Elvis Presley died in 1977, but the iconic image of him performing, as the still undisputed king of roll and roll in his jumpsuit stage costume, remains instantly recognizable all these years later, not just in America but also all around the world.
Perhaps the myth that Elvis still lives on has some truth in it, in that his many impersonators are often to be seen still performing their Elvis tribute shows in most cities of the world today. Almost invariably, they choose to wear a copy of his jumpsuit stage costume.
In fact Elvis adopted his jumpsuit style of stage costume quite late in his career. It was after his 1968 comeback television concert that his singing career resumed, and his main base for performing shows became Las Vegas from around 1969. He wanted to distinguish his rock and roll style from that of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr. and the other tuxedo wearing crooner-style singers who played often in Las Vegas at that time. A tuxedo was not his style, and he needed a fresh look for his stage costume.
Elvis turned to leading designer Bill Belew for ideas, who designed a two piece costume inspired by the interest Elvis had in the martial arts. This concept soon evolved into a one piece jumpsuit in wool gabardine, with a high collar, flared legs, pointed sleeve cuffs and a very deep “V” neckline that partially bared Elvis’ chest.
This basic outfit remained the signature stage costume for Elvis from around 1969 through to his death in 1977. However, there were many embellishments through this time, with accessories and elaborate decorations added in numerous variations.
The color of the jumpsuits varied. While the white version was often favored to show up the brightly colored embellishments and to stand out on stage, there were also a variety of other colors used.
A cape was popular with Elvis for a few years early on, but was rarely seen from around 1974. A scarf was often added. A broad belt with a large buckle took over from the karate style of tied belt used at the start. Rhinestones, metal studs and other decorative designs were used increasingly, and elaborate embroidered patterns followed. The workmanship of Gene Douchette was an important influence on the many decorative variations on successive jumpsuits, drawing inspiration from many concepts, ranging from peacock feathers through to the American eagle.
These richly decorated stage costumes were striking in appearance, and often cost thousands of dollars to make.