To say that Elton John is unmasked in the biopic “Rocketman” would be a grave understatement. He’s dehorned, his wings cut off, feathers plucked and rhinestones popped off, until, at the end of this musical romp through the rock star’s early career, we’re left looking at a man in a simple black Puma tracksuit and wire–rimmed glasses — the antithesis of the bejeweled mad hatter that was his stage persona in the 1970s.
In flashbacks, the director Dexter Fletcher deconstructs the rise of Reginald Dwight, the shy, neglected schoolboy, into Elton John, the addict millionaire (played by Taron Egerton). At the same time, Julian Day, the movie’s costume designer, is building John’s wardrobe, his looks growing more elaborate with each success. At John’s zenith in that era, the screen becomes almost a frenzy of platform shoes, silk kimonos, feather-trimmed lamé jackets and rhinestone-covered headdresses, accompanied, of course, by outrageous glasses. And almost all of it was built from scratch for the film.
“Julian was just brilliant,” Elton John (the real one) told Melena Ryzik in an interview with The New York Times. “They weren’t copies, but they were so like the things I wore, not just onstage. He observed my life during the ’70s very closely and he got it right, without being imitative to a boring degree.”
[Read the interview with Elton John and Bernie Taupin.]
The pop star reviewed the costumes and “could have passed on anything at anytime,” Day said by phone from Nice, France. “But he just let us get on with our jobs.”
Here’s a closer study of several looks from the film:
Dealing With the Devil
Egerton is first shown walking into a rehab session, sweat pouring from under a flame-embroidered yellow-orange Lycra jumpsuit, topped by a rhinestone cap with black horns and balancing a shoulder harness attached to red-and-black-feathered wings so big they’d make the most experienced Mardi Gras queen swoon. The sweat was real, Day said of the often two-hour process of getting Egerton into costume.
Elton has turned into a drug- and sex-addicted devil, but his wings are heart-shaped and so are his glasses in a nod to his quest for love, Day continued. “He hasn’t really been loved properly by anyone at this point in his life, save for his grandma, and his journey to rock bottom is the result of that.”
Cowboy and Conductor
Poring over Elton John’s personal archives, Day came across a picture of John as a child, dressed as a cowboy. That inspired him to create a custom western-wear suit for Egerton, and though we see hints of the cowboy in many looks, that outfit didn’t actually make it into the movie. Still, the image was an important starting point for the designer and a reminder of the importance of costume in the star’s life, Day said.
“Elton’s mother was a dressmaker, so from a very early age he had a strong interest in clothing,” as reflected in an early flashback in which a young Reggie (Matthew Illesley) fantasizes that he’s conducting an orchestra. Standing on his bed, swinging his arms, he’s in striped pajamas, then a tuxedo jacket and pajama bottoms, then, as the music swells, a full tuxedo and oversized bow tie. It’s “a sign of what’s to come, the larger-than-life personality that was to emerge.”
The star’s sexual awakening in the movie coincides with his first booking in the United States, at the Troubadour in Los Angeles. Egerton enters in a vintage-inspired T-shirt printed with a giant tube of lipstick. Shortly after, he’s wearing another T-shirt with giant red lips surrounding a large cherry.
The designs reflect the liberated, graphic era of the sexual-revolution ’70s, Day said, adding, “The lipstick is meant to be phallic. And, well, Elton had popped his cherry.” Inspired by pop artists like Roy Lichtenstein, Day had the shirts custom printed by a graphic designer. “We’re getting away from subtlety, away from England. This is American fashion and Elton is really coming out.”
Egerton wears more than 70 pairs of glasses in the movie, and almost half were custom-built by Day and other designers. Gucci, a label that had always factored heavily in John’s personal wardrobe, even contributed a few. (Gucci’s spring 2018 clothing line was also influenced by John’s stage looks.) Several of the most memorable glasses, Day said, came from the eyewear specialist David Cox, one of Britain’s last handmade-frame makers and the man behind Dame Edna Everage’s (Barry Humphries) fancy spectacles. “When I first called him, he wasn’t sure he was up to the challenge,” Day said of Cox. “He didn’t think it was his style, that he could do it. Then he ended up making several pairs.”
Inspired by Goddesses
Because he’s an extravagant dresser in everyday life, Egerton’s “stage gear,” as he calls it in the movie, had to be “taken up a notch,” Day said, to give them contrast onscreen. The designer Bob Mackie, who created many of John’s looks on and offstage, was a big influence.
“Mackie and others were designing for people like Cher and Diana Ross — living goddesses. And maybe that applied here as well,” Day said.
A pair of gold-winged platform boots (à la the Greek god Hermes), also get a decent amount of screen time. In the ’70s, John wore similar pairs made by Mr Freedom, a clothing and lifestyle brand of the decade that mixed bohemian style with theatrical costumes into over-the-top streetwear. The real boots were more rounded, “so I sharpened these up a bit, made them a bit more 21st century,” Day said. John loved them so much, Day had a second pair made as a gift.
Two Looks That Rocked His World
There were only two outfits that Day felt had to stay true to the time and place they were originally worn: a silver-starred shirt under white bell-bottom overalls with star patches, which John wore for his first concert at the Troubadour, and, arguably the star’s most recognized get-up, the super-sparkly Los Angeles Dodgers uniform designed by Bob Mackie that he wore for two sold-out 1975 shows at Dodgers Stadium.
Both were seminal to his career, and his life, Day said. “The stars and dungarees weren’t quite as big as some of the looks to come, but this was the show that started his career.”
The Dodgers uniform represented a darker time, just after the singer had tried to commit suicide. “It’s a crucial moment in his life,” Day said. “Here he is at his lowest, playing to this giant audience.”
Mackie used sequins to glamorize the original uniform, but for the movie Day chose Swarovski crystals, more than 260,000.
“There were thousands of flash bulbs going off in the stadium and we wanted to create that effect on the costume, a sort of mirror image,” he said. “When Swarovski first created the crystal, it was for women who couldn’t afford a diamond. So that’s what they’re meant to represent: his climb to success and wealth, all of it reflected off his body.”