Soon after Prince’s untimely demise in 2016, I made overtures to Prince’s estate and to a leading gallery to recognise the cultural and historic value of his clothing collection.
As (at that time) one of very few people to have written and commented on Prince’s powerfully political dandy aesthetic, I was worried his ruffs, pantaloons and kinky boots could end up mothballed (or worse).
I want it all captured and preserved physically and digitally for current and future generations.
My heart sank when, opening the local paper, I saw tickets were going on sale for My Name is Prince. Billed as giving “fans the chance to get up close and personal with the music legend’s life and work” this wasn’t the reverential museum-based contextualised retrospective I’d had in mind.
Nor was it to be staged at the V&A, Met Museum or the Fashion Institute of Technology. It’s at the O2 Arena for funk’s sake.
In effect, Prince’s sister Tyka has created a pop-up Paisley Park inside a small exhibition space within the venue for his legendary 21 Nights 2007 residency. Costumes, guitars, awards and personal artefacts are laid bare amidst a purple-lit cacophony of sound and strobe lighting.
Prince lighting up the whole arena, and by extension the whole of London, purple throughout that memorable summer, entertaining at least 15,000 people a night, is one thing. Having his trinkets tucked away up an escalator, not even second-billing to Little Mix, is quite another.
It also didn’t help that excavators sounded like they were fracking beneath the arena, while wafts of fried food seeped through from the adjacent Harvester. Prince would have had the place ‘frou frou’d’ with scented candles at the very least.
But all of that was blown out of the waters of Lake Minnetonka when I marched past the audio-guide proferrers, harrumphed around a corner then laid eyes on…. The.Costumes.
Displayed on headless mannequins, there’s no glass partition so you can get within six inches of some of the most iconic Princewear dating back to the early 1980s.
Being able to get so up close to his stuff felt generous, intimate and life-affirming.
Unmediated and unretouched, un-ironed in most cases, you could see the creases in his coat tails, the scuffed toes on his silk-covered boots.
Was that a hint of foundation on the ruff of a frilly shirt? The purple flashy lighting, while on the one hand an annoyance because I couldn’t make out the exact colour of some of his jackets, also played clever tricks on the eye.
In one glass case lay his sunglasses and iconic ear cuffs. Peering close, I could see scratches on the lens of his priceless specs suggesting he’d plonked them down thoughtlessly on some surface – yes Prince had some careless habits just like the rest of us.
The effect of the disembodied outfits and artefacts was that I actively filled in the gaps with memories, visualisations and sensations. Here I go theorising again. Or rather here he goes again, framing our experience of him long after his demise.
As with a live Prince concert, in death Prince continues to make us work. Prince – like a set of shifting signifiers – meets us at the nexus of our experiences, passions, doubts and aspirations.
Witnessing his personal effects at close hand I was reminded of the influential person-centred theorist Carl Rogers’ view that we can find most fulfilment in viewing our lives as a flowing process “as a stream of becoming, not a finished product”.
“People are just as wonderful as sunsets if you let them be”, wrote Rogers. “When I look at a sunset, I don’t find myself saying, “Soften the orange a bit on the right hand corner.” I don’t try to control a sunset. I watch with awe as it unfolds.”
Akin to Carl R Rogers’ notion of self-actualisation, in Paisley Park Prince created an environment – both actual and symbolic – where he could thrive, form positive relationships with his devoted, creative collaborators and self-disclose through his art.
So, it makes sense to transpose that environment from some freeway outside Minneapolis into a liminal space like the O2 Arena. It is to all intents and purposes an act of disclosure to his fans, albeit not by himself but through his belongings. In turn, it becomes a space for us to learn a little more about ourselves.
That’s why Prince went to great lengths to build good relationships with his fans. You could see this monumental star play for a tenner down the road. And he might throw in an after show, a free copy of his latest album, or ask to sleep on your sofa.
Just as he trilled to us tunefully and ironically, muscular yet eyelashes batting, that we didn’t have to be beautiful to turn him on, he was now showing us how he had overcome so many potential barriers just to be the best version of himself that he could be in any moment. Maybe he wasn’t fibbing in Kiss after all?
The academic researcher in me wasn’t satisfied. I craved written contextualisation, fabric descriptions, name-checks of tailors. The audio guide was great for someone just landing from Mars, but didn’t satisfy my thirst for minutiae.
Where were the really early costumes, the gold lame shorts, G-strings, Rude Boy ska badge?
Then I came back to Planet Earth off my lofty high horse. I started imagining he’d decluttered one Sunday afternoon, and sent them to Chanhassan jumble sales. In fact, that would not surprise me one bit.
His now-legendary engineer Susan Rogers told me he kept his frilly cast-offs in bin bags in the studios, and encouraged female staff have a rummage through in case they fancied any of it.
One day, I truly hope to see all the brocade and satin fully catalogued and on display in climate-controlled cases. It’s historically significant stuff and time is of the essence.
But for today, as both Carl and Prince Rogers would say, it’s not perfect but it’s enough.