Elvis Presley and Bill Belew (by Jeffrey Schrembs 2011 All Rights Reserved)

To Elvis Presley Fans Worldwide Bill Belew is known, and held in high esteem, as the “man who designed Elvis’ jumpsuits”. But, in fact Elvis’ infamous jumpsuits were the end result of the collaboration between Bill Belew and Gene Doucette that produced many of Elvis’ most popular stage outfits as well as Elvis’ personal wardrobe from 1968 until (sadly) Elvis’ death on August 16, 1977.
While Bill Belew was a graduate of the Parsons School of Design, in New York, Gene Doucette was born in Brooklyn New York and was a “self taught” artist who recalled that he had been drawing since “the time I could hold a pencil”.
Bill Belew had decided to go into the costume design profession after taking the advice of the legendary singer Josephine Baker. Bill Belew, over the course of his career, designed outfits for Josephine Baker and other celebrities (including but not limited to) such as; Brooke Shields, Joan Rivers, Gloria Estefan, The Carpenters, Ella Fitzgerald, Gladys Knight, Roberta Flack, Milton Berle, and Dionne Warwick.
After the contact was reached, between Elvis (represented by Colonel Parker) and NBC, for the 1968 Singer Special entitled “Elvis” (aka: the Comeback Special, the ’68 Special, etc.) the producer and director Steve Binder contacted Bill Belew about designing some outfits for Elvis. Steve Binder knew Bill Belew as they had previously worked together on the “Petula Clark Special”, which Bill Belew had received great reviews/accolades for the outfits he produced, when Petula Clark first came to America. Steve Binder stressed that he wanted something “unique” and “not typical of what Hollywood was doing at the time”.
Bill Belew decided to do some background research on Elvis, as well as speaking to Elvis about his fashion tastes and people he admired, and was pleasantly surprised to learn that Elvis had not worn many “leather products” except for a few motorcycle jackets he owned.
During the late 1960s’ denim (i.e. blue jean) jackets, worn with matching denim pants, were widely accepted as “cool”. It was the idea of Bill Belew to combine the look of a blue jean jacket, with black leather, and create the iconic outfit that Elvis wore during the musical numbers (i.e. when Elvis was placed on a small stage surrounded by fans accompanied by Charlie Hodge, Scotty Moore, and DJ Fontana).
Bill Belew shared his idea with Steve Binder who said he “loved the idea” and then asked Bill Belew for some “sketches”. Upon receipt of the sketches Steve Binder spoke with Elvis about the outfit and Elvis’ only concerns were that leather was hot and he did not want his movements impaired. Steve Binder, and Bill Belew, assured Elvis that the outfits would meet/exceed his criteria and the designs were approved.
In later years Bill Belew stated that he had always been an admirer of the fashions worn by Napoleon including the high collars which Bill Belew believed would compliment Elvis’ face by “framing” his features. Bill Belew incorporated into his designs for Elvis many of Napoleons’ outfits (i.e. pointed sleeve cuffs, wide belts, capes, use of gems/rhinestone studs, elaborate embroidery, etc.) into Elvis’ personal wardrobe (i.e. probably the most famous example is the dark navy blue velveteen outfit Elvis wore, which was originally designed for Elvis’ Las Vegas appearance, when he met with President Nixon) and concert outfits.
When the 1968 Singer Special entitled “Elvis” first aired on TV it not only “relaunched” Elvis’ singing/concert career but it also became the most watched TV show for all of 1968. The fans loved Elvis’ attire and nationwide critics, and those in the fashion industry, conveyed their respect/appreciation for the outfits designed and produced by Bill Belew. Bill Belew, through the unique designs and quality of his clothes, earned Elvis’ respect.
After Elvis signed with the International Hotel, in 1969 to perform live in Concert in Las Vegas, Colonel Parker contacted Bill Belew and asked him if he would be interested in designing Elvis’ stage costumes and wardrobe. Bill’s response was an enthusiastic “yes”.
This was the first time Bill would be designing for Las Vegas and he experimented with different fabrics and colors but ultimately decided that the best color for Elvis’ Las Vegas appearances was white (note: Elvis shared with Bill Belew that he had a preference for blue as it was one of Elvis’ favorite colors but the stage lighting, that Elvis used in Las Vegas and ultimately for all of his Concert appearances, was not favorable to any other color but white).
Now that Bill had decided on the color his next step was to choose the right fabric. Bill contacted the Ice Capades and discussed with a friend of his the type of fabric that ice skaters (i.e. figure skaters) used known as “stretch gab or gabardine”. Since this fabric allowed for skaters to do turns, jumps, splits, etc. Bill believed that this would be perfect for Elvis’ concerts as Elvis moved so much onstage, and Bill wanted a fabric that would “breathe” since Elvis would perspire a lot due to his movements and the hot stage lights, plus Elvis incorporated some of his martial arts (i.e. Karate) moves into his musical numbers. Needless to say, Bill Belew’s creations were a bona fide hit and Elvis loved the designs.
Due to the recognition of creating Elvis’ costumes and wardrobe the demand for Bill Belew increased and he entered into contracts to to TV shows, movies, and to design many entertainers costumers. It was during the year 1972 that Bill Belew turned to Gene Doucette, who had earned Bills respect and appreciation as they were working together at the company named Pzazz Design, and turned over the designing of Elvis’ costumers exclusively to Gene.
Gene Doucette continued to design Elvis’ costumes, including his jumpsuits, from 1972 until (sadly) Elvis death on August 16, 1977 with an emphasis on elaborate embroidery. His designs include, but are not limited to, the following; the Aloha from Hawaii jumpsuit and cape, Sundial, Tiger, and two of Elvis personal favorites (other than the Aloha from Hawaii American Eagle suit and cape which Elvis had commented was his favorite) the Dragon suit and the Peacock suit.
A fact not widely known is that Gene and Bill were working on, at the time of Elvis’ death, a special prototype jumpsuit they called the “laser suit”. In 1977 lasers were the stuff of “science fiction” but Bill had been in contact with an electrician who specialized in lasers and had conducted laser shows throughout the United States including at Stone Mountain Georgia (i.e. home of one of the largest ongoing laser shows in the World).
This “laser suit” was actually a design that contained (literally) hundreds of jewels and rhinestones. Bill came to call this design the “diamond suit” as when the light hit the suit it appeared as though the suit was made of diamonds.
Bill, Gene, and the electrician agreed that they should strategically place some very large stones throughout the suit where the laser would be activated by Elvis touching the large stones causing the laser to “zoom in and shoot” directly on the large stones thereby creating a display of lights never before seen onstage. On the day that Elvis died, August 16 1977, Bill Belew was on his way to the studio to place the “laser suit” on the display figure for its final testing. The plan was after the final testing, which in fact took place after Elvis’ death and it was successful, it would be presented to Elvis.
Finally, the beauty of the designs of Bill Belew and Gene Doucette have garnered the respect, admiration, appreciation, and imagination of Elvis Presley Fans Worldwide and created a style that has been copied now for four decades. Bill Belew and Gene Doucette deserve all of the praise for contributing to the life, and legacy, of the greatest entertainer who ever lived…Elvis Aron Presley.

Jeff Schrembs

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