Viva Las Vegas: Elvis’ Gray Shawl-Collar Suit
Elvis Presley as “Lucky” Jackson, mechanic and aspiring race car driver
Las Vegas, Summer 1964
Film: Viva Las Vegas
Release Date: May 20, 1964
Director: George Sidney
Costume Designer: Donfeld (Donald Lee Feld)
Tailor: Sy Devore
WARNING! Spoilers ahead!
On the sad anniversary of the King of Rock and Roll’s death, I wanted to celebrate Elvis Presley’s legacy via his style in one of his best-regarded movies, the 1964 musical vehicle Viva Las Vegas.
Set in the bright-lit berg known as America’s Playground, Viva Las Vegas united Elvis with Ann-Margret, a fellow multi-talent with whom the King quickly bonded to form what was first a romance and would evolve into a lifelong friendship. Elvis stars as Lucky Jackson, a gearhead who takes a part-time gig at the Fabulous Flamingo to raise the money he needs for his own race car.
A secondary objective of Lucky’s foray into Sin City is a search for the mysterious redhead who had stopped in his garage that morning, leading he and Count Elmo Mancini (Cesare Danova)—his rival in both racing and romance—from a show at the Sands promoting “The Most Beautiful Girls in the World” through a tour of the Thunderbird, Stardust, Tropicana, and Sahara, before Lucky returns to the Flamingo, where he finally finds the voluptuous redhead, a swimming instructor named Rusty Jackson, and presses the Count’s guitar into service to serenade her with “The Lady Loves Me”.
What’d He Wear?
Four years after the Rat Pack and their well-suited mob of eleven attempted the simultaneous heist of millions from five casinos on New Year’s Eve, Elvis Presley came to town also tailored by Sy Devore, the legendary Hollywood cutter whose high-profile clients ranged from Sinatra, Nat King Cole, and John Wayne to JFK and LBJ.
“Elvis Presley shopped at Devore’s off the rack, picking out 20 suits at a time at $350 a pop,” wrote Alison Martino for Los Angeles Magazine in August 2015. “There were sharkskin suits lined in paisley silk, sports coats, pastel sweaters, skinny ties, dress shirts, and trousers with big belt loops, all finished with an impeccable fit.”
From the early days of his career, Elvis’ signature style frequently incorporated unorthodox details that signified his individualistic taste… and his ability to afford such individualism. Often, this would mean clothing more off-the-wall than off-the-peg, such as the short, collarless jackets he wears across his performances in Viva Las Vegas, which may look great on the King but would not translate to your everyday dresser.
For this sequence, Elvis’ offbeat sartorial sensibilities converged with Sy Devore’s mastery of timeless tailoring in the form of a stylish suit that’s just different enough to belong in Elvis’ wardrobe.
Constructed from a sharp gray sharkskin wool, the suit has a single-breasted jacket that follows the styling queues of a dinner jacket, specifically the narrow shawl collar (albeit self-faced rather than silk as one would find on evening-wear), a ventless back, and a single-button front. True, the latter two were increasingly fashionable for lounge suits of the ’60s, but the shawl collar is a particularly eye-catching way for the star to add distinctive detailing to his suits without going to the extreme of excising the collar altogether (as later seen on his beige linen suit.)
Tailored to flatter with padded shoulders and front darts, the jacket otherwise follows the traditional style points of a welted breast pocket and jetted hip pockets, the lack of flaps harmonizing with the shawl collar and single-button front to create a sleek, minimal effect. The sleeves are finished with three buttons on each cuff.
Elvis’ pale slate-blue cotton shirt coordinates with his suit as a generally standard garment with a slightly modified collar to establish a degree of uniqueness, in this case a semi-spread collar rounded at the ends without approaching the extreme of an old-fashioned club collar.
The shirt has a plain “French-style” front and button cuffs, wisely chosen to avoid the threat of French cuffs interfering with his guitar-playing. He wears a straight navy tie, knotted with a four-in-hand and held in place with a silver tie bar a few inches above the jacket’s single button.
The suit’s matching flat front trousers continue the minimalist effect of the jacket, sparsely detailed aside from the sliding buckle-tab adjusters rigged on each side of the waistband to ensure a comfortable fit in lieu of belt or braces.
The trousers have a high rise to meet the jacket’s single buttoning point, and the square-ended extended waistband tab closes on the front through a hidden hook-and-eye closure. There are no back pockets, and the side pockets are cut with a gentle slant and a slim welt along the opening.
To see more of the trousers, check out this Graceland listing from when they were auctioned four years ago during Elvis Week. The label confirms their Sy Devore provenance as well as the date of July 25, 1963, just one day before production wrapped in Las Vegas and moved to L.A. According to the listing, the trousers are 40.5″ long.
The trouser legs taper down to plain-hemmed bottoms, which break high over the black suede Chelsea boots that Elvis wears through most of Viva Las Vegas. All black, including the elastic side gussets, the boots have a slightly raised heel that makes the 6’0″ Elvis appear even taller as he strides aside the Flamingo pool.
Lucky wore a similarly styled suit with a shawl-collar, single-button jacket for his wedding to Rusty in the finale, though in a more somber black. According to the Christie’s auction listing for this suit, the cloth is a linen blend, which would have allowed the dark cloth to be lighter-wearing in the heat of a Las Vegas summer. (The listing also confirms the size as 42 long.)
He wears this black suit with an eggshell white shirt that has another rounded-end collar. The slim silver silk tie is held in place with a simple clip at mid-torso, though the lower button stance of this jacket can’t keep the tie blade from sliding out over the button. To celebrate the happy occasion, Lucky accents his appearance with a white carnation boutonnière on his lapel and a silver silk pocket square, likely matching his tie.
For the sake of anyone who may not have expected the ending despite the formulaic nature of the King’s filmography, I added a “spoiler warning” tag to the top of this post… though the ending would have been spoiled for readers of tabloid magazines like Movie Life that ran photos from filming the wedding scene, claiming that Elvis and Ann-Margret’s real-life romance had advanced to the point of marriage!
After hitting all the major casinos, Lucky and the Count arrive at the Swingers Club, hosting a convention of rambunctious Texans. Exhibiting what would be a double-whammy of poor decisions if made in real life, Lucky grabs a set of single-action revolvers from a cowboy’s holster, dons the man’s hat, and fires a few rounds into the air to get the group’s attention… eventually luring everyone out of the casino by leading them in rounds of “The Yellow Rose of Texas” and “The Eyes of Texas Are Upon You”.
The ivory-gripped six-shooters in question appear to be a set of Colt Single Action Army revolvers, the ubiquitous “Peacemaker” made famous by countless Westerns as well as its real-life role as the chosen smoke-wagon for Wild West figures on all sides of the law, from Wyatt Earp to Pancho Villa. Introduced in 1873, the Single Action Army has risen to an iconic status in Americana, the result of its decades of famous use and its elegant yet reliable design.
How to Get the Look
Even with a renowned tailor like Sy Devore, Elvis Presley sought to sartorially distinguish himself from his stylish contemporaries with subtle yet remarkable details like the incorporation of a shawl collar on this sleek gray sharkskin suit.
- Gray sharkskin tailored suit:
- Single-button jacket with shawl collar, welted breast pocket, straight jetted hip pockets, 3-button cuffs, and ventless back
- Flat front trousers with buckle-tab side adjusters, slim-welted slanted side pockets, and plain-hemmed bottoms
- Pale slate-blue cotton shirt with rounded semi-spread collar, plain front, and button cuffs
- Navy straight tie
- Silver tie clip
- Black suede Chelsea boots with black elastic side gussets
- Black socks
With his sleek tailored gray suit with single-breasted jacket and side-adjuster trousers, worn with a pale blue shirt and navy tie, this Viva Las Vegas outfit could be argued as the King’s take on what Sean Connery had established as 007’s “uniform” in the first several James Bond movies produced across the early ’60s.
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Check out the movie.
What a great film! Funny but, as stylish as Sy’s looks are for King, in my review of Viva Las Vegas I commented on the plainness of Donfeld’s looks for Lucky. The shirt he sings the title track in…it’s crazy! For extreme class, King may never have looked better than he did in It Happened at the World’s Fair. Also Devore.