Friday, 8 January 2010

Elvis Lives (for fashion folk, at least)

On your way to Parkes, New South Wales? Already there? Wishing you could be?

It's not an outlandish question for fashion followers, because Parkes is the venue of the 'biggest and best convention in the world' to celebrate the anniversary of Elvis Presley's birth (watch the BBC report here). He would have been 75 this year and Parkes has been celebrating his life since 1993 with what claims to be the world's largest jamboree of Elvis impersonators and fans who converge on this tiny town once a year to sing, dress up like their hero and, according to one not entirely delighted local resident, indulge in 'colossal drinking.'

Why should fashion people care? Simply because Elvis was one of the first – if not the very first – popular entertainer to take the link between masculine dress and stardom and put it on the streets. The gloriously camp late costumes – jumpsuits sparkling with rhinestone – have a permanent place in the pantheon of looks that will never be forgotten, of course. But more widely, pre-empting both the Rolling Stones and the Beatles, Elvis made young guys want to look like him with a universality that had never been seen before. Thanks to the exposure he received from television and film, he started the spread of American blue-collar fashion around the world. Other performers had worn suits – Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra – or dinner jackets, like Fred Astaire. Elvis, the one-time truck driver, dressed like young working kids in the street.

And let's not forget that jeans and casual shirts or T-shirts were fashion - or at least as far as young men in the fifties and early sxities wanted it to go. It wasn't not avant garde, true, but it shaped everything that has come since. It swept the world when Elvis' natural theatricality was reinforced by Bruce Springsteen's urban, New Jersey, blue-collar hardness. And, really, men have not looked back since then - nor, unfortunately, forward with any imagination. It's still blue jeans, T shirt and leather jacket for millions around the world on a night out. Blue suede shoes may be in a slight eclipse at this point, but the blue-collar look has lasted half a century now, making it one of the 20th century's most enduring styles.

With the menswear shows in Paris and Milan just a week away we can already predict that most of what is on the runway will be watered-down looks in the same tradition, with the designer's contribution little more than that of a stylist. Which seems a pity. 'Elvis Lives!' is the rallying cry in Parkes this weekend and, in fashion terms, it is true - with a little help from Bruce and his musical mates.

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