Cailee Spaeny’s 'Priscilla' Transformation Included 5 Wigs, Heavy Eyeliner, and a Chanel Wedding Dress

priscilla presley costumes
Inside the Priscilla TransformationsA24
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Priscilla Presley’s 1985 memoir Elvis and Me includes a detailed description of what the author calls the “Elvis Presley Fashion Course.” In Sofia Coppola’s film adaptation of the book, we get to sit in as Priscilla receives fashion, hair, and beauty guidance that adheres to Elvis’ (Jacob Elordi) specific likes and dislikes. Jet black hair and copious amounts of eyeliner become the order of the day, which Priscilla (Cailee Spaeny) dutifully agrees to wear. Told from 1959 to 1972, Coppola captures how Priscilla Beaulieu journeyed from adolescent pink mohair sweaters and saddle shoes to big-bowed gowns and heels in Las Vegas to, ultimately, finding independence.

“I think it was important that we collaborated—hair, makeup, costume—so that we could create a naivety in the early part and then progress to her being more of herself,” costume designer Stacey Battat tells about conceiving Priscilla’s arc. In her fifth project with Coppola, Battat worked closely alongside hair department head Cliona Furey and makeup department head Jo-Ann MacNeil to ensure they were always on the same page as the director. With only a 30-day shooting schedule and budget totaling $13 million, the trio expertly plotted the couples’ changing style under the glaring spotlight of Vegas and in private spaces like Graceland.

“It was about trying to find that balance of not imitating Priscilla, finding the essence in her style in a look that worked for Cailee,” says Furey. “I took a little creative license. I had to try to imagine what she would look like when she went to school every day or on a date with Elvis at the roller rink.” Mixing events like their wedding day with day-to-day behind-closed-doors living paints a full picture of their approach to fashion and beauty, including how Priscilla presented herself even at home. “It’s documented that Elvis never saw her without makeup,” says MacNeil. Here, the team joins to discuss custom-made garments, vintage methods, the iconic winged eyeliner, and working closely with Coppola, Spaeny, and Elordi.

Laying a Foundation

cailee spaeny as priscilla presley
Sabrina Lantos

A coming-of-age narrative focusing on the much-written-about couple, the film begins when Priscilla was in ninth grade, highlighting how much power Elvis has regarding her evolving tastes. “We started Cailee off very simple, fresh face with almost no makeup until she meets Elvis,” says MacNeil. “Then, during the courting process, we had her add a little more makeup because she wanted to catch his eye.” Mascara, lipstick, and rouge were all she wore before going to Graceland, and even when Priscilla adds copious amounts of eyeliner, Coppola wants to capture the character’s fresh complexion. MacNeil used Georgio Armani Luminous for that. “It has a very transparent look but still gives this very porcelain look to the skin, which Priscilla was known for. No matter how heavy her eye makeup was, you always saw her skin through the makeup.”

In her memoir, Presley describes leading a double life in her early days living at Graceland as “a schoolgirl by day, a femme fatale by night.” Battat wanted the classic plaid school uniform to “feel otherworldly because it is so different from her life in Graceland.” Coppola originally envisioned a pale blue shade for this Catholic schoolgirl attire. Battat explored various blue options, but a sage green plaid fabric won out as it was affordable and had a distinct visual appeal. “It takes you out of that Graceland world and also jarring for an eye to see it because you're not used to seeing that type of thing in that color,” says Battat.

a group of people on a red carpet
Coppola (far right) on set with Elordi (left) and Spaeny (center). A24

The new school chapter differs from the gray and pink attire 14-year-old Priscila wears in Germany, although her new Graceland lifestyle slowly creeps into her Catholic school wardrobe. It is even more jarring when a beehive, winged eyeliner, and heels replace her saddle shoes and side ponytail. Battat estimates about 90 percent of the Priscilla and Elvis costumes were custom-built—Valentino collaborated with Battat to make some of Elordi’s looks. Because they were working to the specific requirements of the story, such as this uniform, Battat explains the benefits of custom garments: “If you’re searching for something specific, it’s less expensive to make it because by the time you pay someone to go out into the world and look at every possible shop and find that thing, it becomes not financially viable.”

Furey also had to budget for the number of wigs required to depict the heights Priscilla’s hair reached and the jet-black shade Elvis picked out. She landed on five and used extensions to bolster the number of styles each wig could achieve. “We go from the young 14-year-old Germany look with natural colors, and as her life story evolves, the hair gets bigger and richer,” says Furey. “I tried to make sure the wig colors got richer and the styles were bigger. Then, back to natural again when she leaves him in 1972.” It was impossible to use Spaeny’s real hair as Furey “would have to color her hair between scenes” because they shot out of order. “Cailee said in an interview, she’ll be 14 years old in the morning and pregnant in the afternoon with a completely different color, and the hair is five times bigger,” Furey laughs.

As for the pressure of creating looks for a famous figure who’s still alive, Furey says, “I’m not going to tell you I wasn’t a little intimidated by that.” While the hair department head didn’t talk to Presley, she got a seal of approval: “There was a moment where Sofia texted a picture to Priscilla, and she made a nice comment, which I went ‘Phew!’ I hope she’s happy with what I did with the hair.”

The Las Vegas Makeover

a group of people around a table
Ken Woroner

After Priscilla turns 16, her parents reluctantly let her visit Elvis in the States. During this vacation, she gets a taste of Las Vegas partying and her boyfriend’s style preferences. Furey turns her natural brunette girlish side ponytail into a casino updo by adding volume and length via extensions. “She wants to look older, starting to poof her hair up a bit, tease her hair, and wear a little makeup, so I added some length to that wig,” Furey says. Later, when Priscilla returns to Germany, her new hairstyle is in disarray, and she has cried the excess eyeliner down her face—much to the chagrin of her parents.

Whereas MacNeil used ’60s pale pinks and nude tones for Priscilla’s lips, “the only time we pumped up her lip color is when Elvis took her for the makeover in Vegas.” This orange-tone Chanel lip color tapped into Coppola’s bright lip vision for this scene. MacNeil notes that Priscilla “starts to wear more and more makeup at his request” after the makeover, which they carry through the 1960s. “By the early ’70s, when the relationship starts to break down, so does her makeup. We stripped it all back, and it became more natural again because she was finding her independence through her look,” MacNeil adds.

Vegas factors into the start and end of the Presley relationship, which reflects the glam and grittiness of the city. For those early experiences when Priscilla first sports an evening gown, Battat worked with cinematographer Phillipe Le Sourd to understand the shot framing. “I knew we didn’t have a huge area of shooting in Vegas because for us to build an entire Vegas would have been the film’s budget,” she says. Understanding their spatial limitations informed the decorative shoulder detail on Priscilla’s dress during the blackjack scene. “The bow was a big thing because it gave that glamour up close. I knew I wanted the festivities of the dress to be somewhere close to her,” she says. “I think that is true of that blue dress with the beading she wears when she comes out of the dressing room, and he says, ‘I like blue.’ Then, she wears it out for some of their partying nights.”

Eyeliner and Lashes

a woman holding her hair up
Sabrina Lantos

To capture Priscilla’s defining ’60s winged liner, MacNeil “looked at all of Priscilla's references throughout the period, how the cat eye changed from school girl to later in the relationship where the makeup became heavier.” MacNeil’s 40 years of experience ensured she knew what products would work best to achieve this specific design. The Tom Ford Eye Defining Pen is dual-ended and is MacNeil’s must-have, and she admits, “I don’t know how I could have done this makeup without that pen, to be honest.” The liquid eyeliner gives crisp, smooth lines, and MacNeil always had a couple spare in case they dried out.

Spaeny was also required to apply this precise makeup on screen, using a period-correct tool, “dipping it into another liquid eyeliner pot” off-camera. MacNeil says she “didn’t have to give Cailee much help for that scene,” as the actress had been practicing even before the camera tests. “She nailed it—like everything. She did it in one take, I think. It was perfect.”

False eyelashes are another consideration, including when Priscilla goes into labor. “First thing she needed to do was go in the bathroom and put her lashes on,” says MacNeil. “She wasn’t going to leave the house without them.” In fact, MacNeil recalls reading a story that stated “she wanted to keep them on” during labor. It sounds extreme to a contemporary audience, but it fits her rule of never appearing in front of Elvis without makeup—no matter the scenario. “She had to present herself to him fully done, fully dressed, full hair, full makeup, everything,” MacNeil explains. One conversation MacNeil had was about how even in bed, Priscilla “would always have a little bit of makeup on,” whereas Furey could “tame the hair back a little bit.”

As with the eyeliner, MacNeil researched retro lashes but used contemporary products rather than vintage ones. “I matched everything as close as I could to what Priscilla had in those days and what would fit and suit Cailee’s face as well,” says MacNeil. “We didn’t want to put something on her that would close up her eye.” The makeup department head used strip lashes rather than individual, cutting and trimming them “to be as close as to what our reference should be.”

Big Hair

a woman in a dress
Ken Woroner

A can of Aqua Net features prominently in the opening sequence, but Furey steered clear of retro products like this, as they make the hair too hard, and she needed it to be pliable. Her must-haves on set are a 1.5-ounce Sebastian Shaper Spray, which she can fit in her back pocket, and a rat tail comb (“If I was stuck on a desert island, that’s what I’d have,” she says). While Aqua Net isn’t in her bag, Furey uses vintage methods and notes her core team all have theater backgrounds and are versed in period styling. “The methods for the wigs were old school wet set roller sets, which was done in the ’60s,” she says. “Priscilla would have had her hair set once a week at a salon just like that. Back brushing, teasing.”

For the ultra dyed-black beehives worn by Priscilla on her graduation and after giving birth, Furey used a hair topper. “It’s a vintage ’50s hairpiece, which is almost like having another wig on top of a wig,” Furey says. “It’s very dense, and there's almost too much hair on them for contemporary looks, but that's what they used then.”

Furey is holding back on the skyscraper beehives: “I tried to nail the historical moments, and her hair was very big. I think I went a little tamer with the graduation hair. Sofia asked me when she saw it, ‘Do you think it's too big?’ I said it’s actually not as big as Priscilla wore her hair that day.”

The Wedding

a bride and groom cutting a wedding cake

One well-documented event was the Presleys’ wedding day in 1967, and the team didn’t stray too far from the real-life images. The production design and the Chanel dress Spaeny wore on set were similar to the real thing, and Furey “did my best to match as well as I could.” They went as far as to pull down a little piece of Elordi’s hair to capture the same aesthetic.

While there are images of the nuptials, MacNeil mentions she didn’t have a close-up image of the makeup. She pulled as many references as possible and “tried to be as close to what I thought the reference pictures were.” MacNeil used a rose champagne color Chanel palette, heavy eyeliner, and “Paper Doll” pink lip color by Tom Ford with a darker lip liner to achieve this.

For the dress, Battat recalls that Chanel “graciously said yes” when Coppola asked them to design the bridal gown. The costume designer notes that her input was minimal: “I helped pick the lace. We talked about Cailee’s silhouette and making certain things smaller so they didn’t overwhelm her.” She explains that some of the lace came from Virginie Viard’s older collections. “To use that kind of lace is special. It may not seem special to the naked eye that it is,” she says. “Those are crafts that are dying, and the embroiderer they use is amazing. I think that was wonderful to know we had that.”

A Taste of Elvis’ Style History

a person playing a guitar
Ken Woroner

In a recent interview on The Tonight Show, Elordi recalls putting on the iconic jumpsuit; Battat has vivid memories of this encounter. “The first time I saw Jacob, we had to fit the jumpsuit. I’d never even met him. I was taking his measurements and trying on a jumpsuit based on measurements somebody else had taken,” she explains. The reason? The jumpsuit by BK Enterprises is not a job that can be rushed. “You want that thing to be iconic, and it takes time to make.” There is a piece of the original Elvis history in this garment as B&K Enterprises uses the original patterns: “They were given to them by Bill Belew, the costume designer for the NBC special. They had made a few replicas, and then they reached out to Bill Belew, and Bill Belew said you can have these patterns because other people would just have taken my ideas and just done it. You asked permission, and I want you to have them.”

Furey notes that “Priscilla and Elvis are icons for so many things, but they’re huge hair icons,” For Elordi, she used three wig pieces to show his color transition. “I wanted to show Elvis’ hair being more brown for Germany when he’s in the army. We colored his real hair black and used augmented pieces in the front,” she says. “I changed both their hairlines to try and resemble Elvis and Priscilla because Priscilla had a round, dense, low hairline. I pulled Cailee’s hairline forward and made it a little fuller and rounder. Then did the same with Jacob for Elvis.”

The black hairpiece was introduced in the ’60s and coincided with the evolving sideburn designed by MacNeil and her makeup team. The three sets are “very similar to Priscilla's transformation” from natural to heavier jet black and looser by the end: “They were in sync with each other from start to finish with their looks.”

Priscilla opens in theaters on November 3.

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