It’s been nearly 10 years since Baz Luhrmann’s visual feast The Great Gatsby graced our screens—and who could forget? Leonardo! Carrie! The Prada costumes! Luhrmann’s singularly luscious and over-the-top filmmaking style is instantly recognizable, and simply begs the viewer to think, How did they even make this?
As it turns out, the answer is: slowly. And with good reason. Now, nearly a decade later, Luhrmann’s latest release, Elvis, takes a turn examining one of the 20th century’s most iconic and unforgettable showmen. In a sweeping biopic that ranges from the dusty backwoods of the segregated South to the neon-drenched, positively bedazzled stages of 1970s Las Vegas, Luhrmann is back with a cinematic ride that is every bit as visually arresting as Gatsby. And having had a sneak preview of the film ourselves, we feel confident in sharing that lovers of costume design will find this film nothing short of thrilling. To get more scoop on the film’s dreamy '50s, '60s, and '70s fashions, we caught up with Catherine Martin—producer, costume designer, as well as life and creative partner of Luhrmann. Her work on Gatsby secured her an Oscar for Best Costume Design, and we wouldn’t be surprised if she won similar accolades this time around, as well.
On the morning of the film’s premiere at Cannes last month, we talked with Martin on the phone to learn more about how the pandemic changed the way she had to work, about yet again collaborating with Prada and Miu Miu for some of the film’s costumes, and about (the character of) Priscilla Presley’s iconic sky-high wig. We geeked out about archive Prada pieces, as well as the finer points of designing costumes during a pandemic. Martin was so generous with her time that she may have been a minute or two late for the Cannes premiere of the film itself, for which we apologize—but when a film’s costumes are this good, sometimes they just need to be talked about.
Baz always has a strong vision of how he wants things to look, and he’ll often do scribble drawings or show you an image he found on the Internet. The process always really starts with the telling of the story and the kind of story Baz wants to tell: the context, how it’s going to be told, who the characters are, and how the script is developing. Really, it starts with research and understanding the script, and how Baz wants to envision it in terms of the style, and what he’s looking for in terms of sets, costumes, and the revelation to the audience of the story.
Well, this story isn’t completely imagined. This was mired in history. There are images of the people and images of the times. We did a lot of research, we had a lot of pictures, we had a starting point.
A lot of people going to see the movie have lived through these decades—but not the 1950s for me, to be clear! But it was different, because although there was some interpretation, it was very much trying to be true to the soul of the story, the humanity of the man, and that was very much one of Baz’s aims. It was to expose the humanity, the good parts, the not so good parts, and what a product of the 20th-century Elvis Presley is. He’s a product of television, he’s a product of being born in the segregated South, of all the social upheaval of that time for better and for worse. It’s certainly allegorical, but it also pertains to real people who have lived. So there’s a certain respect and reverence to the characters portrayed in the film.
You have to integrate the actors into the research process. The performance they create with Baz is really a key part of the costuming process. I’m just an adjunct to the creation of the character. I think actors are like flowers, and the clothes are a vase. It’s all about integrating what the director and actor are creating.
One of the collaborations, for instance, was with Alton Mason, who is an extraordinary stylist. We made this gorgeous lamé suit for him, but when he saw it, he thought that it wasn’t quite right for the exact part of his career depicted in the film. Little Richard at that point had the makeup and crazy hair, but he was still a church boy from the neck down. I got on the phone with Baz and he said, “That’s a good point.” With what we had in the stock room, we were able to create a look that ended up in the movie that was much more appropriate but not what we had originally set out to do.
Two heads are much better than one. If it’s a good idea, I’m never resentful of someone’s input. I think that’s what I enjoy about filmmaking—the collaboration, the connection, being challenged, and not being lazy or set in your ways. Admitting you made a mistake. And that’s the great thing about working with Baz. He pushes you to try hard, but there is never any shame in failing. To fail is to go beyond what you know, and I’m always very grateful for that.
At one point, we realized that the team and I had pulled together more than 9,000 individual extras outfits. Shoes. Undergarments. Socks. Pants. Jackets. Shirts. Hats. You name it. We actually have a drone shot of when all the clothes were in one of the enormous stages on the Gold Coast in Queensland, and it was overwhelming. It kind of made your stomach do a loop-de-loop. We also had two different work rooms—one that worked on background cast, one that worked on the main cast—and these people just worked from dawn 'til dusk. On big extras days, people were just working 24/7, because the clothes had to be prepared, they had to dress the cast, and there had to be on-the-spot alterations. Elvis alone had over 90 costumes—and there were just pounds and pounds of rhinestones.
It was complicated because of COVID and the protocols. Just like in a store where people will try on a pair of blue jeans and somebody will put it back on the rack and then somebody else will try them on, it’s similar with extras doing fittings. If an extra tried something on, it needed to be carefully cleaned and set aside before the next person tried it on, and for that reason, we needed about one-third more clothes to hold in stock.
It was crazy because we were also on an island in Australia, and transport and supply chains were kind of broken so we had to be resourceful and repurpose things. But that’s an exciting part of design. When you costume a film, you want it to be the most perfect and most glamorous it can be, with all of the best items, but a lot of the time, you’ve got a piece of string, a Band-Aid, and an old pair of pantyhose and you have to make an evening dress out of it.
Priscilla’s hair was extremely interesting. Shane Thomas, our chief hair and makeup on the production, really brilliantly reinterpreted the hairstyles. They had to work on Olivia’s face and with her interpretation of the character. One of the cleverest things with that wig was that he had baby hairs laced on the edge of the wigs, so you don’t have that Halloween-esque hard edge. Priscilla never had that.
There are items from both Miu Miu and Prada, and they were all custom-made. The idea was, very similar to Jay Gatsby, Priscilla is a style icon. People know and expect exactly what she would look like. But we discovered early on that if her costumes were just carbon copies, it wouldn’t do justice on camera to who the real person was. At the same time, it created a block between the actor and the audience. We needed to find a way of weaving deftly between the actor’s interpretation of the character, the respect and reverence for those people, and what the audience knew them to be.
It seemed a really interesting idea to collaborate with Prada/Miu Miu, because it would connect Priscilla’s style to an obviously very stylish contemporary reference. It also allowed us to not slavishly copy the clothes and not do them justice—but kind of find something to parallel the elevation of Priscilla’s real clothes, but also give Olivia her own kind of style resource.
I know the DNA of those brands and appreciate how different collections go together and how we can intersect history with archival pieces. The fabulous thing about working with Miuccia is she is so open to collaborating and cross-fertilizing between collections. And Prada also owns such incredible ateliers, such that when you design with them, you can actually conceive of an outfit in its entirety. You can think about suede boots that fit an actor perfectly, with the perfect matching 1960s wool suit, and everything about the connection between the skill, the fabric, the technology to print on fabric—all of it just elevates the entire costume design. With Prada, I have access to all these things that are rare and special, and the audience also feels that attention and care for detail.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.