In the current cultural landscape where instant mega-fame can be achieved with little real talent, it might be difficult to truly appreciate the phenomenon that was and still is Elvis Presley.  He was the original influencer, dictating music and fashion trends that were subversive for the time, and he did it without turbo-charge tools like social media. Elvis – one of the most recognised mononyms in history – has become an icon, a brand, perhaps even a genre. 

Now, after years of planning and negotiation, Bendigo Art Gallery has been given unique access to Graceland’s stunning collection to present a one-of-a-kind exhibition celebrating the style and social impact of Elvis Presley. 

Elvis: Direct from Graceland features artefacts that span the artist’s life and career. The 300 odd items include his 1976 Red Bicentennial Custom Harley Davidson; his own bright red convertible 1960 MG used in the movie Blue Hawaii; a box of crayons he took to school; Hollywood movie scripts, and many more personal items and memorabilia. 

But the core of the exhibition is drawn from his extensive wardrobe and includes baggy rockabilly suits; denim and leather outfits; Vegas era jumpsuits; his military uniforms; his wedding tuxedo; clothes worn in films and photographs, and myriad accessories. 

“Lots of things in the exhibition have never been displayed outside of Graceland. A few things have never been displayed at all,” says Lauren Ellis, curatorial manager at Bendigo Art Gallery. She was involved in the long, arduous process of persuading Graceland to agree to the exhibition. “[We had to] persuade them of a kind of new lens to the story that we can tell and that we will, you know, handle the story respectfully and faithfully and sensitively.”

Bendigo Art Gallery has a specialty program around fashion history, frequently holding exhibitions based on style icons, for instance, Marilyn Monroe and Balenciaga. Elvis has been on the “to do” list for some time.

“He’s probably the single most influential figure in terms of men’s fashion and style, and he has this ubiquitous appearance through our pop culture and visual culture,” says Ellis. 

Prior to this project, Ellis had little connection with Elvis; she knew him via parody rather than through direct contact with his work. Once they got the go-ahead for the exhibition she began immersing herself in biographies, interviews, his catalogue of films, his music – everything Elvis. It was revelatory. 

“I can honestly say this is the most unexpectedly compelling curatorial project of my life.”

Elvis had his first hit record with “Heartbreak Hotel” in 1956. America was swathed in the pastel colours of conspicuous consumerism; advertising was a modern art form; pop culture and merchandising turned celebrities into icons. It was also a time of youth culture, counter-narrative and rebellion. 

Just by his very presentation, Elvis threatened established norms. The way he sang, dressed, and moved subverted accepted notions of gender and riled conservative sensibilities. 

“He occupies this really interesting position where on the one hand, his performance of traditional binary, masculine gender is very unstable,” explains Ellis. “You know, he’s not hyper-masculine, he’s not muscly, he’s not aggressive…he’s kind of effeminate, and arguably camp in his rhinestone jumpsuit era. He wore make-up, he wore colours, he wore jewellery, he was sort of decorated, and his presentation physically is not hyper-masculine. He’s kind of polite and deferential, and some of his lyrics are just like… if you read the lyrics to “Teddy Bear”, it’s just like, Oh my God! This is so straight-up submissive bottom kind of language.”

Yet, at the same time, Elvis had a strong hetero-normative appeal; he was posited as a virile hero for heterosexual women. This highlights the concept of gender as a social construct. It might also help explain his popularity, at least as an icon, among lesbians. 

The famous slicked pompadour, turned-up collars, and general Elvis aesthetic were the fashion du jour among butch lesbians who frequented bars in the ‘50s and ’60s. Then, of course, there were the drag kings for whom Elvis was the perfect muse. 

Elvis Herselvis, aka Leigh Crow, is an Elvis tribute artist from San Francisco who first gained fame in the 1990s. The idea of a female Elvis impersonator offended many purists, especially in America’s south.  

On the subject, Crow has been quoted as saying: 

“Straight men are very intimidated by a woman impersonating Elvis. It is one of the last bastions of masculinity – the right to “do” Elvis […] 

I personally think he was very queeny. In the 1950s, he wore make-up and pink on stage, when that was unheard-of behavior for a straight man […]

Men had a little more glamour then. Elvis was very primped and had a definite feminine side. The fifties and sixties teen idol works for dykes because they were the sensitive rebels, the little boy lost. It works into a not really butch image but a very dreamy one. Elvis is going to become the dyke icon like Marilyn is for the boys […] 

Like k.d. lang, the whole image that she’s got, I think that’s where it came from.”

Elvis’ own sexuality has never been openly questioned, and there is no evidence that he was anything other than heterosexual. In fact, Elvis was so self-assured, so insistent on doing his own thing that it’s hard to believe he would not have embraced queerness, even if it had to be covertly. 

Elvis: Direct from Graceland lays bear this spirit of individualism and strength of identity; a homage to a man who truly has become a legend.

“It’s a real celebration of fashion and style and design and self-expression,” says Ellis. “From a really young age, right through his life, he just loved what he loved, and he just did it – he was like the embodiment of ‘confidence is sexy’.”

Elvis: Direct from Graceland is on at Bendigo Art Gallery, 42 View St, Bendigo, until July 17, 2022. 

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