Since the first still of Cailee Spaeny in chiffon pink ruffles with voluminous black hair and thick winged eyeliner was released, the internet has been in a frenzy over her mesmerizing resemblance to Priscilla Presley in Sofia Coppola’s biopic, Priscilla. Based on the memoir, Elvis and Me by Priscilla herself, the impressionable 14-year-old is shaped in Elvis’ image, after living out every teen girl’s fantasy of falling in love with her pin-up idol. Underneath the big bows and beehive is a young girl venturing into womanhood who finds her own voice and identity along the way.
Faced with emulating the style of Priscilla Presley from her high-school sweetheart teen years to her mid-twenties, every outfit had to capture another step in the narrative Coppola wanted to tell. Costume designer Stacey Battat is the woman behind this carefully curated evolution. She chatted with Cosmopolitan about developing Priscilla’s autonomy through expression, that all important lingerie chart, and how she approached styling one of most iconic couples in history.
The film tracks Priscilla from her school girl era to a modern woman in the '70s. How many outfits did you create for her in total?
We shot the movie in 30 days, and Priscilla alone had 120 costumes. I don't know what the math is, but that’s a lot. We say 120 costumes, but the truth is she might have had more.
How important was it to communicate the level of control Elvis had in their relationship through her outfits?
In my mind, she was presented to the audience the way Elvis saw her or wanted to see her, which was his ideal. And he was presented as the way she saw him, which was not as a rock star, but as a boyfriend—the guy that is in bed with you, wearing his reading glasses, reading a book.
I think there was maybe an unintentional disconnect in how they saw each other. In my mind, she wasn't a person to him. He was like, this is my ideal woman, and that's who you are. She was always a projection.
I think this really comes through when Elvis takes Priscilla shopping and dictates what she can and can’t wear.
It was written that he doesn’t like prints or brown clothes as they remind him of the army, but he does like blue. We didn’t have a ton of time to shoot the scene, so the brown and the print became one dress. We used the blue dress later when she’s in a limo and they go to a club.
It's interesting, because then you visually see this shift happen as Priscilla becomes more autonomous and starts to move away from conservative skirts to pants, and some prints too.
There's a big bold print when she goes to Los Angeles, she's like, 'You're having an affair with Margaret and I'm coming anyway.' After he tells her not to come, she shows up in a bold print because she was being bold. That was a reaction to him. She was mad at him. She was like, 'I'm going to do this even though you say no. I'm going to come to Los Angeles even though you don't want me to.’
I think by the time we get to that point in the film when Priscilla has grown up, I was careful to not put her in big prints most of the time because I didn't want her evolution to be just a reaction to him. It's about her finding her own way and that was her own style, regardless of what he liked and didn't like. To have it be based on something that he said seemed unfair to her story.
It definitely comes through that she dresses for Elvis when she’s younger, almost as though she’s an extension of him or an accessory of his.
Yes, she never wore pants when he was home in the early ‘60s. She only wore pants in the early ‘60s when he was not home and that, to me, was her dressing for herself because he wasn't there.
Priscilla also wears a lot of delicates in the film, and there’s a powerful scene where she talks about being a woman with desires, who wants to be desired. How did you select these pieces?
I had a whole lingerie timeline outlined because there's a lot of scenes in the bedroom. I put one together basically to see how the lingerie progresses—it starts kind of childish and then goes into more negligee.
She wore some cotton night gowns in the late '50s early '60s when he called her in the night. Those were most conservative. When she visited him in '62 the night gown was still cotton but was shorter and more baby doll. Then we got into transparent baby doll styles and little sets from '63 until their wedding. Then they got more sophisticated: longer, sexier, less baby doll, and finally black towards the end.
Did you have to be careful not to overshadow Priscilla with Elvis’s costumes or presence?
I wanted him to always be presented to the audience the way that Priscilla sees him, so in a softer, kind of more intimate way. He's such a big part of her story in life, but it is her story. It's her perspective of this moment in time.
The choice not to use Elvis Presley music and all of that is because it’s not his story. It wasn’t that we didn’t want him to overshadow her, but it was more like, this is her view of him. Other choices were perhaps made to not take it away from her.
There were also all the pool parties and larger scenes to style. How did you approach creating the ensemble's aesthetic?
I had an amazing background department, which I oversee, so I can’t take credit for doing all of that myself. But I had a very distinct color palette that me and Sofia came up with and we wanted to stick to within those.
Obviously, I looked at all the photos, too. In the pool party scene I really wanted to have some of the Memphis Mafia in cabana suits. They were just so fun to look at, they’re so cool. So I wouldn't let them put any of the extras in cabana suits.
What staple items did you build Priscilla’s wardrobe around?
We changed her bras a bunch of times. She had a long line bra in the early '50s, in the '60s it was a different kind of bra. Then in the '70s there’s no padding. I think those were the staple items because they changed the silhouette, and I think the silhouette was a big part in telling her timeline.
Did you have a favorite look?
I love the wave goodbye when he's leaving Germany and she's waving from the porch, because I just love the texture.
Is it more challenging working on a biopic and dress a character based on a real person?
My actual assignment is always to develop the character that's on the page. Yes, there were some historic photos to draw from but most of our story is their intimate life together. It is nice to have the benchmark, but I never think of them as a finite thing. It's not like that photo is all it is. I still feel like I'm trying to draw from the page. I think it's kind of using the period, the actual historic photos, and developing an inner life from that.
We also had really collaborative actors, which was amazing. They were very willing to talk about it and be present for fittings with their million costumes, and secondly, really be willing to share their process, because the truth is, they're the ones wearing them and it has to be symbiotic.
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