Presumably it takes a lot of courage to buck the prevailing standards of any given era… or perhaps there’s no courage involved at all when it’s simply not an option to conform. In the late Sixties, a young snaggle-toothed, googly-eyed boy named David Bowie pranced around London in dresses and ensembles that incurred a great deal of derision and disdain. And yet, within a few short years, having given the world permission to question their own standards, Bowie’s outlandish inimitable style was being admired and copied around the world. Born in 1947 (the debut year of Christian Dior’s New Look), Bowie ruled as one of the most supremely exalted fashion icons of the music world. The rest is history.
About a decade later, another soon-to-be supremely exalted fashion icon of the music world was born. Coming into prominence during an era littered with performers like The Village People, Donna Summer, Blondie and the BeeGees, Minnesota native Prince Rogers Nelson (simply using the name Prince) put out his first album For You in 1978. With a fleeting shot of his face on the cover, focusing on the intensity of his eyes, it only hinted at what was to come, musically and visually. Later in 1979, he released Prince, which produced the breakout hits “I Wanna Be Your Lover” and “Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad?” No doubt adding fuel to his skyrocketing success was the album cover art depicting Prince as a sexy, barechested beauty with bouffant hair and a thin mustache over pouting lips. And in performances, he wore only a bikini bottom, wool thigh-highs and his trademark leopard print guitar strap. With this album, Prince began not only his lifelong obsession with total involvement in every aspect of his music production, but also his penchant for tantalizing the world with his bare flesh.
W Magazine’s fashion director Edward Enninful recalled to the New York Times how Prince affected him as a budding homosexual in London. His brother came home one day and pulled out a copy ofDirty Mind, Prince’s 1980 album that featured a scandalous black and white image of him wearing a studded trench coat yanked open to expose his bare-torsoed, androgynous glory, and black bikini underwear. “I’d never seen anything like it in my life,” Enninful said. “Someone so blatantly challenging the ideas of race and gender and sexuality. In a way, it was comparable to David Bowie, except that Prince brought that to the black community.” We’d already had a taste of it with Little Richard, the legendary Sylvester, even Mick Jagger and David Bowie, of course, plus a bit of Rick James… but this. This was something new. Later that year, he performed at New York City’s Bottom Line wearing a raggedy, zebra-print, Tarzan-inspired two-piece. It was only the beginning.
Prince was rapidly proving that just as he was at ease with multiple genres of music, he was definitely at ease with his own sexual image. Gender-bending with such finesse, he in fact strengthened his massive masculine sex appeal by having the courage to ornament himself with feminine accoutrement. It was exactly the right time in history for him to apply the eyeliner and don the lace, the ruffles, sequins, cutouts, diamonds and pearls, nudity… and high heels. The lithe, diminutive performer realized the pure power of wearing high heels – not just how they affected the height, but also the walk, the stance, the attitude, the image. He used them to great effect, appearing quite commanding and intimidating on stage. Though often compared to Michael Jackson at the time, Prince shrugged it off. Apples and oranges.
Prince’s album, Controversy, was released in 1981. Attired in the same trench coat he wore on Dirty Mind (it was lavender), this time there was no chest-baring nudity and bikini underwear – this Prince wore formalwear under the trench, and some heavy eyeliner, presaging the wicked dandy look he would soon cultivate. Though only somewhat more subdued visually, he made up for that with in-your-face songs like “Do Me, Baby” and “Jack U Off.” His 1982 release, 1999, sealed Prince’s legendary status with multi-platinum hits like the title song, as well as “Little Red Corvette,” “Delirious,” and “Let’s Pretend.” He was quoted in the Los Angeles Times as saying, “All people care about nowadays is getting paid, so they try to do just what the audience wants them to do. I’d rather give people what they need rather than just what they want.” And what he gave us were Lycra jumpsuits, leopard prints, pinstripe suits and everything in between.
In 1984, Prince’s creativity exploded and saw him release Purple Rain – not just a song. Not just an album. Not just a movie. Not just a tour. Purple Rain was an international phenomenon. The album cover had snarling Prince defiantly straddling a purple motorcycle adorned with an odd symbol that was a combination of the symbols representing a man and a woman – a symbol we would later become all-too-familiar with. Curly hair, a dangerous and dandified vibrant purple suit over a white ruffled shirt – no one could take their eyes off him. Copycats across the world certainly couldn’t take their eyes off him.
According to Mary Kay Stolz, who worked on the singer’s costumes for the Purple Rain tour, “He wore the most incredible opulent fabrics and the boots were always made to match. International Silks and Woolens, the best fabric store in L.A., would stay open late for me because I would fly in late from Minneapolis just to get fabric and turn around.”
Stolz says that even under those circumstances, Prince remained remote. “He didn’t make a lot of eye contact and I did sign a 365-page, nondisclosure before I left. When I was there, the bodyguards said to people, ‘Don’t talk to Prince unless he talks to you.’ It wasn’t like, ‘Hey Prince.’ It’s not like anything was really conveyed, although he liked what he liked. I would leave the clothes at night and he would try them and if he liked them they wouldn’t be there anymore. He was in his musical world and that was it.” These costumes were part of the force that ushered Prince into being a household name, and though we’d seen his predilection for purple before, he now became known as The Purple One.
The mogul producer was on a trajectory to the heavens. Prince’s musical accompaniment for his second feature film, Under The Cherry Moon, was called Parade and actually preceded the release of the film itself by three months. Donning a crop-top, sleeker hair and plenty of skin, Prince is immortalized in a pose seductively inviting the viewer into the picture. To collect his award for Best International Artist at the 1985 BRIT Awards in London, Prince wore a rose gold brocade suit tricked out with sequins and jewels, topped with wings of hot pink fur. Later in the year, at the Forum, he performed in an angelic, pristine white-on-white lace ensemble of shirt, gloves, and pants. By 1986, he was eschewing the curls and glitter, favoring beautifully tailored suits in lavish, outrageous colors. At the 1986 American Music Awards, Prince turned up coy and crisp with smooth parted hairstyle and a sharp, sleek black tux.
For 1988’s Lovesexy, the album cover featured Prince at his wildest – stark naked, though modestly posed, emulating Botticelli‘s The Birth of Venus. Many record stores refused to stock it, while others sold it slipped into a black bag. For the tour, he donned a white polka-dot suit, black polka-dot shirt and wore polka-dot heels for a dizzying visage. For Batman in 1989, Prince ended up creating an entire album for the project. The cover has half of Prince’s face on the right, with a surreal portrait and upside down tree on the left side.
The 1991 Video Music Awards afforded Prince an opportunity to show off his hit “Gett Off” from his latest album, Diamonds and Pearls. Playing an astounding seven-minute version of the hit also afforded him an opportunity to show off something else – his bare ass. Wearing a racy yellow jumpsuit, he turned his back on the crowd, revealing his own golden globes. Fashionwise, his next contribution would be in 1993 – that symbol, “The Love Symbol,” a stylized juxtaposition of the male and female symbols that had first appeared on his Purple Rain motorcycle. The symbol began Prince’s revolt against Warner Bros., and the symbol replaced his his name when legalities prevented him from producing music under his own name. Always controversial, Prince confounded fans and critics alike, and music journalists began to call him “the Artist formerly known as Prince.”
His next album is fronted by a beautiful, moody portrait of the artist with sculpted beard and upswept hair, wearing a black, peaked-lapel jacket with see-through lace sleeves, and cufflinks that spelled “insatiable.” Prince’s allusion to his own death on the album cover for Come wasn’t subtle. It read “Prince 1958-1993” and was his way of communicating the death of Prince and the life of The Artist Formerly Known As… With 1994’s Black Album Prince seemed to anticipate the album’s lacklustre response, as can be seen in the music video for “Alphabet St.” Actually, text amongst all the letters reads “don’t buy the black album, I’m sorry.” Looking fab, however, Prince performed an LA concert in a fairly conservatively-styled but striking suit of white jacquard with a lime-green lining. Rave Un2 The Joy Fantastic (1999) had him stealing the spotlight in an eye-catching blue leather catsuit. Rather than the outrageous ensembles of the past, Prince settled into wearing suits – dazzling suits in red satin, yellow velvet, and turquoise suede. In 2004, Prince was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame in New York City outfitted in a black-and-red pinstripe suit and a crimson fedora. In 2004, for Tiger Woods’ 7th Annual Tiger Jam in Las Vegas, he opted for safari shades of gold, black and desert sand.
To surprise guests at the 10th Anniversary Essence Music Festival in New Orleans in 2004, Prince went incognito in a shaggy wig, quirky sunglasses and a thick false goatee. At the 2005 31st Annual People’s Choice Awards, he hinted at a return to more alternative dressing by appearing in white pants and a matching hooded blazer as he presented the “Favorite Leading Lady” award to Renee Zellweger. At the 36th NAACP Image Awards, he again commanded attention in all-white with towering heels and a theatrical black wrap accent. At the 2006 BET Awards, Prince rocked a boxy black pinstripe suit and a shawl collar to accept the Male R&B Award. In February 2007, Prince performed in a legendary Super Bowl XLI halftime show wearing a turquoise suit and orange shirt as a nod to the host team, the Miami Dolphins. Topped off with black turban, just to make sure we all knew it was Prince. At the 2007 NCLR ALMA Awards, his sense of chic was again displayed by wearing sunglasses, a turtleneck and lace-up white blazer with his alter ego symbol displayed prominently around his neck.
At Coachella in 2008, Prince wore a white kurta tunic embellished with metallic pegs. A low neckline revealed one of many signature statement necklaces. Fashion designer Matthew Williamson was thrilled to find out that Prince would perform at his London Fashion Week show that same year since his girlfriend at the time, Chelsea Rodgers, was a fan of the designer’s work. The performance took place on the catwalk, and Prince’s all-black outfit (with silver accessories) popped against the pink backdrop.
And here we reach 20Ten (released in 2010, obviously). The almost Nagel-esque psychedelic, anime-style fashion sketch graced the covers of publications showing a languid, androgynous Prince. For the 2010 BET Awards, Prince donned a custom turtleneck tunic that featured an illustration of his face, bell sleeves and his signature symbol insignia. His silky white outfit for the Golden Globes awards ceremony seemed to evoke a spiritual advisor from some serene planet. Donatella Versace hired him in 2011 to perform at a party honoring the collaboration between Versace and H&M. She had always admired Prince for his lack of pretension, and said, “One of the last conversations I had with Prince was about coming to my show. He said to me, ‘Let’s have no celebrities in the first row, no VIPs. Let’s have the smart and real people who do what they think is right and put all their energy to make our world better and don’t get the attention they deserve.’” Designer Joseph Altuzarra was among those in attendance and said, “I remember how epic the performance was. I think more than anyone, really, Prince felt like he was above it all – just such a legend, a living legend.”
Performing “Nothing Compares 2 U” with Mary J Blige at the 2012 iHeartRadio Music Festival in Las Vegas, Prince wore an Afro hairstyle for the first time, and took cover under a bronze face mask, yellow leggings and fiery top that matched his guitar. At the Stade de France outside of Paris, Prince was stunning in a white kimono-style vest, mustard-colored blouse and tiered gold necklace. He received the Icon Award at the 2013 Billboard Music Awards wearing a seriously-fringed black jacket over a turquoise outfit, strutting on skyscraper heels. He wore the same footwear offstage, out to dinner in Sweden, and to play golf with Mike Tyson (!). His iconic “Third Eye Glasses,” featuring three lenses, were debuted in October 2015, on an episode of Saturday Night Live. At the American Music Awards that same year, he appeared in a dazzling all-gold ensemble, and later at the Grammy Awards, Prince channeled his ’70s self in matching iridescent orange separates and long jangly necklaces.
During February 2016 New York Fashion Week, the audience at the Hood by Air show had a “moment,” one of those rare shocks that jolt you out of your catwalk stupor and stick with you long after the lights have dimmed. Prince careened down the runway in a patent-leather suit and spiky high-heeled booties, wandering into the audience, spending the rest of the show running in and out of the stands, interrupting other models’ struts and otherwise joyfully, and challengingly, sticking his stiletto-shod feet in everyone’s faces.
In April 2016, the colorful Prince was dead, and forever the world would be a slightly drabber place to live. RIP, Prince.