The undisputed king of rock ‘n’ roll, Elvis Presley remains a household name for generations of Americans. Elvis started a veritable music revolution in 1954, effectively modernizing less mainstream genres such as bluegrass and country by re-inventing them for younger audiences in a hip rock-‘n’-roll package. Paired with his unparalleled charisma on stage and his scandalous (by 1950s’ standards) gyrations, it is little wonder that Elvis became one of the most popular musicians of his day.
Today, he is remembered as arguably one of the most important cultural figures of the 20th century, and not only for his music — he was also one of the most important fashion icons of his generation. While he topped the charts, he also paved the way as a style icon, first for his laid-back rockabilly attire and later for the maximalist jumpsuits associated with him today. Read on to learn more about the evolution of his style, and to view pieces of Elvis’ legacy that have graced the M.S. Rau collection.
Birth of a Star
When Elvis Presley first entered the music scene in the 1950s, he sported a far more laid-back style than we typically associate with the star today. The singer’s earliest style staples were button-up shirts with Cuban collars and classic penny loafers. These pieces have endured the test of time — long after Elvis outgrew them, they continue to dominate the New England prep set with their casual South Pacific charm.
With number-one singles that included "Don't Be Cruel," "Love Me Tender" and "Hound Dog," Elvis' popularity only grew. Presley took a brief break from his career in order to join the Army in 1958, but returned to the scene in 1960. Rather than music, he shifted his focus to Hollywood, becoming a film star and teenage heartthrob for his work in movies such as Blue Hawaii in 1961. Thanks to this role, Elvis is today considered the pioneer of the Hawaiian-print shirt, a look he pulled off with ultimate aplomb.
Call it a Rock ‘n’ Roll Comeback
By the end of the 1960s, Elvis was primed for a comeback to the music industry, and it was this moment when his clothing came to epitomize rock ‘n’ roll as we think of it today. His legendary head-to-toe black leather outfit for the Elvis comeback NBC TV special in 1968 has gone down in history as one of the most iconic rock-‘n’-roll outfits of all time. The suit fit the singer so tightly that, allegedly, he had to be cut out of the pants and jacket following his historic performance. The concert — and the outfit — effectively re-established him as the crooning, charming showman that stole hearts earlier in his career. By 1969, he had again reached the top of the charts with his number-one hit "Suspicious Minds."
The Later Years
In his final years, the singer entered the style phase for which he is best known — the age of the studded jumpsuit. Maximalist to the extreme, his style in the 1970s was influential on a generation of artists who followed him, including Elton John, David Bowie, Michael Jackson and even Lady Gaga. Highly theatrical with his custom-made accessories and over-the-top, flamboyant jumpsuits, Elvis Presley officially entered the annals of rock-‘n’-roll royalty.
By this time, Presley was touring almost constantly. The pace inevitably took a negative toll on the singer; on August 16, 1977, while at home at Graceland, he suffered a heart attack and died at the young age of 42.
Few celebrities have had such a lasting influence on popular culture as Elvis Presley. His legacy — and many of his clothes and accessories — live on at his mansion, Graceland, which was converted into a museum in the years following his death. Elvis impersonators also keep his memory alive, lining the streets and taking to the stage in Las Vegas and beyond. According to music historian Greil Marcus, “Without the astonishing success of Elvis... rock ‘n’ roll might have been a passing fad.”
The best-selling solo artist in recorded history, Elvis Presley remains among the most loved and recognized celebrities in the world. Seldom does the opportunity present itself to acquire accessories worn by one of the most celebrated entertainers in modern history. Click here to view our current collection of Elvis Presley memorabilia, and add a bit of rock ‘n’ roll to your collection.
Larkin, Colin. Encyclopedia of Popular Music. “Presley, Elvis.” New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.
Marcus, Greil. Dead Elvis: A Chronicle of a Cultural Obsession. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999.