Like all of director Sofia Coppola’s filmography, the much anticipated Priscilla is packed full with people expressing themselves through their clothing choices, wearing their hearts and heartbreak on their bishop sleeves.
Long associated with a thoroughly and forthrightly feminine aesthetic, when adapting Priscilla Presley’s 1985 memoir Elvis and Me for the screen, Sofia once again created an immensely rich visual world overflowing with fashion iconography. One that reflects and transcends decades, countries and stages of life.
In her sixth collaboration with the director, costume designer Stacey Battat was tasked with bringing Sofia’s vision and Priscilla’s clothing archive back to life through wide ranging costuming that encompasses some of modern fashion’s richest eras – from that famed 1961 wedding dress that was recreated in cooperation with Chanel, to a suite of skirts that adapt in silhouette as Priscilla strides away from buttoned up notions of girlhood.
Ahead of Priscilla’s New Zealand release, we spoke to the California-based designer about what it’s like to speak Sofia’s language, and how they got Priscilla’s looks just so.
You have enjoyed a long collaborative working relationship with Sofia. What is it like working with someone who’s so skilled at those rich visuals?
One of the things that’s great about working with her is that she does always have a very distinct tone for the film, but she’s also not prescriptive. She’s not somebody who is telling you ‘this is exactly what I’m looking for’. She allows people to interpret that and I think that’s really lovely.
She’s really great at bringing everyone together under the same kind of umbrella… she will tell you what song is playing, I feel like we always work inter-departmentally: I always work with production design, with hair and makeup, with the cinematographers. That creates a cohesive story and I love working with Sofia.
You‘ve said that the two of you share a visual lexicon. Could you tell me a bit about that and how it played out when developing Priscilla?
She would say, ‘I want to feel sad in Germany and like the sun comes out in Memphis’. From there, I made a colour palette that I sent to her, but I knew her saying that means the same thing to me.
I don’t know how to explain it, but I’m working with somebody right now who I’ve worked with a bunch and I really like a lot and when we talk about stuff, we don’t share that – it’s a little more effort to communicate for the character that we’re working on. They keep saying to me, ‘it’s vintage’ – but my idea of what is vintage is different than theirs.
You usually start with a mood board. What was on this mood board and how literally do you interpret what’s on it to what we see on screen?
The mood board, I wanna clarify, is really only about tone and feeling. On this mood board were some William Eggleston photos, a photo of Priscilla and Elvis’ wedding, a photo of this woman in kind of like a lacy corset thing and a choker, weirdly.
It doesn’t have anything on it that can be interpreted literally, let’s put it that way – it’s just about tone. It’s developing the story based on that tone and feeling and through the costumes.
Where do you go from there to design these ultra specific costumes?
It always varies. I think in this story, we don’t have a lot of photos of Priscilla from 1963 to 1967 – when she was living in Graceland before they got married. So I used the images of them that exist in the world as benchmarks, and then filled in the blanks based on other historical things like magazines and photos and colours of that time.
There’s a little bit of imagination and storytelling about who the characters are and what they’re going through – how they want to be, how we want to show them to the audience.
I think it’s really important that the audience always saw Elvis like Priscilla saw him. He needed to be accessible and not like a rock star, like it was his time at home. So it was what he was doing when he wasn’t in the public eye – that was really important to show their intimacy.
Then with her, I wanted her to always seem like his ideal, because that’s what she was trying to be.
One of the most overt costuming moments in the film happens when Elvis gives Priscilla rules, I guess in line with what his ideal is – no browns, no patterns. Were there other costuming rules that you stuck to?
I never had her wear pants when he was there; I felt like he maybe wouldn’t like pants, even though it was never overtly expressed. She did wear pants one time, but really just because it was cold and I didn’t want to put her in a skirt. She did wear pants when he wasn’t there and she was doing her homework. She was a lot more laid back when he wasn’t there.
I don’t want to call it a rule but the other thing I thought about was that when she came into her own, she wasn’t expressly defying his rules – she really [was] just becoming herself. Whereas there is a point in the film where she shows up in LA and she is defying his rules. She shows up in a print and is like, I don’t care. I’m doing it because you don’t want me to do it.
There are a couple of noticeable moments in the film, the trousers being one of them, where we see this transition in how Pricsilla dresses reflecting where she is in her life. How else did you negotiate her transition away from buttoned-up girlhood?
I just used some of the historical stuff. I was trying to work with silhouettes that existed within each period. The other thing that’s challenging is that you’re telling a story from 1959 to 1972. But a lot of times, in the collective imagination, there is an idea of what the 60s were.
Transitioning from the early 60s to the later decade was always on my mind; then choosing what existed within those periods helped. Do you know that idea of the Neanderthal man that gradually gets upright? It was kind of like that in my mind: it starts with this childish [petticoated] silhouette, and they slim down a tiny bit and then they become shifts and there’s more legs, and then finally, pants.
You touched on the timeline of the film – it traverses these periods which are so clearly defined by fashion. Did you feel restricted or daunted by that at all?
The only time I really felt like it was daunting was when we were in the late 60s. I had shoppers who were great, this is not a criticism of them, but when we were trying to get the clothes for the Memphis Mafia for the late 60s, the costume houses are kind of set up with 70s or 60s. So in the 60s, you have a slimmer leg and in the 70s, a wider leg. But in 1969 it was becoming a little bellboy, it’s not quite there yet. So I feel like that was challenging to transition into each and make it seem seamless.
Tell me a little bit more about sourcing the pieces. Obviously, Chanel made the wedding dress…
We ended up making most of the clothes for both Priscilla and Elvis, because we wanted to keep true to a colour palette and to kind of manage the silhouettes to age and slowly progress into those other eras.
With Elvis it was a similar thing, I wanted him to feel like an elegant man. I wanted him to be cosy, seem cosy. So Valentino made a lot of his knits for us, which was an amazing gift. We shot the movie in six weeks and we had like a six week prep. There’s no way we would have been able to make that many sweaters.
I was really interested to see Priscilla re-wearing a couple of outfits during the film and see them take on different meanings each time, especially during her pregnancy. Can you tell me a little bit about the thinking behind that decision?
The pregnancy thing was really important to me because it’s never verbally expressed in the film, but there was a scene in an earlier draft where Priscilla was riding motorcycles with the boys and she was pregnant. And there’s a scene in the movie where she gets on the scale.
This is what I mean about Sofia, she doesn’t tell you, ‘make sure everybody knows that she was trying to stay cool’ – but through all of this we see she was still trying to be his ideal. She was still riding motorcycles as a pregnant woman, and she got on the scale and weighed herself when she was nine months pregnant. To me, it’s to say, like she was cautious about gaining weight and still being attractive to him. So when she was pregnant I wanted to make sure that we didn’t have new clothes for her maternity. They were clothes you had already seen.
It seems like at the moment we have an especially nostalgic fashion gaze, we love to hold up celebrities from the past sartorially. I see a lot of people fawning over the likes of Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy, Princess Diana… I wondered if in your mind there is a modern figurehead or celebrity that in 30 years, we’re going to be looking back at in that same way?
I feel like [with] modern celebrities, they have stylists. It’s never like the way that we see Princess Diana. There was something about her that was always Princess Diana. I don’t know how to put it, but like there’s an authenticity because I feel like it came from her.
I think nowadays so many people work with stylists. I just wanna say – just from my experience – I would do the same thing. I could not manage trying to figure out what I’m gonna wear to 1000 press events!
I feel like people were allowed to be more authentic, of course – there was less pressure on them to show up to everything and do everything. And there’s so much that people have to do now: award ceremonies and film festivals. There used to be two film festivals in the United States, now there’s like 1000. So I feel like the answer to your question is no.
Priscilla is in cinemas from February 1. See it first on January 18 when Ensemble hosts the NZ premiere party. Buy tickets here.