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OBITUARIES | Bill Belew, 1931 - 2008

Designer was called 'man who dressed the King'

January 17, 2008|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

When Elvis Presley made his legendary comeback TV special in 1968, he proved not only by his singing and charismatic stage presence that the King was back but also by what he wore in the concert segment: a tight-fitting black leather outfit.

Costume designer Bill Belew conceived the iconic ensemble -- as well as a gold lame jacket and a white two-piece suit that Elvis wore in the special -- and went on to create the flamboyant, bejeweled jumpsuits, matching capes and wide, ornate belts that became Elvis' trademark stage wear in the '70s.

"As a wardrobe designer," Belew said in an interview in 2007, "Bob Mackie had a perfect muse and a perfect canvas in Cher. I got to have that in Elvis."

Belew, who came to be known to Presley fans as "the man who dressed the King," died Jan. 7 at Desert Regional Medical Center in Palm Springs after a lengthy battle with diabetes, said Paul Dafelmair, Belew's longtime companion. He was 76.

During his nearly five-decade career, Belew created costumes for plays, musicals, operas, ballets, TV specials and TV series.

Over the years, he designed for an array of performers, including Josephine Baker, Ella Fitzgerald, Gladys Knight, Brooke Shields, Gloria Estefan, Flip Wilson and Doc Severinsen.

But for many, Belew is best known for his work with Presley.

"Bill Belew changed the face of rock 'n' roll fashion," said Presley costume historian Butch Polston, owner of B & K Enterprises Costume Co.in Charlestown, Ind., which sells re-creations of Presley jumpsuits and other garments.

"Bill is the one who created the jumpsuit" for Presley, Polston said Wednesday.

"After that, everybody wanted to dress like Elvis," he said. "He designed stuff for the Osmonds, the Jacksons, just numerous celebrities."

For Belew, the collaboration with Presley -- which included designing his personal wardrobe and continued until the singer's death in 1977 -- began with the 1968 "Elvis" special on NBC.

Belew had already worked on a Petula Clark special with producer-director Steve Binder when Binder asked him to do the wardrobe for the hourlong Presley show.

It didn't take the designer long to come up with his idea for what Elvis should wear in the concert segment before a live audience.

"It always seemed like people assumed he wore black leather, but he never did," Belew recalled in an interview with Salon.com in 1999.

"He may have worn a leather jacket, but that's about it," Belew said. "At that time, though, we were into denim, and I said, 'What if I just duplicate a denim outfit in black leather?' Elvis loved it."

Added Belew, who is said to have later helped remove the famous leather outfit from Presley's sweat-soaked body: "He was a great person to dress. He had a terrific build at that point."

Polston said that when Elvis was preparing to make his return to live performing in Las Vegas in 1969 at the International Hotel, he asked Belew to create something unique that he could easily move around in like his karate gi.

The result was a two-piece, karate gi-inspired garment -- in both black and white -- that Belew called the Cossack Suit.

"I wanted the clothes to be easy and seductive," he said in the 1999 interview. "And I never wanted anything to compromise his masculinity."

In 1970, Presley began wearing the Belew-designed jumpsuits.

As described by Polston, they included a tall Napoleonic collar to frame the singer's face, had Edwardian pointed sleeves and featured bell bottoms that had an insert called a kick pleat to give the jumpsuit more flair.

"If the songs don't go over," Presley joked backstage at the International Hotel in 1970, "we can do a medley of costumes."

Belew said in one interview that, in watching the reaction of fans to Presley's onstage costumes, "we began to get more elaborate."

Indeed, the costumes were given names such as the Burning Love Suit (red with several pinwheel designs), the Flame Suit (the first of two versions had large jewels in a flame design on the front, on the back and down the legs) and the Dragon Suit (an embroidered dragon embellished with rhinestones).

Presley's favorite, according to Polston, was the Peacock Suit. It featured a peacock on the front and back in chain-stitch embroidery and had feathers tapering off the tail of the peacock that ran down the entire side of the suit.

Another popular costume was the Aloha Eagle Suit, which Presley wore on "Elvis: Aloha from Hawaii," a 1973 global television concert broadcast via satellite.

The star-studded suit consisted of a heavily jeweled eagle on the front, back and cape and a belt embellished with eagles and stars.

"You could be daring as a designer and put anything on Elvis and he could make it work," Belew said in a news release in 2007 when Graceland in Memphis launched a two-year special exhibit featuring 56 additional Presley stage costumes in its visitor center, which also has a permanent costume exhibit.

"The simplest outfits that didn't seem particularly remarkable on the rack transformed into something spectacular when Elvis put them on," Belew said. "He was that beautiful and powerful a presence."

Born in Crocet, Va. on May 20, 1931, Belew served in the Army from 1952 to 1954, a stint that included working as a clerk in a medical unit during the Korean War.

He graduated from the Parsons School of Design in New York.

Belew, whose many TV credits as a costume designer included "The Flip Wilson Show," "Mr. Belvedere" and "Santa Barbara," received an Emmy nomination for the 1980 special "The Carpenters: Music, Music, Music."

A memorial service in Palm Springs is pending.

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dennis.mclellan@latimes.com

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On latimes.com

Bill Belew's work

To see more photos of the costumes that Bill Belew designed for Elvis Presley, go to latimes.com/belew.

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