When I realized that December 3, 2018 would be the 50th anniversary of Elvis’ incredible TV special, I knew I had to post an article to commemorate the occasion.
I also knew every other Elvis website and blog would be doing the same thing. I wanted to come up with something different, and I have. We are going to learn what a leading British fashion design journalist has to say about what Elvis wore on the show.
Zoey Goto regularly writes about fashion in Elle, Numero, GQ, and GQ Style. She gets to report from the front row of London Fashion Week. And she has written the delightful book Elvis Style, where we get all of the text to follow.
Burgundy Suit from the Gospel Sequence:
You might expect this photo-essay to start with the Black Leather Outfit, but be patient. It’s coming up.
Elvis sang a three-song Gospel medley wearing this burgundy suit:
“Where Could I Go but to the Lord”
“Up Above My Head”
Here is what my friend, Zoey Goto had to say about the Gospel suit. (I asked her to write it on just six days’ notice, and she really came through).
The burgundy suit is so very of its time – the earthy colour, the sheen of the fabric, the slim cut of the suit, and the exaggerated double breasted lapels all scream late 60s/early 70s menswear! Perhaps this is why the outfit is often overlooked when we think about the legendary ’68 Comeback Special. Because this style was so fashionable at that time, it now looks more dated than for example the leather suit, which was not such a part of the zeitgeist.
The most effective part of this outfit was the styling of the white shirt, with its elongated collars worn over the top of the suit jacket, teamed with the apache tie scarf, which really framed Elvis’ face. From the chest upwards he looks fantastic! However, in comparison to the white suit – which is roomier and has a nipped in waist – the tight, straight up-and-down cut of the burgundy suit is unforgiving. Yet Elvis is in such good shape physically, that he still manages to pull this outfit off with panache!
Well done, Zoey. That was great. And the passages from your book coming next are even better.
The white suit she mentioned is this one.
White Double-Breasted Suit from the “If I Can Dream” Finale.
Again, here is Zoey Goto’s review:
Out of the darkness, Elvis steps forward, his white suit instantly illuminated under the stage lights. He clutches the microphone between his hands almost as if praying, while behind him the word ELVIS is emblazoned in red lights.
It is the grand finale of his ’68 Comeback Special television program, and Elvis is giving an emotional rendition of the song “If I Can Dream” wearing a white double-breasted frock coat with a deep, single vent flap running down the back of his jacket – a signature of traditional American tailoring – which also allows Elvis to move with ease and to throw his arms wide at the end of the performance.
Six buttons run down the centre of the jacket, white slanted front pockets and a nipped-in waist emphasize his broad shoulders. Although the double-breasted jacket can add inches to the torso, the slim-line Elvis with his 32” waist, carries it off with grace.
His coordinated front pleated pants graze his ankles without a break, creating a pleasing line from the hip to his white leather ankle boots. To complete the look, Elvis wears a deep red scarf in the style of an Apache tie – an accessory that had become synonymous with Country & Western fashion, where a colourful scarf or hanky is secured at the neck with a scarf ring.
As a fashion statement, Elvis’ white suit is all about the Deep South. Stepping on stage, Elvis looks every inch the Southern plantation owner, a choice that initially seems incongruous, given that Elvis has borrowed so heavily from black music and is currently on stage singing a song about brothers walking hand in hand.
However, look at his costume again and it becomes a sartorial symbol of his success – Elvis has been elevated from his humble sharecropper origins to finally becoming the Big Boss Man, as he had been previously singing that evening. In essence, his outfit can be seen as a take on upward social mobility – one of the key factors of the American Dream, which Elvis had long been associated with.
And now, the one you’ve been waiting for.
Legendary Black Leather Outfit:
Earlier in the ’68 Comeback Special performance, Elvis had performed a medley of his earlier hits while wearing fitted black leather trousers and jacket, with a black low neck t-shirt underneath. The outfit was a nod to Elvis’ rebellious 1950s image, but this time a more aggressive, sexual presence was evident. Black leather had long been strongly associated with motorcycle gangs, as illustrated by Marlon Brando in The Wild One (1953).
In his youth, Elvis had admired James Dean, but back in the 1950s, Elvis’ own rockabilly image and flashy Lansky Brothers clothing belonged to a very different tribe of rebellion.
Aside from owning a couple of leather jackets, Elvis had never been a devoted leather wearer, but given the luxury of revisiting his youthful image, Elvis embellished and reinterpreted history. Up on stage, as Elvis gyrates his way through a string of nostalgic hits, he instantly acquires the toughness and potency that his leather outfit lends.
Look carefully at Elvis’ leather outfit, though, and it differs considerably from Brando’ Perfecto motorcycle jacket. Rather than the traditional studded biker jacket, with zippers running across the torso and a belted waist, Elvis’ version is essentially a denim jacket shape, but made in leather. This was not accidental – the designer Bill Belew was at the time finding inspiration in the blue jean outfits that the kids on the street were wearing.
Knowing that Elvis avoided denim as he associated it with the poverty of his childhood, Belew decided to have a denim jacket and trousers traced and remade in black leather, adding a few touches such as a front seam running down the trousers and hand stitching the yoke.
Here are some other tidbits Zoey Goto shares with the readers:
This outfit marks the first time Elvis wore the high, Napoleon-inspired collar, which later became a signature of his jumpsuits and was employed to frame his face.
On each wrist is a leather cuff. Although leather cuffs had been worn by cowboys to protect their wrists for over a century, Elvis’ buckled cuffs looked more like precursor to the leather wristbands worn by the punks in the mid-seventies.
Elvis’ ’68 comeback Special jacket and trousers were made from cordovan leather, the thick hide of the rump of the horse which is usually only used to make shoes. Elvis became so sweat-drenched in this rugged material that he had to literally be peeled out of the costume at the end of the performance.
Zoey meshed her thoughts with those of Japanese-born designer Atsuko Kudo to sum it all up nicely:
We all dress for sex appeal and attention, and this look does that in a very big way – he was like a peacock. This was Elvis’ comeback performance, the pressure was on to make a big statement and to dress in a way that empowered him. This outfit did that.
I am so thankful Zoey Goto went along with me repeating part of her wonderful book Elvis Style. I’ve covered parts of it twice before in ElvisBlog:
A Look at Elvis’ Taste in Hats
Elvis’ Fashion Legacy
But Elvis Style covers so much more than just Elvis’ wardrobe. As the back cover says,
“Zoey Goto investigates why Elvis was, and continues to be, an icon of style, focusing on his wonderfully expressive hairstyles, clothes, cars, and interiors.”
This is such a uniquely different Elvis book. I highly recommend you get a copy.
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