Back in 1957 the fashion was for the preppy style. Sharp suits and ties: A dapper gent. Then along came Elvis Presley in his ‘Jailhouse Rock’ video and rewrote fashion standards for men. Jeans with wide turn-ups paired with jean jackets proved to be a fashion staple for many years to come. The ‘hillbilly’ look was endemic amongst the Deep South. Everyone wore denim clothing, dungarees and baggy jeans. But it wasn’t a popular style amongst the general population. And then Elvis hit the screens and he showed America what was popular in the south, and how it was accessible to the rest of the country, and in fact the world. Due to his success, he made ‘hillbilly chic’ fully commercial.
Even today, one of the most popular brands available is ‘Prison Blues.’ These are denim products made by inmates of the Eastern Oregon Correctional Institute: they follow the designs that you can see in Elvis’ original video.
The tag line of “Made on the Inside, to be Worn on the Outside” says it all. Rockabilly fans all over the world favour the dark indigo colour jean, with a wide turned up hem. The style is both casual yet smart.
So, what makes this look so popular?
Well, when you compare many of the styles that are popular out there, they are a little high maintenance. Shirts, ties, hats and baggy pants. Smart, yet not always practical or functional. With your ‘blues’ you can pretty much do anything. Work, dance, fix a car, repair things – all without risk of ruining what you are wearing. However, they are so much more than that.
Prison Blues are practical and hard-wearing, yet smart casual too. Known amongst aficionados as ‘standards’ it was very common to hear people talk about going out and wearing their standards, meaning their denim ‘prison blue’ jeans. The look, although practical and hard-wearing, gives many an identity. Wearing your standards with a pair of engineer or jackboots meant you looked the part, that others would look at you and know of the community to which you belonged. When wearing your standards, you could identify with those wearing a similar style. You were part of the gang.
The denim look made superstars of the time even more irresistible. They were the ‘rebels without a cause.’ Elvis Presley, Marlon Brando, James Dean all had that brooding dark look, which drew women in. It seems that everyone loved a bad boy, but looks are deceiving. Whilst Elvis was filming the sequence, the look was designed to get young hearts a throbbing. However the use of tried and tested apparel, interested men who were fans of rock n roll!
From this, the Rockabilly style was born. Shirts and t-shirts paired with their standards, boots and chains dangling from their belt loops, gave both a smart yet tough look. By emulating the look that was seen on the silver screen, men were able to be both fashionable yet aloof. The trend has survived and is now very popular amongst female rockabillies too. Sixty years later you will see Rockabillies wearing the same ‘country hick fashions’ that were made popular by the inmates of jails in the Deep South. They may not even know where their fashion style comes from, as it is a loose, casual style that seems to lay claim to many eras and looks. However if you research back far enough, you will always come back to ‘Jailhouse Rock.’
Elvis was the epitome of style. His dress sense was impeccable, his hair spectacular and his dance moves incomparable. He was the perfect marketing tool. Put a hessian sack on him, and the public would have gone mad for it! Put him in a tuxedo and they would swoon! Put him in a pair of prison blues and a matching jacket and the world would want to copy him. And who can blame them? They did in their droves and still continue to today.
Words: Tanya Brannan
Photographer: Mandi Linder
Hair: Mandi Linder
Make up: Melanie Saso
Salon: Bombshell Beauty Boutique, Mendota IL