Rocketman: How costume designer Julian Day recreated Elton John’s flamboyant outfits for the screen

Harriet Hall

Feathered shoulder pads, sequin embellished jumpsuits, mink coats and zany sunglasses; the flamboyance of Elton John’s Seventies stage costumes is something to behold – and they steal the show in Dexter Fletcher’s musical biopic of the singer’s life, Rocketman.

It’s rare to see costume take centre stage in film; most often it complements the action, brings characters to life and defines a mood – supplementary; seldom starring. But such a large role do the costumes in Rocketman play – filling the screen and often driving the narrative – they practically take on an entire character of their own.

The film’s costumes have been such a success that the dapper sharpness of Elton’s manager, played by Game of Thrones Richard Madden with vitriol, has even been translated into a menswear collection for Mr Porter.

Elton’s costumes, by contrast, become increasingly madcap throughout the film as the singer explodes into global fame and begins to spiral into self-destruction, reaching the point of parody. Plumage, fur pelt coats and rhinestone-encrusted eyewear become as fascinating to watch as Elton himself (played by Taron Egerton).

Costume designer Julian Day (David Appleby/Paramount Pictures)

While Elton might not be an obvious contender for a fashion icon, opting for theatricals over style, he has collaborated with several designers over the years – including stage costume designer Bob Mackie – responsible for many of Cher’s costumes; Bill Whitten, the man behind Michael Jackson’s single white glove; and also fashion designers Yohji Yamamoto and Gianni Versace. Last year it was announced that Gucci’s Alessandro Michele would be designing every costume for the singer’s Farewell Yellow Brick Road world tour, which began in September 2018.

So, quite some act to follow. Julian Day, the film’s costume designer, was invited to the singer’s London archive to prepare to bring the looks to life in the biopic.

“There’s still quite a lot left in his archive spanning right back to the early Seventies. Although he auctioned off a few pieces to charity it’s still a great stock. That’s what inspired me in some ways, knowing where Bob Mackie would have gotten his inspiration from.”

(Rex/David Appleby/Paramount Pictures)

Despite this, most of the costumes in the film took inspiration from Elton’s originals, but were largely from scratch by Day (who also designed the costumes for Oscar-winning Freddie Mercury biopic Bohemian Rhapsody), who wanted to put his own stamp on the ensemble.

“We wanted to create this David LaChapelle style for the film and I also remembered a Tim Walker exhibition I went to at Somerset House – I had that in the back of my mind, this idea of making things larger than life that I wanted to emulate somehow.”

(Getty/David Appleby/Paramount Pictures)

The fun part of it, Day explains, is that there was never a single theme to Elton’s costumes. “It was quite scattergun,” he says. “The only theme was outrageousness, exaggeration and being larger than life. Often he decides what he’s going to wear 20 minutes before going on stage and then he becomes Elton John – the pantomime.”

1. Devil outfit

(Michael Ochs Archives/Getty/Paramount Pictures)

Much of the comedy in the film is drawn out through the absurdity of some of Elton’s costumes. The opening scene of the film sees the “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” singer enter rehab dressed in a bright-orange devil costume that he proceeds to dismantle piece-by-piece through the session, peeling off his horns and taking off his wings as he opens up about his childhood.

“I designed this outfit completely from my head,” explains Day. “I did find a set of devil horns in Elton’s archive but they’re much smaller.

“It was the very first costume I designed of the whole film. We were talking about how he enters rehab. He has to be wearing something spectacular when that happens. I knew the scene was going to be all white and I dressed all the patients in black, white and grey – so the idea of him coming through in an orange devil outfit was perfect. Because he’s at his most tyrannical and at his most desperate.

“He’s got heart-shaped glasses and the headpiece is a heart shape and the wings are a heart – so it’s the idea of him being this dark character but also a cry for love and wanting people to listen to him.”

2. Multicoloured chicken suit

(Rex/Paramount Pictures)

All of Elton’s early stage costumes were found in shops, from the white dungarees we see him wear at his first Troubadour gig to his winged boots bought from London boutique Mr Freedom, but from 1974 the singer employed costume designer Bob Mackie – who designed many of Cher’s costumes – to create his show attire. Enter the era of Elton in feathers, capes and show-stopping hats.

In one memorable scene in Rocketman, Elton is seen in a multicoloured chicken outfit, replete with mohawk feathers. Some of Elton’s mohawk hats stretched as high as 18in – something Day was keen to emulate in the film. He explains how, in one scene, the height of the feathers was created to highlight the absurdity of the situation.

“In some ways the costume that I wanted to put most humour into was the one for the Royal Albert Hall: the chicken suit. The theme was Elton arguing with Bernie [his songwriter] about people should respect him and he’s this huge person. So I found the height of the ceiling at the Royal Albert and I made the feathers taller so he became larger than the space itself and the feathers had to bend. Dressed as a chicken trying to ask for people’s respect!”

3. The Dodgers outfit

(Rex/David Appleby/Paramount Pictures)

For his two sold-out performances at the Los Angeles Dodgers stadium in 1975, Elton wore a bespoke sequined Dodgers uniform created for him Mackie. So iconic has this moment become that Harry Styles even paid homage to it on Halloween, posting a picture of his outfit on Instagram – which Elton later regrammed on his own.

For this moment in Rocketman, Day tweaked the costume slightly, opting for Swarovski crystals instead of sequins.

“That was one of only a few of Elton’s costumes we actually directly recreated and I think we had to do it because it’s the most iconic. It’s a great silhouette. But I thought, let’s make it our own version of it, and instead of using the sequins we used crystals. The whole suit is made up of 140,000 Swarovski crystals – they reflect the light even more than sequins.”

4. Fur coats and sunglasses

(Rex/David Appleby/Paramount Pictures)

Bill Whitten, who created many of Michael Jackson’s costumes, was another designer who was responsible for several of Elton’s stage attire – in particular many of his platform boots and wacky glasses.

Day sourced the glasses in the film from Dave Cox in great Yarmouth who used to design glasses for Dame Edna Everage and “some were replicas and some were glasses that I designed and had made in Watford – where Elton was from”.

“I think in some respects Elton was hiding behind the costumes,” says Day – something Elton admits. Speaking to V Magazine, the singer said: “My eyes needed the functionality, but “blowing up” what could be done with frames and lenses gave me an exciting new way of expressing myself. They also allowed me to cover up the extreme shyness I needed to hide as a performer.”

When it came to Elton’s fabulous fur coats, Day opted for faux replicas for the film: “The ones we had made were all artificial fur made to look real – which we got from the House of Fluff.”

5. The Queen Elizabeth outfit

(PA/Getty)

At one point in the film Elton prances on stage dressed as Queen Elizabeth I – something the real Elton never wore. Day explains this look was inspired by a Louis XIV outfit Elton wore on tour in Australia – and his desire to exaggerate the scene to juxtapose Elton with the monarch.

“The one that was difficult was the Queen Elizabeth costume – he does this gallop onto stage. Like a pantomime horse. He was actually playing in Sydney or Melbourne and when he did the gig he was wearing a Louis XIV outfit and I didn’t want to recreate it – he was being extremely rude to the crowd so I thought, who is our most archetypal monarch? Queen Elizabeth I was this bombastic person so I thought, let’s dress him as Queen Elizabeth I; those brown Doc Marten boots on him rather than dainty shoes or big platforms.”

6. Tracksuit

(Rex)

Off stage, Elton has often been seen rocking a Puma tracksuit – and rest assured we get a glimpse of this in the film. Day explains that he included this as a “leveller – the simplest item of clothing with a bit of embellishment.

“It was quite an interesting piece to use at that point in the film,” he says. “As his career was amping up, the costumes got bigger and more outrageous. Then there’s a point after he has a breakdown where I began to tone them down a bit – into the Eighties. As the narrative went along I tried to follow the rhythms of how he dressed. To me, the tracksuit is a universal item – and the antithesis of the devil suit he came in wearing.”

7. The kimono

(David Appleby/Paramount Pictures)

Elton wears a kimono and beret on the cover of The Best of Elton John album. Day wanted to recreate this dramatic look for a particularly difficult scene in the film.

“I found the fabric and we had it printed and the idea of making it up into a kimono. It was such an important scene. I designed these massive sequin trousers and he was going to wear this huge outfit, then we changed it and stripped it down to prophetic, like a prophet or a holy man, in these white trousers and this garish kimono – slightly hippy and at the same time very camp and very wild and exaggerated.”

‘Rocketman’ directed by Dexter Fletcher and starring: Taron Egerton, Richard Madden, Bryce Dallas Howard, Jamie Bell and Gemma Jones is certified 15 and in cinemas nationwide now