At Elvis’ New Years Eve party in 1968, I met Elvis. I was not a diehard fan, so I wasn’t going to faint when I met him!! Well I almost did. JE, as I called my husband, called Elvis over to meet me. Elvis said “Hi Marilyn” and I could not speak, nothing would come out of my mouth. He was the most gorgeous man I had ever laid eyes on. Elvis found that very amusing.
Sometime around the middle of 1969 I was at Graceland and Elvis had Aunt Delta Biggs going thru his closet. It was packed and he wanted to send some clothes to Goodwill. This red shirt, one of the ones that Natalie Wood had made for him in the 50’s was in the clothes Aunt Delta had taken to send. I picked up the shirt and was admiring it. Seeing I liked it, Elvis gave me the shirt. It has been my pleasure to own it for almost 50 years. I hope you will cherish it as much as I have.
(Graceland Auctions has confirmed that when Mrs. Pritchett received the shirt, the portion had already been trimmed from the bottom. So, we don’t know how it happened and probably never will).
“This shirt is perhaps one of the most significant artifacts of clothing from a key period in Elvis’ life. Any Elvis-worn clothing from the 1950s is rare enough–we have seen few examples. But a shirt possibly worn by Elvis at one of the most important 1950’s concerts in his career is unprecedented. This extraordinary shirt is accompanied by a letter of authenticity from Graceland Authenticated.”
“The shirt’s fabric remains amazingly supple to the touch, and all but one button on the left cuff is completely intact. The interior tagging is missing and a portion of the shirt has been trimmed from the bottom of the shirt.”
In spite of these things, the auction graded the shirt as “Very Good to Excellent condition.” And I’m sure the new owner is delighted to own it. I know I would.
Photographs and text by permission, copyright 2019
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