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Direct from Graceland: Inside Australia’s new Elvis Exhibition

This year, the spotlight shines once again on the King of Rock and Roll. With a biopic by Australian director Baz Luhrmann due to be released this summer, it seems only fitting the country is playing host to the biggest exhibition of Elvis Presley’s life outside of Graceland, whose team have joined forces exclusively with the Bendigo Art Gallery for Elvis: Direct from Graceland.

One of the most iconic public figures of the 20th century, Elvis’s influence on music, design, art, and pop culture is unquestionably profound. In a major coup for Bendigo, the gallery has been able to secure unprecedented access to the Graceland archives to present a comprehensive exhibition, which homes in on Presley’s audacious, radical style, and lesser-known aspects of his youth to the height of fame; featuring 300 artifacts owned by Presley, including costumes, vintage memorabilia, and treasured items from his beloved Graceland home in Memphis, Tennessee.

We spoke to Bendigo curator Laurence Ellis about landing the exhibition and paying homage to the music legend.

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  1. Priscilla’s wedding dress and tiara, 1967

    Eight years after meeting in Germany, Elvis and Priscilla married at the Aladdin Hotel in Las Vegas on May 1st, 1967. Knowing the media would be scrutinising their every move with even a hint of wedding rumours, Elvis and Priscilla followed strict plans laid out by Colonel Parker. Elvis’s tuxedo was bought off the pack in LA and tailored as part of the costume production for Clambake, the film he was shooting at the time. Priscilla attempted shopping in exclusive boutiques disguised in dark glasses and a hat, but she couldn’t risk being discovered.  She found this dress in a ‘little out-of-the-way’ shop in Los Angeles, accompanied by her and Elvis’s close friend Charlie Hodge posing as her fiancé.

    I love this item because it has immense aura and excitement for visitors. It also represents Priscilla beautifully, almost a shroud of her, elegant and actually very modest and simple for a ‘celebrity wedding dress’.  These feel like the wedding outfits of slightly fancy family friends – not high-powered Los Angeles celebrities!

    Photo by Leon Schoots

  2. White suit from the ’68 Special, 1968

    Designed by costumier Bill Belew in the first chapter of his long collaboration with Elvis, this suit was created for the powerful closing number of the legendary 1968 NBC television special. The decision over the closing number was a point of disagreement between the Colonel and the ’68 Special producers. Colonel Parker wanted a wholesome Christmas song, Elvis and the producers wanted something creatively edgy and emotionally-charged. In the final days of production If I Can Dream was composed in one night by Walter Earl Brown, a musician working on the show. The song was based heavily on the words of Martin Luther King Jr, who had been assassinated a few months earlier in Memphis.

    Belew’s costumes for the special mine Elvis’s cultural and musical roots, presumably deliberately signalling to the audience that he’s reconnecting with his authentic self. This suit appears to reference the tailoring of Southern colonial plantation owners, which sits in ironic tension with the message of social equality in the song. But, his gospel-infused performance and the growing physical passion in his movements – he is whipping his arms back and forth – more closely invokes the image of a preacher in front of the congregation.


    Photo by Leon Schoots

  3. Road case with scarves, 1977

    Years after Elvis’s sudden death in 1977, as Graceland archivists worked through his personal effects to catalogue and preserve them (work that is ongoing today), this tour road case was found packed and stowed on Elvis’s private plane. The top of the case has been labelled with black marker on white gaffa tape, “!! NEXT SHOW !! NEXT SHOW”.  The case is packed with white and purple scarves, hung on coat hangers and wrapped in plastic to protect them. These scarves were worn on stage and handed out to the audience during his shows.  The scarves were packed for the tour Elvis was due to commence the day after he died, beginning in Maine on August 17, 1977.  I love this item because it beautifully summarises a key theme in our exhibition – Elvis’s appreciation and love for his fans.  Adjacent to this object we have printed on the wall his quote: “My fans want my shirt. They can have my shirt. They put it on my back.”

    I also love this item because it also alludes to the toll of fame and a life lived for others in many ways, so many people hitched their wagon to Elvis and wanted their piece of the action.  It made me reflect on my own place in that continuum of people, as a curator telling his story nearly 50 years after his death.


    Photo by Leon Schoots

  4. Record player and record, 1977

    The record player from Elvis’s bedroom is preserved today exactly as it was on 16 August 1977, the day he passed away. The last record he listened to is still on the deck, a fresh cut from the studio by his longtime friends and collaborators, gospel quartet J.D. Sumner and the Stamps. I love this item because it’s so personal as his were the last ears to hear the record – the Graceland Archivists don’t even know what tracks are on it.  Gospel music was Elvis’s first and greatest musical love. As a teenager he idolised a gospel quartet called the Blackwood Brothers, attending all night performances with his church and social group. He auditioned to join an offshoot group, The Songfellows, in 1954 but his voice wasn’t suited to the tight harmonic style. As an adult, he spent countless long nights at the piano in the Graceland music room playing gospel standards, sometimes quietly alone, sometimes surrounded by family and old friends enlisted to sing harmony. On the road, he would cajole his bandmates into sessions back in his suite for hours after their nightly shows. Elvis won three Grammy Awards during his lifetime, all for gospel recordings.

    Photo by Leon Schoots

  5. ‘King Midas’ gold Rolex, 1970

    In early 1970, riding high on the new chapter of creative and commercial success he had unlocked in Las Vegas, Elvis performed a series of concerts at the Houston Astrodome in Texas. The venue, built in 1965 for huge sporting events and rodeos, was not designed for music concerts and much less for the emotionally intimate performance style Elvis was honing in Vegas. Elvis explained: “I knew it would be hard work at the Dome. There is no personal contact. I decided I just had to work as hard as I could…” The concerts were nevertheless a huge success, with over 200,000 people attending six shows. This limited edition ‘King Midas’ gold Rolex watch was given to Elvis by the Houston Livestock Association to mark the record-breaking attendances; it is inscribed to Elvis on the rear of the face. According to Rolex, it has been carved from a single gold ingot – it’s beautifully heavy and a fabulous piece of 1970s design.

    Photo by Leon Schoots