Elvis, reborn

“You need to imagine the complete life of a character” – Catherine Martin, the costume designer behind Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis
By Ella Joyce | Film+TV | 12 October 2022

Still, ‘Elvis’ by Baz Luhrmann, 2022

Through Jailhouse Rock denim and stripes, gold Lamé suit, black leathers and American Eagle jumpsuit, Elvis Presley’s style not only chronicled his prolific career, but reflected the evolving zeitgeist through the King’s unique verve.

Immortalised by Austin Butler in Baz Luhrmann’s biopic Elvis this year, the king of rock ‘n’ roll’s wardrobe was recreated for the silver screen by Oscar-winning costume designer Catherine Martin: having worked alongside Luhrmann since 1987, she was the one behind Nicole Kidman’s Moulin Rouge! wardrobe and Leonardo DiCaprio’s infamous Hawaiian shirts in Romeo + Juliet. Delving through the Graceland archives and extensively pouring through video footage, Martin blurred fact and fiction, adapting Elvis’ signature looks for Butler; as the film progresses we see each decade of his life defined by a sartorial signature, from the boxy silhouettes of the 50s to the form-fitting flares of the 70s.

Undoubtedly, reverberations of Presley’s trailblazing style are still felt today, because before Harry Styles donned a sequin jumpsuit or Timotheé Chalamet wore a metallic silver Tom Ford suit on the red carpet, it was Presley who paved the way for heartthrobs redefining masculinity in fashion. Taking to the stage in hot pink suits, studded jumpsuits, leather two-pieces and black eyeliner, he broke the mould of a generation. Living in a time before stylists and orchestrated ideas of a public persona, Elvis was a creation in and of himself.

It’s not just Presley’s wardrobe that compels in Luhrmann’s cinematic epic, as Priscilla Presley’s character evolution walks hand-in-hand with her carefully curated wardrobe. Played by Olivia DeJonge, Martin worked alongside Italian fashion houses Prada and Miu Miu to create a vision of empowerment for the female lead. Speaking to Martin below, the acclaimed costume designer discusses Luhrmann’s singular aesthetic, adapting Elvis for Austin Butler and the importance of creating a well-rounded wardrobe for characters to live in.

Still, ‘Elvis’ by Baz Luhrmann, 2022

Ella Joyce: You’re very well-versed in the Baz Luhrmann universe, having worked with him collaboratively since the 80s. His style always remains so instantly recognisable, what is it like working alongside him?
Catherine Martin: One of the great privileges of working alongside Baz as a designer is that he’s a visualiser. Design is never an afterthought for him because he’s always very clear about how he envisions something, whether it’s starting with one of his little scribbles or a tear sheet. Rather than design being an afterthought, design is part of the storytelling process, which is fantastic. Baz has focus on every single department in the movie and is completely detailed-orientated. So maybe it’s just because of my myopic vision that I feel like I’m the most important, which I’m not. [laughs] Because there is music and the beautiful work that Mandy Walker did as a cinematographer, or Tom Wood as the visual effects supervisor. These are all super important to Baz as well and his focus is very much on them. I think he’s also a patient and a great teacher, he does that through encouraging exploration. Being on the edge of what might work and pushing the boundaries of expressing things visually on film. He is exciting to work with because you’re encouraged to fail, and to push things to the absolute limit, to find the right solution for any given visual project.

EJ: The element of failure in a creative world is so important, isn’t it?
CM: Absolutely. I started working with Baz in 1987 and he still surprises me with his approach in sheer virtuosic filmmaking. It’s continually surprising. I remember watching a cut of Elvis he was mixing in LA, and I’d been watching the movie over and over again with no sound because I was working with Tom on visual effects. So you just watch it for colouring the movie and I wasn’t predisposed to liking it that day, because I was finding Baz irritating. [laughs] But then to watch it with the sound, I just went, “Oh my god, this is so extraordinary. This is not at all what I expected.” I found it so profoundly emotional and surprising, I think that’s the privilege of working with someone who’s always pushing to find something new. Of course, Baz has a style, he has his own legacy and his own vocabulary, but he’s always pushing himself within that to not just repeat himself, but to find new ways of exploring stories.

Still, ‘Elvis’ by Baz Luhrmann, 2022

“One of the great privileges of working alongside Baz as a designer is that he’s a visualiser. Design is never an afterthought for him…”

EJ: The production itself is fascinating. I imagine, as a designer, the research process must have been equally as fascinating delving through footage, photographs and archives. Where did the process begin and how did those findings inform the end vision of the designs we see?
CM: It was extremely interesting because you’re dealing with reality, a reality people know very intimately. You’re dealing with people who are still alive too, and you want to be respectful. But you also want to tell a story, you’re not making a documentary. It’s about finding a balance between reality and expressing it in a way where it actually becomes clearer on screen. What we see in reality, and how that translates to cinema are two different things. We’ve all had the experience of being in a nightclub, taking some selfies, and thinking that we look amazing. Everyone’s at the top of their game, then you come back the next morning, scroll through the camera and just go, “What was I thinking?” [both laugh] There’s a big difference between how it feels to be there and how it looks. Baz is always talking about translating the feeling onto the screen so the audience understands how the character feels and feel what it’s like to be there. We were very focused on being as close to reality as possible, particularly with costuming Austin as Elvis. We had access to all the costumes from the archive and that means you’re able to measure the collar, the size of the pocket, etc. But very early on, we realised if you just slavishly copy the proportions of every pocket placement it just became a weird kind of Halloween costume. We had to take all the details of the outfits, and then translate them into costumes. Albeit the changes are extremely subtle to intersect with Austin’s interpretation of Elvis because there’s only one Elvis and Austin’s physicality is different. Whether it was just subtly altering the length of the jacket or the proportion of the pockets to make it feel completely natural and working synergetically with his interpretation of the character.

“It’s about finding a balance between reality and expressing it in a way where it actually becomes clearer on screen.”

My history with Baz has always been about creating a world, even if it’s based on something like The Great Gatsby, it’s still like we’re starting from scratch because there’s no photo of Gatsby’s mansion. In a sense, I thought, “Oh, we’re just recreating things. That’s just a man. What a wonderful new experience,” maybe I thought it was going to be easier, but it certainly wasn’t. [laughs] It was just as hard but in a completely different way. The scale of the film was overwhelming because you’re telling a story from his childhood through to the 40s, 50s, 60s, and 70s. There were huge crowd scenes, and the look of the crowd changed in the 50s three or four times. So it was a mammoth project with challenges I sort of didn’t expect.

Still, ‘Elvis’ by Baz Luhrmann, 2022

“You need to imagine the complete life of a character. You need to be able to pivot really quickly to find something organic, that fills a particular hole in terms of costume.”

EJ: These clothes don’t feel like costumes as such, they look like an extension of the characters. Clothing is so integral to getting actors into character, how do you go about building those identities for people to step into?
CM: I always think of costumes as clothes even if they’re heightened. I thought of Nicole Kidman’s costumes in Moulin Rouge as clothes because even if it’s a character living in a heightened universe, there needs to be logic to what they’re wearing. There needs to be a closet and I need to be able to understand how those clothes got in the closet, who made them and where they bought the fabric. I know that sounds totally crazy, but when there’s no inherent logic to the universe it drives me crazy. I don’t care how fantastical something is, to me, there is a provenance in everything people wear, and the idea it logically comes from the world is really important to me. Way early on I worked with the extraordinary Julie Barton, who’s probably Australia’s premier costumier. One of the very important things she said to me was, “You design costumes for each theme, but there needs to be a wardrobe for the character.” So it’s not enough to have costumes which have hit the mark and the director has approved them, you need to fill in the gaps even though it’s not part of the existing script, for example, you need to have underwear that can be seen on screen. There will be occasions when things come up, and we need those clothes so they need to be thought about as a complete wardrobe – you need to imagine the complete life of a character. You need to be able to pivot really quickly to find something organic that fills a particular hole in terms of costume. I am really keen on thinking about a character as a whole in a very flexible way. You have to plan, plan, plan and then be open to what happens when the camera, the director, the actor, the emotion, and the scene all interact. That’s alchemy, and sometimes all the planning in the world doesn’t work. So you have to be prepared to pivot.

Still, ‘Elvis’ by Baz Luhrmann, 2022

EJ: I wanted to touch upon Priscilla’s character because she really encompasses that idea of imagining a whole identity. We see her as a young girl in the 50s and then she takes complete control of her life later on. How do the clothes reflect her character progression?
CM: Priscilla was a style icon in her own right. Very early on, Baz said, “I don’t want this to become a parade of Halloween costumes.” I wanted to see Olivia’s [DeJonge] interpretation of Priscilla alongside Priscilla’s life and style at an organic meeting point. It was really important for us that she had an incredible, iconic style as well. She’s someone who really represents the changing nature of women in those decades, from a relatively passive 50s young girl to someone, as you say, who has complete agency in her own life. She creates herself and becomes her own person and is still her own person, evolving and changing who she is today. I think that it was really important to give her clothes that allowed that journey to be described on screen.

“We realised if you just slavishly copy the proportions of every pocket placement it just became a weird kind of Halloween costume.”

EJ: You worked with Prada and Miu Miu to create Priscilla’s wardrobe too, how was that?
CM: Baz and I have worked with Prada and Miu Miu for decades. We felt it was important to anchor her look and design on an aesthetic that felt modern, distinct, and aspirational. So we decided to partner with them, look back through their archive and reinterpret it through the lens of Priscilla Presley. Miuccia Prada is somebody who looks to the future, and she’s a female designer who is constantly questioning through clothes, the nature of women, their position in society, and how they interact with the world. She makes clothes that are infinitely wearable, but at the same time, enormously challenging and looking towards the future which mirrors Priscilla. 

Elvis is out in cinemas now and available on digital download, 4K, Blu-ray and DVD.

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