costume

Elton John: Behind The Feathers and Glasses

Written by Miranda Haut and Edited by Jessica Bailey

What do you think of when you hear the name Elton John? A few catchy lines from one of his (many) hit songs? How about The Lion King? You probably also visualize him wearing some crazy pair of spectacles and a handful of rhinestones. With the recent release of Rocketman, a movie musical detailing the life and journey of the performer, Frock & Roll takes a deep dive to uncover the man behind the lavish costumes and how this young boy from the UK became a world-renowned rock legend. 

The only child was actually born Reginald “Reggie” Kenneth Dwight on March 25, 1947 in Pinner, United Kingdom. It soon became clear that Reggie was somewhat of a child prodigy, taking up piano at home and getting into the Royal Academy of Music at age 11. His early influences included Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly, who’s music and fashion styles are present as Reggie started reaching adolescence. However, there was still one major authority that had control on the rest of his style: his father. Conservative dress and behavior were the rule in the Dwight household for a majority of his life. 

By the time he started his first band in 1962, Bluesology, Reggie was donning thick rimmed glasses and beginning to break away from his classical piano training and preppy wardrobe. 

Not content with “just being the keyboardist”, he left the group around 1967 and shortly after Reggie was paired with singer/songwriter Bernie Taupin. This was just the very beginning of his long and lustrous music career.

Where did the name Elton John come from?

He didn’t like his birth name, so as he stepped into the spotlight more Dwight became Elton John by borrowing “Elton” from the saxophone player in Bluesology, and “John” after singer Long John Baldry whom he toured with for a time. He self-appointed his middle name “Hercules” from a horse on the Steptoe and SonTV show. He mentioned in a 1987 interview that by becoming Elton John, it was like a new lease on life, and a new personality so different from his unhappy childhood. 

Elton’s and Bernie’s debut album “Empty Sky” was released in 1969 and by 1970 they had a second self-titled album that was marketed in America. Elton John’s first performance in the US was on August 25-27that the Troubadour in Los Angeles, CA. As still a relative unknown, and given this specific period in time, John did not have a personal stylist to rely on. He stepped onto that stage in a black and silver long-sleeve shirt with embroidered stars (this specific shape would be a consistent theme in his wardrobe for years to come), store bought denim overalls, and a pair of Gohill boots. 

Winged boots designed by Jim O’Connor for Mr. Freedom

Side note: Gohill is a famous shoe company located in the UK and has created pieces for other artists such as Pink Floyd and still exists today. 

Now, there are some discrepancies here. Eltonjohn.com states that his initial outfit was self-sourced, however additional publications reference a series of outfits designed by Mr. Freedom (aka Tommy Roberts) which include the above-mentioned look. The designer himself said that he made a “yellow boiler suit with a grand piano appliqued on the back, some white boots with green wings”. A second source describes his opening night at the Troubadour as: “He sat down at the piano in an outfit designed by Tommy Roberts of London’s Mr. Freedom boutique: yellow bell-bottomed coveralls with a grand piano appliques on the back, a long-sleeved black T-shirt bearing white stars, and, to complete this outlandish look, white boots affixed with green bird wings.” (Doyle)

There is also another look that came up frequently in researching this; both from Mr. Freedom and additional sources. Roberts also mentioned in his very own book British Design Herothat he “acquired velvet dungarees, a Baker Boy cap, and a black T-shirt emblazoned with the phrase ‘Rock & Roll’” and Buckley states in his book Elton: The Biography, that his debut performance look was “bell-bottom jeans and a red t-shirt with the words “Rock and Roll” in white lettering”.”

Since the singer did perform at the venue for multiple nights, many outfits were indeed worn, but the origins behind that very first appearance are still a little blurry. 

“Your Song” was their first song in the Top 10 and went on touring through ’71 and the hits didn’t stop there. With each and every performance, Elton’s confidence increased which was clearly visible through the clothing choices he began to make. His first actual designated stage costumer was Annie Reavey who started off designing a dozen or so costumes for his 1972 US and UK tours. 

Image from Lelands.com. Auctioned in 2002.

One of the most recognizable looks from this time was the “Hercules” outfit which has his middle name lettered down each pant leg, and his first and last name sewn on the front and back (respectively). This was displayed at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, OH. 

After the America tour and right before the Tumbleweed album was released, Taupin expressed that “When he became Elton John, he was rebelling against everything he wasn’t allowed to do as a child”. This was not only visible in his outfit choices, but soon in his sexual promiscuity and substance abuse. Elton admitted to Rolling Stones in 1976 that he was bisexual, which also contributed to his newly found personal confidence. 

When Elton left his original record company and sought new management with John Reid, he was encouraged to delve deeper into this “rockstar” persona he was now coming into. With the newly found success and comfort in his sexuality, the extravagant looks began to emerge. He told W Magazine that, “If I was going to be stuck at the piano for two hours, I was going to make people look at me.” It’s clear that more is more with Elton, and the looks to come were eye-catching to say the least! 

Metallic platform boots designed by Elton John and Lionel Avery in 1974.

As the voice and physical representation of the duo, Elton tapped fashion designer Bob Mackie in the early 1970’s after seeing his work on Diana Ross and Cher. He absolutely loved the aesthetic he was creating for them, and requested Mackie to interpret this style for himself. This would be the start of a match made in sartorial heaven.

Elton with Diana Ross and Cher.

At the Hollywood Bowl show on September 7, 1973, Elton went all out in a feathered costume created by Mackie. Mackie also created this white bomber jacket with feathered shoulders for Elton when he was photographed in his home. 

Elton at home in a custom Bob Mackie look.

Thanksgiving night in 1974, Elton performed at Madison Square Garden in New York City with John Lennon. He wore a custom-made jumpsuit with rainbow bejeweling throughout with his name on the back. This was purchased by the Tom Fontaine Music Memorabilia Collection.  

Elton and John Lennon

On Oct 25, 1975 John performed at the massive Dodgers Stadium in none other than his very own uniform. But with Elton being well, Elton, he wasn’t going to wear any ordinary uniform. The baseball team actually sent it to Bob Mackie and he did what he does best; he turned it into an iconic, glittering piece of wearable art. 

Fun fact: Harry Styles wore a version of this look in 2018 as his Halloween costume. 

Bonus Fun Fact: This costume is on view at the Hard Rock Café in Las Vegas, NV. 

On March 26, 1975 Elton appeared in The Who’s rock opera movie Tommy where he performed the song “Pinball Wizard”. Costume designer Shirley Russell dressed him in high water white trousers held up by red sequin suspenders, a blue sequined shirt, striped knitted cap, and Doc Martens “Cherry Red” inspired boots that stood 54” tall. She also included a pair of oversized sparkling spectacles as a nod to his signature personal style.

Fun Fact: Elton actually asked to keep the boots after the film, but they were eventually auctioned off and are currently on display at the Northampton Museum and Art Gallery.

In October of the same year John is honored with his very own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in Los Angeles, CA. He wears a pastel green three-piece suit and a matching hat with numerous bronze stars attached all over, each with the names of other famous celebrities to pay homage to this significant event which now included himself. 

Elton John performed “Crocodile Rock” among many of his other hit songs on the Muppets Show in 1977. He wore this multi-colored feathered and rhinestone covered costume with a mirrored cap made by Bob Mackie. 

September 3rd, 1980 brought us one of the most iconic but less-talked about costumes in the singers’ wardrobe arsenal. Mackie created a Donald Duck get up for Elton to wear at his Central Park performance of “Your Song”. 

This was not Elton’s idea, and proved to be a little challenging to play in, but none the less he made it work. It takes the trophy on being the longest costume change he’s ever had. Taupin had once expressed that he felt that the outlandish costumes were not needed and was sometimes almost insulted by them. The songs were so beautiful and heartfelt, and these notions paired with the crazy looks worn by the man singing them seemed like a joke. 

The ‘Ice on Fire’ tour took place in 1986. Elton debuted a number of ostentatious outfits, including this one from a show in Bloomington, Minnesota. Costume and original sketch by Bob Mackie. 

From www.Julienslive.com

For his The One tour, Gianni Versace designed not only all his outfits, but the album artwork as well. The 90’s would begin a close partnership with the brand. 

Fun fact!: At one point, Elton had a whole closet dedicated to just Versace shirts. 

Elton wearing Versace with Donatella Versace
Elton wearing Versace with Gianni Versace

His out of this world presence didn’t stop when he got off stage. For his 50thbirthday party, Elton sported a head to toe white feathered look inspired by Louis XIV with the Marie Antoinette ship headpiece and wig, all paired with a 15ft train.

Photo by Dave Benett/Getty Images.

By July 1990 Elton had finally come to terms with his increasingly bad habits and admitted himself into a rehab facility in Chicago. After completing the program, his newfound sobriety would soon be visible in his future wardrobe stylings. 

For his Las Vegas residency and European tour, fashion designer Yohji Yamamoto created a series of all-black looks paired with glittering accents and modernized stylistic details. These were considered more conservative and refined compared to the eccentric choices he had been known to dress in. 

He stuck to the Yohji influence and continued to sport more traditional suit styles which has remained his customary look even today. The silhouette may have been toned down, but the decadence still remained. Whether they be covered in rhinestones, loud patterns, bright colors, or metallic lame, he still carried his signature personality and stylish glasses to match. 

Savile Row tailor Richard James started making suits for Elton over 20 years ago. He has creature copious iconic looks for him such as the “Dot” suits and a crystalized tailcoat worn during his “Million Dollar Piano LV residency. Designer Anna Laubwas contacted to make the spectacles for this show. Some of their creations were on display at the tailors two shops to celebrate the release of Rocketman. 

He stuck to the Yohji influence and continued to sport more traditional suit styles which has remained his customary look even today. The silhouette may have been toned down, but the decadence still remained. Whether they be covered in rhinestones, loud patterns, bright colors, or metallic lame, he still carried his signature personality and stylish glasses to match. 

Savile Row tailor Richard James started making suits for Elton over 20 years ago. He has creature copious iconic looks for him such as the “Dot” suits and a crystalized tailcoat worn during his “Million Dollar Piano LV residency. Designer Anna Laubwas contacted to make the spectacles for this show. Some of their creations were on display at the tailors two shops to celebrate the release of Rocketman. 

Fun Fact: Richard James also made the pink and yellow polka dot suit John wore in his Grammy performance with Eminem.

Custom suit by Richard James.
Elton in custom Richard James.

In 2018, Gucci’s head designer Alessandro Michele used Elton John as inspiration for his Spring/Summer collection. The singer loved it so much that he announced his last tour called “Farewell Yellow Brick Road” while wearing a custom look from the brand, and that Michele would be designing his costumes for it. Gucci currently has a mini collection out now in partnership with John. 

The man that is “rock and roll meets Mozart” (as stated by Jo Levin at GQ) claims he never thought he was lead singer material. While making an appearance on James Cordon’s Carpool Karaoke, he also said the he “wasn’t a good dancer”, and that he “had to create some sort of entertainment when he performed” so he turned to the show stopping costumes. 

Michael Ochs Archives via Getty Images.
Anwar Hussein via Getty Images.

Fun Fact: Project Runway even did a “Create an Over the Top Elton John Look” on Season 17, Ep 9. 

So where are his garments now? Over 10,000 pieces have been sold and the proceeds from them have been donated to the Elton John AIDS Foundation which has raised $300 million since its inception in 1992. Others are in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, V&A Museum, or have been auctioned off. 

Fun Fact: One pair of John’s sunglasses sold for $16,830 in 1988. 

Don’t think we weren’t going to talk about a key trait of Elton’s rock n’ roll persona: the sunglasses. Their origin story is rather grim, as he admitted that they stemmed from his cocaine habit and by wearing them hid his dilated eyes but still allowed him to talk to people. 

Regardless of the cause, this wardrobe staple still remains an integral part of his stage and everyday guise. Elton reportedly owns upwards of 250,000 (yes, those are the correct number of zeros). British eyewear brand Cutler and Gross are known for their luxe style and have collaborated with the singer/composer on his own designs since the early 1970’s. They joined forces in 2013 to release a limited-edition capsule collection to benefit the Elton John AIDS Foundation. 

Boots by Granny Takes A Trip

For almost half a century, these ostentatious costumes coupled with his raw talent of composing, singing, and strong stage energy have certainly solidified him in music history. He has more than 30 albums, 57 Top 40 hits, and 300 million records have been sold worldwide. Still now, Elton says he “doesn’t become Elton until he puts the outfit on”. Regardless of what he’s wearing, we know it will be spectacular. 

If you’d like to learn more about Elton and his costuming journey, check out our sources below:

VH1 Behind the music: Elton John 

Bob Mackie interview

Paramount Pictures The Costumes of Rocketman 

Elton John: Tantrums & Tiaras

The 28 Most Flamboyant Elton John Stage Costumes Ever

Elton John’s Most Gloriously Over-The-Top Costumes Through The Years

Los Angeles Times Article by Robert Hilburn

Ten Things You Didn’t Know About Elton’s Stage Wear

Elton John’s Real-Life Costume Designers Open Up About Rocketman

Books:

His Song: The Musical Journey of Elton John By Elizabeth J. Rosenthal

Elton: The Biography By David Buckley

Captain Fantastic: Elton John’s Stellar Trip Through the ‘70s By Tom Doyle

Mr Freedom: Tommy Roberts – British Design Hero