Much has been said about Austin Butler's transformation into Elvis Presley for Baz Luhrmann's maximalist biopic, Elvis: How Butler perfected the vocal cadence, how he mastered the pelvis-shaking dance moves. But the wiggling of the hips wouldn't hit quite the same without one of the King's trademark tracksuits. That's where Catherine Martin comes in.
Martin, who is married to Luhrmann, is the director's longtime collaborator and four-time Oscar-winning costume designer and set decorator. She won Oscars for both Best Costume Design and Best Production Design for 2001's Moulin Rouge!, and then, did so again for 2013's The Great Gatsby. Martin also received nominations for her set decoration on 1996's Romeo + Juliet and for her costume design on 2008's Australia.
With Elvis, she was tasked with the tall order of costuming one of the 20th century's most iconic showmen from his Rockabilly days on Beale Street in the 1950s to the Las Vegas strip of the 1970s, requiring that she recreate some of Elvis' most infamous ensembles as well as re-interpret his signature style through Luhrmann's lens. Butler alone had more than 90 costumes for the film, requiring untold amounts of rhinestones.
In conversation with Olivia DeJonge, who co-stars as Priscilla Presley, Martin opens up about her process. "If you have good costumes, you should be able to read more into it than just that person is wearing a red shirt," Martin says. "You should be able to feel who the person is and where you are. Because people make decisions every day about how they want to present themselves to the world. Some decisions are good, some decisions not so good, but all decisions are interesting."
Martin remembers always being interested in clothes and, at one point, aspired to be a fashion designer. It was while studying at The National Institute of Dramatic Art in Sydney, Australia, that she found her way to designing costumes. "When I was at NIDA, I felt like I'd found what I wanted to do, and my people, and what was going be right for me," she recalls. "And I've loved doing it ever since."
"I think my job is to help translate the director and the actor's vision for the character and help tell the story," Martin explains. "Help in whatever way I can to support a performance and also to help the audience understand who the person is. It's a combination of the historical context and the story."
"At the end of the day, it's about the actor and a piece of glass and trying to channel all the work [into] a single moment."
On Elvis, Martin estimates her team pulled together more than 9,000 costumes for the extras alone, in addition to tracking the style evolution of Elvis and Priscilla across three decades. To costume Priscilla, Martin worked with design houses Prada and Miu Miu, with whom she had previously collaborated on The Great Gatsby. "To actually be able to do that, particularly in a pandemic when it was kind of hard to get stuff," Martin recalls.
"Do you remember the coat that you guys whipped up in, like, two days?" DeJonge prompts, referring to a patchwork leather coat that she wears in Priscilla's final scene with Elvis. "That was one of the most astonishing things I think I've witnessed."
"It's a testament to the team," Martin recalls. "I just couldn't believe it. And they were teaching themselves how to do crafts they've never done before, like all that crocheting along the leather edges. And the loving work that the team does, even with Elvis's tracksuit, it was so immaculately reproduced. The team was truly incredible."
For Martin, a wardrobe is only as good as the performance that it allows. "I always think of costumes as clothes, you know?" The veteran designer sees costumes as extensions of the actor wearing them as well as the character being embodied. Thus, the process is a collaboration, creating an amalgamation of the director's dreams and her own vision, as well as the actor's needs.
"It's a waste of everyone's time if you don't feel comfortable or don't like it, for whatever reason. It could be a comfort factor because you have to climb Mount Everest and we've put you in stilettos, or you might think, 'Oh, I look fat in these pants,'" Martin tells DeJonge. "And it doesn't mean that you always have to be dressed looking like you're at a premiere."
"Fundamentally, it is about supporting the actor," she adds. "You wore the clothes instead of the clothes wearing you, which was great. You brought so much to the costumes. And that all comes down to creating a performance and being an actor. You do what you can in costume design to be a support to that process. All this time, all these people have done all this stuff but, at the end of the day, it's really about the actor and a piece of glass and trying to channel all the work of all those departments in a single moment."
See more of Martin and DeJonge's conversation in the video below.