Without the pompadour, no Elvis costume can be considered complete. Impersonators would never consider going without Elvis’s patent leather coiffure. Austin Butler’s hair in Mr. Luhrmann’s film is shoe-blacked just as Elvis’s was. What each has in common with the other is hair that in its natural state is some shade of blonde.
In civilian life, and as his income grew, Elvis became an early adopter of fashions. Like many hipsters and countless musicians of the late 1950s, he favored Cuban-collared shirts, wide-legged, pleated trousers, slip-on loafers and blouson jackets — a style that men’s wear labels like Prada revisit with clocklike regularity.
Unlike millions of other Americans then and now, Elvis seldom wore jeans outside of the films he starred in once Hollywood discovered the handsome working class Southern hero and put him to work making 31 movies in 13 years. Elvis disliked denim, it was said, because it was too sharp a reminder of his humble origins.
Because Elvis was in certain ways less an innovator than a force magnifier, it seems like a stretch to credit him, as many do, with originating trends for floral print aloha shirts (which enjoyed a vogue after the release of his 1961 film “Blue Hawaii”) or skintight cowhide suits, like the black leather one he wore for a 1968 television comeback special, or a rockabilly style already well entrenched among fans of the rural subculture by the time he came to fame.
Yet for anyone tracing the lineage of men’s wear styles, whether for snap-button Western shirts, winkle-picker shoes, argyle socks, penny loafers or quiffs, Elvis is inevitably there in the pedigree.
Is it perverse to find magnificence in the most parodied element of Elvis’s style evolution? That is, his famous jumpsuits, the costume default of impersonators and trick-or-treaters on Halloween. Typically treated as sartorial jokes, these jumpsuits emblematize the star at his apogee, that moment before his fame and his life collapsed on him and he crumpled to earth. Those glittering garments with their embroideries and nailhead patterns or paste gem barnacles were precursors to the stage-wear worn by every pop star — Prince, David Bowie, Harry Styles — who ever invited his fans to feast their eyes on him erotically.
Oddly, at their core, the one-piece unisex garments were a practical solution devised by Bill Belew, Elvis’s costume designer, to allow him to move freely onstage while maintaining his silhouette. The standup collars, like the lace neck ruffs on a Spanish infanta in a Velázquez portrait, not only framed Elvis’s classical profile, but also seemed to hold up his noble head.
They did something else, though. Dressed in those jumpsuits, Elvis not only cemented an image destined to endure far beyond that of any other pop star but rendered him a near divinity.
If proof is needed, just watch the final concert, in 1977. Though puffy and paunchy, short of breath and with sweat rivulets streaking a face stuccoed with pancake, his trademark hairdo stiff as a wig, Elvis nevertheless rouses himself from a lackluster opening number to achieve a state resembling exaltation.
Dressed in his white Mexican Sundial suit, bedecked front and back with an image of the Aztec sunstone depicting five consecutive worlds of the sun, Elvis moves slowly across the stage like a sacred idol, trailed by a stage hand with a bundle of snowy white scarves draped across one arm. One by one, the helper hands them to Elvis, who drapes each briefly around his neck for consecration before tossing it to eager supplicants.
At this point Elvis has surpassed the limits of fashion and stardom. And, while very soon he would be dead, at this precise moment Elvis Presley was apotheosized.