He makes regency ruffles rock and gets down-and-dirty in diamante, but there’s a whole lot more to Prince’s style than glitz and glamour.
Since he strutted on stage more than 30 years ago in his G-string and flasher mac, Prince has made his mark as master of his visual appeal as much as his incredible sound. While there have been acres of newsprint devoted to Madonna’s conical bras and gender-play, very little attention has ever been paid to Prince’s unforgettable and enduring image.
But all that is set to change this weekend (Dec 14/15) when London’s Institute of the Contemporary Arts pays homage to the icon by tagging PrinceFest. I will be taking to the stage on the Saturday afternoon to analyse some of Prince’s most powerful fashion and style statements, showing how subversive as well as seductive he can be.
Right from the outset in the late 1970s, Prince sought to defy the generic pigeonholing of other Black musical artists – and he did it through style.
Rather than follow in the visual trajectory of successful Black male soul stars such as Teddy Pendergrass, Prince’s early album covers were closer to those of Gloria Gaynor. In fact his cover shot for the 1979 studio Prince looks uncannily like that on an earlier Donna Summer release. Prince once explained that while he loved the look of the Jackson 5, “they all wore flat shoes and it didn’t work”.
So from the early 80s onwards, Prince fashioned himself as a baroque dandy, resplendent in those aforementioned ruffles, thighs festooned in lace, powdered and mascara’d. The tabloid press recoiled at the idea of a diminutive, Black hyper-feminised young male attracting the attentions of thousands of white women and created a mythology of Prince as a rather animalistic, lascivious creature. As with so many Black artists, the media focused on his physicality and sexuality and comparisons with Michael Jackson
What they didn’t grasp was how Prince was using style as a political statement at the height of the Thatcher/Reagan period. Not only was he commenting on the banality of white, heterosexual western masculinity, but also drawing on a rich heritage of earlier style-as-protest movements.
He emulated the dandies and their class-based assault on the privilege of aristocracy. He channeled the zoot suiters, young Mexican and African American men from the 1940s whose giant jackets and voluminous trousers symbolized freedom and self-determination to them but rebelliousness to their white counterparts.
Prince’s aligned himself with femininity to the extent of creating himself as the ultimate diva in his motion picture Under The Cherry Moon. Draped in ornate brocades, hair sculpted into a vertiginous, curled bouffant, Prince’s to-be-looked-at-ness totally upstages the decorous presence of Kristin Scott-Thomas and Francesca Annis.
While today, the avowedly spiritual icon has abandoned his midriff- or even backside-baring outfits to the back of the wardrobe, his penchant for sumptuous fabrics, colours and textures is very much in evidence. He was a muse for the late Gianni Versace and is as regular and conspicuous a presence next to the Fashion Week runways as Anna Wintour.