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From Elvis Presley to Timothée Chalamet: why women are attracted to men who play with gender

elvis austin butler
Why women like men who play with genderAustin Butler in 'Elvis'. Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Oscar-winning costume designer Catherine Martin has a theory about the type of men that women are attracted to. Far from the idealised jock-style heartthrobs that have always been heralded as pin-ups, she says that the sex appeal of stars like Elvis, Timothée Chalamet and Harry Styles proves that what young women really want is men who subvert gender norms.

“When Elvis was young, he wore make-up and dressed in pink and lace shirts but he was undeniably masculine,” she tells me over the phone. “It’s an interesting exploration of gender and what appeals to teenage girls. When you look at Elvis when he was young, or David Cassidy, or K-Pop bands right now, this blur between the masculine and feminine is immediately attractive to adolescents.”

While playing with sartorial gender codes is a hot topic right now, Martin – who designed the wardrobe for Baz Luhrmann’s recent Elvis biopic – says none of this is new. Young women have always lusted after men who have thrown out traditional notions of what is acceptable for them to wear. Elvis was a ‘forefather’ for today’s generation to follow. “It’s all just about looking good and expressing yourself in the moment and that is what Elvis did – and so too are Harry Styles and Timothée Chalamet. A backless top on a male star like Timothée at Venice Film Festival? Genius. He looked really hot and, strangely, super masculine. The unexpected, the playfulness, the sense of humour, the wink… it's risqué, exciting and sexy.”

Photo credit: Stefania D'Alessandro - Getty Images
Photo credit: Stefania D'Alessandro - Getty Images

Martin has form in creating wardrobes for sexy, on-screen leading men. As a long-term collaborator of husband Luhrmann, she’s behind the wardrobes of Romeo in Romeo and Juliet, Jay Gatsby in The Great Gatsby, Christian in Moulin Rouge, and Scott Hastings in Strictly Ballroom. Each character’s wardrobe requires extensive research, consideration and workmanship, but the sartorial choices of Elvis – as played by Austin Butler – took heightened significance. Her task was to do justice to a man who, despite his limited exposure to cultural influences having grown up in rural Mississippi and later Memphis, created a look that became instantly recognisable around the world. “To think that he was able to connect to music and style that is to some degree outside his natural experience is extraordinary to me,” she says. "He was able to synthesise something he makes his own. He was able to say to designer Bill Belew, ‘that colour is really working’. He had a strong visual through line in how he saw himself.”

Photo credit: Hugh Stewart
Photo credit: Hugh Stewart
Photo credit: Michael Ochs Archives - Getty Images
Photo credit: Michael Ochs Archives - Getty Images

Martin thinks part of Elvis’ interest and adeptness in cultivating a strong image came from necessity. “He had stage fright his whole life, and I think he instinctively knew that in order to get on stage, he needed to create these personas. He understood the power of the image and how that affected people.”

One of the challenges she and Luhrmann faced in creating Elvis 2.0 was designing clothes that facilitated the singer's signature wiggle. “Early on, we realised that when we slavishly copied every detail of an Elvis costume and put it on Austin, it just became a fancy-dress costume,” she says. “It was about finding the right fabrics, cut and fullness that allowed for the sensuality, sexuality and shapes of Elvis' moves. It needed to have a liquid sensuality.” It was, fittingly, Elvis himself who helped Martin and Butler find a way to gyrate in tailoring. “I was watching clips of Elvis performances over and over again and I noticed that he only kept the bottom button done up and the top undone. As soon as Austin did that we discovered that all the jackets moved in the way we needed them to.”

Memorable on-screen looks require an in-depth understanding of how they fit into the respective character’s wardrobe. Martin considers the provenance of each garment - where would that character have found that piece and how would it fit into their existing wardrobe? In what way does it fit in with the world that they’re inhabiting? She highlights the cult Hawaiian shirt that Leonardo DiCaprio wears as Romeo, which was initially sourced by fellow costume designer Kym Barrett in a former red light district in Sydney. It was seen as a perfect symbol of the all-American energy of Luhrmann’s Montagues. “Leonardo came to Australia to do a workshop. Before he came, Kym was looking for a Hawaiian shirt in places she felt appropriate,” recalls Martin. “She was shopping in a place called King’s Cross which became a red light district after the American GIs came to Sydney for R&R during the Vietnam War. At the back of King's Cross there used to be a couple of vintage and second-hand stores and she was walking down one of the back streets and saw that shirt in a window and bought it. All this was a year before we started filming for the video that producers saw which led to them green-lighting the movie.”

Photo credit: Merrick Morton/20th Century Fox/Kobal/Shutterstock
Photo credit: Merrick Morton/20th Century Fox/Kobal/Shutterstock

So, how do you tell the difference between a great film costume and a lesser version? It comes down to a simple distinction: whether or not you see them as clothes or costumes. “Clothes are a natural extension of the person and their personality. There’s something a little less natural, or more jagged about the idea of a costume,” says Martin. “That’s not to say that clothes can’t be exaggerated. Even the costumes in Moulin Rouge were true to the world and natural to the characters. Those are the clothes that those people wore in that world. It’s about finding the clothes that fit the person in that specific universe. One of the nicest things that someone said to me recently is that my costumes feel like clothes.”

Elvis is out now on Premium Video on Demand and coming to 4K, Blu-ray and DVD

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