There couldn’t possibly be a more daunting task than designing the costumes for a film centered around the King of Rock ‘N’ Roll, Elvis Presley. Elvis was known for his daring, colorful style that would inspire generations of performers and artists for many years to come. Perhaps there was no one better for this massive task than Academy winning costume designer, Catherine Martin. Catherine Martin joined Elizabeth and I to discuss her work on this film, the 2023 Oscar nominations, collaborating with her husband and director Baz Luhrmann, and the evolution of Elvis’s style through the decades as told by the film.
Spencer Williams: I am so incredibly honored to introduce the one and only costume designer Catherine Martin. Thank you for joining us; it’s a real honor.
Catherine Martin: Thank you so much for having me today! I’m thrilled, and with modern technology, we’re able to be bicoastal and transcontinental.
Spencer Williams: Exactly! I never thought I would be wearing sweats when I met Catherine Martin. There are a lot of congratulations in order. Not only were you nominated for Best Achievement in Costume Design, but you’re also nominated for Best Achievement in Production Design and Best Motion Picture of the Year. What is going through your mind?
Catherine Martin: It’s kind of overwhelming. It feels sometimes a little bit like it’s happening to somebody else because, of course, you don’t think of yourself in those kinds of terms. But I think when I have time to reflect, I feel incredible gratitude that the movie has been recognized. That means that my team as a whole is recognized. I am not a single person doing everything by myself. I have an incredible team of hundreds of people who support me, who work tirelessly, and who keep the faith. There are incredibly hardworking people who get to be in the credit roll at the end but very rarely get any kind of accolades. I just feel very happy that they can put on their CV that they worked on an Academy Award-nominated movie. It’s a little tiny payback to them.
I also feel really proud and happy that Baz (Baz Luhrmann) is being recognized in the Best Picture category because I think what he brings to the process really is what enables all of his collaborators to shine. We are indebted to his vision, to his perseverance, his inclusivity, to his undying passion for the work.
Spencer Williams: Let’s get into all things Elvis. I want to start from the beginning, which comes down to the research. We’re talking about one of the most photographed, most recorded people in the world. Is there such a thing as too much research or too much content?
Catherine Martin: Oh my goodness. That is a really interesting question. It’s just incredible because what the internet has done is allow us this incredible social history tool. Not only are you able to access all the professional photos, but it’s constantly being curated with the content being uploaded online. It is fantastic because it represents a living and breathing legacy. There is constant detective work to unpick history and understand what Elvis wore, how he wore it, when he wore it, how he was wearing it, and what the people around him were wearing.
Spencer Williams: With that, how did you come to research this project?
Catherine Martin: Understanding how history and clothes intersect in any given individual and fundamentally understanding the character through clothes is really what drives me as a costume designer. I’ve been really lucky working with Baz, who is so exigent when it comes to research. He basically spent eighteen months on and off in Graceland, researching and working through the archives and writing the script.
We started about five years ago. What extensive research does is it primes your brain, so you have this ground for something great to grow because it’s impossible to remember everything. Once you’ve done that research, you know what to look for, or you’ll have in your brain that there’s a lead. In the art department, we’ll start making books that we actually print out. Basically, these books tell the visual story of the script. It starts off with documentary images that tell the story through inspirational images. As it progresses, documentary photography starts to be replaced with concept art and costume sketches, as well as pictures of costume fittings. We often make books that are adjunct to this sort of storytelling and serve as a visual storytelling bible that also helps the actors with their research journey.
Elizabeth Glass: It’s such an involved process where you and your team really lay it all out for everybody. With Elvis’s wardrobe and Austin Butler’s phenomenal, now Oscar-nominated performance, one thing I found incredible was how much he moves. How were you able to translate that necessity into the costumes?
Catherine Martin: When it comes to the jumpsuits, for instance, they were originally designed by Bill Belew, who designed Elvis’s costumes for the 1968 Comeback Special, because he was the in-house costume designer. I had seen some reproduction costumes that I thought were very interesting and well done at Graceland. I did a lot of research online and went to visit B&K Enterprises, which created a majority of the jumpsuits. We did make some in Australia, but they became our primary collaborator on that process because they had actually had a friendship with Bill Belew. B&K Enterprises got permission to reproduce the jumpsuits.
We were also introduced to Gene Doucette, who was a tailor for Elvis that embroidered, stitched, and studded a majority of Elvis’s jumpsuits. That is one of the fantastic things in the film that’s very meaningful to me is that he embroidered Elvis’s Sundial outfit, which is the jumpsuit that he wears when he’s singing Unchained Melody at the end.
Once we got the suits, we altered some of the fabric choices because we wanted them to be closer to the archival fabric. B&K Enterprises would send the suits to Australia. Also, we needed multiples!
Spencer Williams: Uh oh! This is starting to sound like a lot of work! *laughs*
Catherine Martin: I think we started with six people in the costume department and ended up with one hundred and twenty. It was an incredible resource to have people that knew how to make these things and could make identical multiples because we needed many multiples. Once get got them, they would need to be fitted and changed because Elvis changes his body shape. Our tailor in Australia would painstakingly refit all the jumpsuits when they got there so he (Austin Butler) could move.
With the white jumpsuit, I think we had about six of them. There was the pristine one for closeups. There was also the one that just got trashed because he rolled around on the floor a lot. There were over seventy completely tailored, fabricated outfits that were made by our tailor in Australia. The sheer volume was kind of punishing. We had a room basically just for all of the jumpsuits.
Spencer Williams: I can’t even imagine. I wish I could live in the jumpsuit closet. That sounds like a great place to be.
Catherine Martin: Oh, it was crazy. And the capes are so heavy. They’re really heavy, and often at the end of Elvis’s career, he starts throwing them into the audience. I think it’s to get rid of them because they are so heavy. *laughs*
Spencer Williams: *laughs* Absolutely. Just toss it! That’s so funny. One of my favorite parts of the film was watching the evolution of Elvis from the fifties to the seventies. I’d really like to highlight some of these eras. The first stage, which is personally my favorite, is seeing the young rockabilly Elvis. I loved the color palettes and how his clothes fit, and it still felt very Catherine Martin.
Catherine Martin: Well, it really was challenging because Baz made the really salient point that what we think of Elvis in the fifties has just become part of the lexicon of tasteful male dressing. He couldn’t be dressed like an alien. It needed to be in the vocabulary of the clothes that he actually wore. The challenge was how do you make sure that everyone knew what a punk he was and how threatening he was to the parental generation. He expressed himself through clothes and was really a tinder strike for youth culture.
We started by just looking at those pictures in the early fifties and trying to find touchstones. For instance, in this early fifties period, he wore a lot of lace shirts that we do believe came from Lansky Brothers. One of their preferred color palettes was black and pink. Also, Elvis’s best friend Jerry told me that Elvis’s favorite colors were black and pink. That gives us a little way in. Whatever the shirt is, how do we make sure that his movement, sensuality, sexuality of who Elvis was, and the edginess of the clothes come through? That was a process of experimentation.
At the hayride, he wore a pink and black suit. What I think both Baz and I liked about it was it had this kind of look like a suit jacket, but it moved like a shirt, and it allowed the sensuality of the movement to be expressed in the drape of the jacket. Then there was the pants and the wiggle, and that was just a process of trying a lot of different cuts of pants to find the right fullness at the front. Baz had started wearing many of the clothes, as had Austin, to try and find the movement and experiment with the choreography.
Elizabeth Glass: Personally, the period I really liked was his family man era. He’s just married Priscilla, and I think the transition is so striking. What did you want the costume to say about Elvis during this period?
Catherine Martin: I think you actually analyzed it perfectly. Baz spoke about the fact that he was becoming the family man. He was easier to consume as a viewer. There was a reinvention. It was quite challenging because of the hairstyle, which is really slicked back. Up until his hair is cut for the Army in our movie, that’s Austin’s hair. Then we go into wigs, and that’s a very exposed hairline. I think I was making everyone crazy because I was actually fitting. polo necks. We did buy a number of polo necks to get that fineness and the way that it’s knitted; sometimes, these are fully fashioned garments. Sometimes some of the most beautiful tailorings happen for the costumes we see for the least amount of time.
Gloria Bava has worked as a tailor with me for thirty years. When you see the suit up close, like when Lisa Maria is born, it’s so divine. Beautifully tailored and so simple. These simple suits don’t have any kind of detail to distract from them. So if they’re not perfect, they look terrible.
Spencer Williams: My favorite scene is the 1968 comeback special. It’s by far one of my favorite sequences because Elvis is going through a lot right now. This is his re-emergence as the Elvis that everyone fell in love with, and he has these two specific looks that had so much storytelling involved with the black leather but then also the white gospel suit. What were you trying to say with these two specific costumes?
Catherine Martin: Well, it’s more about what Elvis was trying to say. Working with Bill Belew, I think it was about the fact that he was trying to get back to the person that he was and trying to get back to his musical roots… the nexus of rhythm and blues, rock and roll, country and that sexy rawness that he had when he was youthful. That’s very much what the black leather was about. He’s connecting to the rebels of the fifties like Marlon Brando, but he’s also interpreting it shirtless, with pants and a jacket. I think that outfit is very much about reestablishing himself as an artistic and cultural force.
The white suit is very meaningful because that song is a reaction to the terrible assassinations that were happening in the late sixties and this terrible time of segregation in America. All of these horrible political assassinations, racial violence, political violence, and the changing times. I think the white suit was really a plea for a more inclusive and peaceful solution.
He was not a politician. He probably wasn’t the most left-wing person on the planet. That’s certainly documented. But I think that the thing about Elvis is that he was a humanist. He believed in people and kindness, and connection. He wanted to use music to bring people together and to build bridges as opposed to fueling division. In the song that he’s singing, If I Could Dream, he’s dreaming about a better place where people get along, and things are about inclusion. I think it’s a white costume because it has that link to a gospel costume. It has that religious connection and a connection to peace.
Spencer Williams: There’s such a balance there, and it’s just so beautiful. You could tell that he had so much to say through these two costumes. Catherine, this has been amazing. We love talking to you. Before we let you go, what did this experience mean to you?
Catherine Martin: I am very proud that the body of work that I’ve been able to participate in with Baz has been about connection, universal stories that reflect on the human condition and hopefully connect people together and allow us to reflect on who we are, and what we’ve done.
I know this sounds very grandiose, but I just feel proud that it’s a positive story about a tale of caution during a very difficult time. In ways, it reflects on the time we’re in now. As humans, we need to spend more time realizing that we have far more in common than we do differences. We must always look back at the past to analyze who we are and where we are going and hopefully make more positive choices. This film helps to examine a really important part of a very specific human journey.
Spencer Williams: Wow. That’s a beautiful way to end this. Catherine, it’s been such an honor having you here. Thank you for talking with us.
Catherine Martin: Thank you so much. It was lovely talking to you both.