Style Icon: Sophia Coppola’s Priscilla

Vanessa Wilkinson

Sofia Coppola’s 2023 Priscilla features a series of iconic outfits based on the real-life style icon Priscilla Presley. Costume designer Stacey Battat used costumes in order to accurately depict outfits appropriate to the period, to symbolically demonstrate the nature and evolution of Priscilla and Elvis’ relationship, and to show Priscilla’s mindset at each point in the movie. As the movie has a distinct lack of inner monologue, the costuming does a lot of the speaking. Priscilla’s costumes in the film can be split into three distinct periods: pre-Elvis, during Elvis, and post-Elvis. Here is a breakdown of Priscilla’s costuming in Sofia Coppola’s film.

At the start of the movie, Priscilla is only fourteen years old and living on an army base camp in Germany with her family. In this early part of the film, Battat uses costuming to paint Germany, and life without Elvis, as dreary, dull, and colourless. The costumes are muted and don’t attract attention.

For example, in the scene where Priscilla waves Elvis off at the airport, her outfit is predominantly grey and brown, just like everyone else around her. However, the plaid design of the dress has lines of blue running through, foreshadowing the strong influence he later exerts over her wardrobe, specifically compelling her to wear blue more, and brown less (as the latter reminds him of the army). However, most importantly, it also nearly exactly matches paparazzi pictures of the real Priscilla waving Elvis off in 1960. The Coppola film is based on Priscilla Presley’s 1985 biography and therefore the costume decisions were based on, not only trying to project symbolic meaning, but also accurate reality. Priscilla’s outfits also follow the 50s/60s silhouette of a belted waist with a long hem, and a white head scarf; Battat explained her decision to intentionally give Priscilla wider more voluminous skirts in this era to give her a ‘childish silhouette’.

Priscilla’s outfits also change according to Elvis’s wishes

Priscilla also wears a heart necklace that isn’t the style of the period in order to connect with modern audiences – Priscilla is just a young, teenage girl who has a crush on a famous pop star, and, in this way, Priscilla is relatable. Battat described the necklace as one of the ‘pieces that resonate now, so that it’s not too jarring to the modern eye’: for example, ‘the heart necklace that Priscilla wears on screen is a piece she wore that is also something girls would wear now, so we made it more prominent, because it’s so relatable, and that works.’

During Elvis
As the film progresses, Priscilla’s costuming demonstrates the significant amount of influence that the (much older) Elvis has over her. He directs her hair to be black (like his) and styled to be more voluminous into what would become her signature beehive. He is also the influence behind her iconic heavy eye makeup. We see Priscilla made up to look much older, dressing up as if she’s an adult, and this creates an uncanny juxtaposition with the high school uniform she still has to wear during the school-day like a normal teenager. The tall, heavy hair contrasts with actress’ Cailee Spaeny’s petite height and therefore looks like a wig that she’s wearing to ‘dress the part’ of Elvis’ grown-up girlfriend.

Priscillla’s mental departure from the relationship comes before she physically leaves him

Priscilla’s outfits also change according to Elvis’ wishes: she begins to wear fewer prints, at his request, and colours that he compliments, such as blue, rather than colours he hates, such as brown. Stacey Battat says: ‘The Priscilla you see on screen is Elvis’s fantasy of who she is. He had a very clear image of his ideal woman, and he projected that on to Priscilla. She lives like a queen, but he has all the power.’ Priscilla does not have an inner-monologue through the film, so her internal identity crisis is primarily depicted through her appearance and wardrobe. She is restricted from making her own wardrobe choices, and perhaps is unable to do so yet, as she has no sense of herself without him.

Priscilla’s mental departure from the relationship comes before she physically leaves him, and this is shown in her change of wardrobe. She begins to wear a more masculine silhouette in trousers, a direct contrast to the tight-waist dresses he had picked out for her before. Her hair is also dyed back to her natural colour, part of the recurrent theme of her trying to find an independent identity.

The style closely resembles Gloria Steinem, which shows the influence on her looking to powerful women figures she could idolise. It also marks when the movie enters the 1970s. The contrast to Priscilla’s old wardrobe is deepened further the more time she spends in her separate life in LA, away from her relationship with Elvis. The climax of this is the outfit Priscilla wears when she leaves Elvis: she wears an assertive suit in simple colours, as she did in the beginning of the film. It confirms the control she now has over her life and her regaining of her own identity, separate from Elvis.

Vanessa Wilkinson

Featured image courtesy of Mason B. via Unsplash. Image license found here. No changes were made to this image. 

In article image 1 courtesy of @caileespaeny via No changes were made to this image. 

In article image 2 courtesy of @priscillamovie via No changes were made to this image. 

In article image 3 courtesy of @priscillamovie via No changes were made to this image. 

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