Friday, January 18, 2008

The Man Who ‘Dressed the King’

By Robert Benson

Fashion designer extraordinaire, Bill Belew, passed away on January 7, 2008 in Palm Springs, CA at age 77.

Best known for designing the elaborate and iconic Elvis Presley ‘jumpsuits,’ Belew also created costumes for stage, screen and television during his 50 year career; including costumes for such stars as Josephine Baker, Ella Fitzgerald, Flip Wilson, Brooke Shields and Gloria Estefan among others.

But it was his flamboyant and bejeweled jumpsuits (with matching capes) that the King of rock ‘n’ roll adopted as his own that made Belew a household name.
“Bill Belew changed the face of rock ‘n’ roll fashion,” related Presley costume historian Butch Polston. “He is the one who created the jumpsuits, after that, everybody wanted to dress like Elvis.”

Belew’s collaboration with Elvis began when he was commissioned to design the wardrobe for Elvis’s 1968 television special. He also designed the tight-fitting black leather outfit that Presley loved and Presley was heard saying, “If the songs don’t go over, we can do a medley of costumes.”

The costumes enriched Elvis’s personality and were even given names, such as the ‘Burning Love Suit’ (red with several pinwheel designs), the ‘Flame Suit’ (in which the first of two versions had large jewels in a flame design on the front, on the back and down the legs), the ‘Dragon Suit’ (which was an embroidered dragon embellished with rhinestones) and Elvis’s favorite, the ‘Peacock Suit’ (which featured a peacock on the front and back in chain-stitch embroidery with feathers tapering off the tail of the peacock that ran down the entire side of the suit).

“The simplest outfits that didn’t seem particularly remarkable on the rack transformed into something spectacular when Elvis put them on,” said Belew. “He was that beautiful and powerful a presence.”

And so was Bill Belew, who remained Elvis’s wardrobe designer until Elvis’s untimely demise.