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In Sofia Coppola’s ‘Priscilla,’ clothes are an ‘armor and identity’

<i>Sabrina Lantos/Courtesy A24</i><br/>The pink dress worn as Priscilla reads tabloid gossip about her husband's oft-alleged dalliances was inspired by a historical Ann-Margret look.
Sabrina Lantos/Courtesy A24
The pink dress worn as Priscilla reads tabloid gossip about her husband's oft-alleged dalliances was inspired by a historical Ann-Margret look.

By Leah Dolan, CNN

(CNN) — Before Kim and Kanye or even Posh and Becks, there was Priscilla and Elvis Presley: A fashion-forward couple whose tumultuous relationship is still remembered for its distinctive style as much as anything else.

Priscilla was just 14 years old when she was first introduced to 24-year-old Elvis during a party in his house in Bad Nauheim, Germany, where the superstar was completing military service in 1959. They remained a couple for over a decade, and later started a family together, before their divorce in 1973.

There was the surprise Las Vegas wedding in 1967, featuring Priscilla’ pearl-embellished white shift dress, complete with a 3-foot-long tulle veil, as well as Elvis’ custom black paisley tuxedo. Or one of their rare family portraits taken in 1970, a carefully-posed shot dominated by the pair’s imposing outfits (Elvis in a two-toned blue taffeta suit and exaggerated high collar, Priscilla wearing a lilac shirred puff-sleeve shirt and matching purple trousers). Even their 2-year-old daughter Lisa Marie got a costume change, photographed in both a polka dot summer dress as well as a miniature white fur coat during the shoot.

For costume designer Stacey Battat, these moments were key historical anchors when outfitting director Sofia Coppola’s latest film “Priscilla” — a candy-colored biopic mapping the couple’s private life, starring Jacob Elordi as Elvis and newcomer Cailee Spaeny in the titular role.

“That’s how we started, and then we filled in the blanks,” said Battat over a video call from Los Angeles. “We looked at magazines and other references to pull together what those middle looks would be — the pieces between those benchmarks, so we had a clean timeline that didn’t feel abrupt.” (Priscilla herself, though credited as an executive producer on the movie, was largely hands-off in the costume department.)

Battat, who previously worked with Coppola on “The Bling Ring” (2013) and “The Beguiled” (2017), was bound by the strict budgetary constraints typical of independent filmmaking, as well as a tight 30-day-shoot schedule. This meant no resource went to waste: On occasion, pieces were shared between characters, and Coppola’s connections in the fashion industry were taken full advantage of.

Chanel designed and produced the recreation of Priscilla’s wedding gown; Coppola has been a brand ambassador for the French fashion house since 2019, and even interned there as a teen in 1986. Many of Elvis’ looks came directly from Valentino — specifically the star’s iconic knitwear pieces (replicas of the funnel-neck cable knit sweater he wore in the 1957 film “Jailhouse Rock” are still sold today).

“It was the greatest gift the movie could have gotten,” said Battat of the collaboration. “Any costume designer will tell you making knits is a difficult task. Asking a few handknitters to make 10 sweaters in a six-week period is not happening.” Instead, Battat sent reference photos and a color palette to the Valentino design team, who created a mini collection for the film. “It was super nice to work with people that are so creative, and also have the finished product be these amazing, beautiful clothes…  I swear, anytime someone was stressed out they would pet the sweaters.”

Power dressing

In “Priscilla,” the couple’s sprawling wardrobes and shared interest in image-making is front and center. Clothes were, for them, intentional and calculated. After the birth of Lisa Marie in 1968, Priscilla greeted paparazzi like royalty, dressed in a hot pink wool collared shift dress and a full face of makeup, for example, not a hair out of place from her black beehive. The zany, rhinestone jumpsuits Elvis wore in the early-1970s, meanwhile, were a strategic move to capture a new audience, reinstate his capability as a performer and distance himself with the stiff suits of the previous decade. “He’s trying to change his image,” said Battat. “Clothes are their armor and their identity.”

But power dressing isn’t always as easy as it looks. Through Coppola’s lens, we see a slightly sheepish Elvis during a jumpsuit fitting confiding in Priscilla that he “feels silly.” But his wife — newly thrust into the public eye and keenly aware herself of the insecurity clothes can evoke — assures him that he looks great.

Dress is one of the first ways we see the cracks in Priscilla and Elvis’ relationship, too. With her film based on Priscilla’s 1985 autobiography, “Elvis and Me,” Coppola shows how much influence the pop icon wielded over his young wife — and her image. After Priscilla, still a schoolgirl, moves into Graceland, she’s given a makeover. In a department store dressing room, Elvis and his entourage sit and watch her cycle through shift dresses and matching sets. She admires a chocolate-hued frock, but is overridden immediately. “I hate brown,” the King quips. “It reminds me of the army.” Subtle steers (“You’re a small girl, stay away from the prints, baby”), suggestions and a few down-right demands (“Black hair and more eye makeup”) quickly remove any autonomy Priscilla once had over her appearance.

Costumes for Coppola — who has built a career capturing the agony and ecstasy of young women navigating sexuality and power amid the throes of first love — are tools which can communicate complicated emotional landscapes. In her 1999 directorial debut “The Virgin Suicides,” the character Lux Lisbon defaces her underwear with her crush’s name, concealing the evidence underneath the smothering, sexless nightgown mandated by her puritanical mother. One of the most emotional scenes in 2006’s “Marie Antoinette”is when the 14-year-old soon-to-be Queen is taken over the Austrian border into France and forced, in the middle of the woods, to strip out of her country’s clothes and adopt the fashions of Versailles.

In “Priscilla,” Elordi and Spaeny worked with Battat to flesh out the psychological factors driving each character’s aesthetic. “They were very collaborative,” she said of the actors. “Cailee asked me, ‘When Priscilla is feeling insecure about Ann-Margret, do you think that changes the way she dresses?’” (A Golden Age film starlet, Ann-Margret appeared with Elvis in the 1964 movie “Viva Las Vegas.” The pair were widely-rumored to have had an affair.) “And I was like, ‘Actually, it probably does. Because she’s so interested in pleasing him, maybe she would want to model herself after Ann-Margret.’”

Battat then found a pink dress similar to one worn in an archival photo taken of the actor. It appears in the movie during a scene when Priscilla is torturing herself with latest gossip on her husband. On the cover of one tabloid is a picture of Ann-Margret and Elvis in a tight embrace. Priscilla, in a pink dress and sitting cross-legged on the sofa, pores over the magazine, dressed as an imitation of the other woman. “No one will know that’s Ann-Margret’s pink dress,” said Battat. “But it’s for us.”

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