Fans of Elvis Presley — and we’re thinking of the young, dashing Elvis of the mid-1950s — couldn’t help but notice how utterly cool his clothes were. For a young working-class hero from the South, the King was impeccably tailored, and rakishly so, in pink and black shirts, pegged pants and iridescent sharkskin jackets, and two-tone shoes. That’s because Presley got his threads from a hepcat who really knew 1950s male fashion: Bernard Lansky, the proprietor of Lansky Bros. on Beale Street in Memphis.
Lansky, who died on Nov. 8 at age 85 in Memphis, ran a haberdashery that appealed to musicians, gamblers, and other edgy Mississippi Delta outlaws who liked to look, as Lansky himself put it, “real sharp.” So it was only natural that Presley started window-shopping at Lansky’s back when he was an usher at a nearby theater and then bought his first fancy duds from Lansky. The rest was history. Anyway, here are five fascinating facts about the man who made America’s greatest rock-and-roller look so suave.
- Elvis was just one of Lansky’s famous customers. As Presley biographer Pamela Clark Keogh notes, long before Elvis came along, Lansky’s store already was popular with African-American blues musicians such as Rufus Thomas and B.B. King. “It was all-black at first, and then the whites started seeing what they were wearing,” Lansky explained to Keogh. “They liked what they were wearing. So they used to come here and buy the same thing.” Another famous Lansky customer was Johnny Cash, for whom Lansky made the first of Cash’s trademark black suits. “He brought me a Prince Albert tobacco can and pointed to the man on the cover. ‘I want this, a black suit,’” Lansky recalled.
- Lansky had to coax Elvis to come into his store the first time. According to Keogh, Lansky noticed a teenaged Presley studying the window displays, and walked out onto the sidewalk to talk to him. “Hey, why don’t you come in?” he asked. Although Presley excitedly touched the velvet collars on the jackets, he sheepishly admitted that he had no money to buy anything. “But I’ll tell you what — when I get rich, I’ll buy you out,” he brashly offered. A few days later, he returned and put a $3.95 shirt on layaway.
- Elvis’ junior prom outfit was quite a sight. Presley, a student at L.C. Humes High School at the time, had Lansky create a custom ensemble of black pants, pink coat, and pink-and-black cummerbund. “He always wanted to be the belle of the ball,” Lansky later recalled in a interview with Forbes magazine.
- Elvis cashed his first royalty check at Lansky’s store. It was a $500 check from Sun Records. Elvis didn’t have a bank account at the time, so he signed it over to Lansky. He then bought more clothes with some of the cash.
- Lansky picked out Elvis’ last outfit. The King was buried in an ensemble that the clothier picked out for him: a white suit and blue tie. “I put his first suit on him and his last suit on him,” Lansky was fond of saying.