In Sofia Coppola’s “Priscilla,” Cailee Spaeny goes from a 14-year-old high schooler courted by Elvis Presley (Jacob Elordi), the most famous man on Earth, to a liberated woman freeing herself from an oppressive marriage to that same man (whose fame was somewhat eclipsed by that point).
Production designer Tamara Deverell, costume head Stacey Battat, hair department head Cliona Furey and makeup department head Jo-Ann MacNeil created looks that take Spaeny’s Priscilla on that long journey from schoolgirl on a U.S. army base in Germany to Memphis, Tenn., where Elvis installed his future wife at his Graceland mansion, to her finding independence in early 1970s.
“In the beginning, it’s pinks and soft textures, and the fuzzy sweaters,” says Battat, noting that the film spans 1959-1972 in 1 hour and 50 minutes, requiring lots of changes in silhouettes, hair and makeup — it’s an era of revolutionary changes in fashion.
“I took the real photos of her and looked at them in a spectrum and then just kind of filled in the gaps and in my mind. When she was a young girl in Germany, there was like a ’50s silhouette, but it was a younger silhouette with like a slightly fuller skirt. And then as time goes on, the skirt gets slimmer and then she kind of grows more natural and then starts wearing pants,” says Battat.
A pivotal scene on the German base involves Elvis inviting 9th grader Priscilla to a party. “She’s got to feel 14, but we have to feel like she’s sort of pushing something when she goes to that party the first night,” observes Spaeny.
Battat notes that in Priscilla Presley’s book “Elvis and Me,” she remembers wearing “a sailor dress and it was also in the script. But that kind of silhouette looked so childish that we adapted it.” When Priscilla says goodbye to Elvis at the airport early on, she is wearing high-heeled pumps. “She’s younger, and then she wants to present as older. So she’s borrowing clothes from her mother.”
Deverell notes that Coppola wanted Graceland to look “very creamy and warm and attractive coming out from this very gray dark color palette” of Germany.
When Priscilla arrives at Graceland, she is wearing a very girlish dress. Elvis immediately establishes control, telling her to dye her hair black, instructing her on makeup and hair styles, and dictating her wardrobe, like when she gets whisked off to Las Vegas and transforms into a glamorous young woman.
Battat says that sequence was a “transition” for Priscilla. Elvis really asserts his control in a scene set in a high-end boutique. As she models different dresses — never pants — for him, he tells her what he likes: blue, not brown, no prints, no metallics. “We wanted it to feel a little bit glamorous. … I made that turquoise dress, the strapless one, and I knew that we would use it there,” says Battat.
After she arrives in Memphis, Priscilla enrolls in a Catholic girls’ school, where her heavy makeup and a bouffant hairdo clash with her modest school uniform.
Spaeny says Priscilla was just trying to get through school so she could be with Elvis. “It was sort of visually shocking to see the schoolgirl outfit paired up with the dramatic eyeliner and jet-black hair,” Spaeny acknowledges. “It is a sort of ‘screw it’ vibe that she had about her and the decision that she made, and I think I think those days were really sort of challenging for her. But also, I think she was having a bit of a good time.”
She notes that Elvis “had made those decisions about dying his hair black and wearing certain colors. And she had to fit into that world, too. Because he was a businessman, and she was along with selling the Elvis story.”
“Priscilla” shot in the Toronto area, so the production team created quite a bit of magic to evoke Graceland, a famous tourist destination.
“I kept with the basic geography of Graceland because I think people know it so well,” Deverell says. “Even if you haven’t been there, you’ve seen so many pictures. In terms of the actual decor, we kind of did our own thing, but there were certain things we paid homage to. We built the sofa that he had, we replicated some of the tables and we did the earlier gold and white piano that he had.”
Deverell says that while the rest of Graceland was meant to look like a “family home, a shared space for Priscilla to make her own,” his bedroom is very dark and masculine, with blinds and various
statues, including of Jesus, dogs and a tiger. “We couldn’t find a tiger like that, so we actually made that one,” she says.
But Graceland was a gilded cage for Priscilla. “That, to me, was something I really embraced,” says Deverell. “We wanted it to feel like she’s always in there. She’s always trapped.”
Elvis’ control over the Priscilla look reaches its apex when she gives birth to daughter, Lisa Marie. She’s in full makeup with big — no, huge — hair.
But what was real ironically looked too costumey for film, and the team toned down the blackness and height of the hair.
By the late 1960s, their marriage is on the rocks, and we see Priscilla enjoying the freedom of life in L.A. with her daughter. Her hair is natural and worn down and long, her makeup is minimal, and she is wearing jeans. Battat notes that the fashions of the day were as important to her research as the thousands of photos of Priscilla and Elvis, and simple jeans and blouses not only symbolized Priscilla’s empowerment, they were the dominant trend of the time.
There’s a family photo, taken in 1973, that illustrates the couple’s separate paths. “He’s got more sideburns and bigger collars and all this stuff like tons of jewelry. And she’s more pared down,” says Battat, with more natural hair and makeup.
The movie ends with Priscilla alone at Graceland in a white blouse and dark jeans. “I think that probably was my favorite costume to wear because it felt the most like me and I felt the most powerful finally being able to wear some just denim jeans,” says Spaeny.
When she drives away, her hair is dyed blonde and all the makeup she once wore is gone. “In that last moment, it’s so simple, she’s stripped down now, and she’s decided to start that new chapter.”