Yes, Prince is an amazing guitarist and an influential artist… but he’s also a fashion icon, a fact that sometimes gets overlooked in these retrospective pieces on him.
It's been said the Prince was type-A in the recording studio, meticulous down to the very last details. (At nineteen-years-old, his debut album has the credit: "produced, arranged, composed, and performed by Prince.") Well, he brought that same obsessive genius to his wardrobe. He conceptualized his own outfits, relying on designers (mostly Minneapolis-based) to help him bring his vision to life. He kept binders stuffed with sketches, would tear pages from women's fashion magazines. Designer Stacia Lang, who began working with Prince in 1990, told Vogue Magazine last year: “He was constantly generating ideas — middle of the night, middle of the tour — and doodling and sketching for every aspect of his creative life.”
The latest installment in KEXP’s Six Degrees series will examine the music of Prince, but we also wanted to explore the four decades of looks from this truly unique artist.
In the beginning, he dressed like anybody else. He surely bought those clothes off the rack. We began to see his penchant for scarves with his gauzy belt there, but other than that, nothing traffic-stopping. (Besides that smile, that is!)
Prince grew up poor and would turn to the secondhand shops of downtown Minneapolis to stock his closet. It's a past he nodded to later in the lyrics for "Raspberry Beret" (the kind you find... well, you remember).
For his second self-titled album, Prince wore no clothing. Probably because the wardrobe budget went to renting a white pegasus for him to ride on the back of the album. (Those things are very expensive. Ask any Lisa Frank fan.)
For his third album Dirty Mind, Prince began to cultivate a uniform of sorts: black bikini briefs, stockings, and a neckerchief, all concealed beneath a trenchcoat. He even got his band wearing them, too. (Fink and Bobby Z aside, that is.)
(With the cost-efficient choice of a trenchcoat for stage wear, you'd think Andre could get the button repaired on his jeans. Especially since his sister Sylvia Amos had become the band's de facto seamstress, customizing their thrift shop finds with metal studs and such.)
I wonder how that tour went. How many pairs of black hi-cut bikini briefs did Prince pack in his suitcase? Can you buy them in six-packs? Like Fruit of the Loom? What about the other band members? How did they tell whose were whose when they did laundry? So many questions.
In the fall of 1981, the Rolling Stones invited Prince to open for them at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. The crowd of 94,000 people was mostly made up of California biker dudes who did not appreciate Prince’s flasher-in-the-park look, and they threw food and beer bottles at him and his band.
...Which is why Prince had to jump in the shower, as seen in the poster included in the sleeve for his fourth album Controversy.
Just kidding! The limited-edition print lived up to the album name, becoming yet another piece of Prince memorabilia to create conflicts between parents and teens. In the August 1981 issue of Interview Magazine, there was an ad for the album that read:
“Prince decided he’d better act fast. MINNEAPOLIS was no place for a photogenic child genius with one name and more music than modesty. He got his tapes to LA and WARNER BROS. signed him. By 17, he’d produced, arranged, and recorded his first hit album. Now old enough to drink in some states, he’s famed for tunes like “I Wanna Be Your Lover,” “Head,” “Dirty Minds” and assorted kinky outrage. Catch Prince and his bikini on his new album, Controversy.”
Yes, he intentionally called out his underwear in an advertisement for the album.
Not everyone was a fan of the poster. As Handclapsfingasnapz said on the prince.org message boards:
but seriously, folks: for those of you who actually think p looked sexxy in that picture...why? i don't see it...all i see is a brotha in the shower with wet drawerz and that looked like he was in serious need of bein locked up in ihop for 24 hours with non-stop food.
He may not have worn much on the poster included inside the album, but the front cover of Controversy featured Prince in a purple trench coat, kicking off his long-running association with the color. (He even has his own Pantone color: 18-3838.)
As his success (and bank accounts) grew, he began to spend more money on his outfits, collaborating with costume designer Marie France, a graduate from the École des Beaux-Arts and the Sorbonne in Paris. Check out France below on a panel for The Oscars with Purple Rain producer Robert Cavallo, director Albert Magnoli, actors Apollonia Kotero and Jill Jones, and actor/The Time musician Jerome Benton on August 29, 2016, at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater.
Around the same time, he also began working with the design team of Louis Wells and Vaughn Terry, who had established their career designing costumes for Earth, Wind & Fire.
"When I first met Prince, in 1981, he had this idea to make an autobiographical movie about his life," Wells told Billboard Magazine in 2016. "He told me he would call it Purple Rain because purple was the color of royalty, and he thought of himself as musical majesty. And he was." Inspired by the baroque era of 17th-century monarchs, Prince set out to rule the charts dressed in ruffled blouses, purple brocade, and lots of lots of lace. One of the most iconic looks from the film has been preserved by the Minnesota Historical Society: "a purple moire Regency-style coat, black velour-knit pants, a white silk shirt, purple lace knit gloves, a black patterned net headband, and black leather 4-inch high heel boots."
Another outfit of note was Prince's motorcycle gear: "This cut — a cropped leather waistcoat — was inspired by James Brown, whom he loved and admired," says Wells. "He wanted this because it showed off his butt so well. He loved his butt." (We'll come back to this later.)
In an interview with Women's Wear Daily (sadly, an obituary for Wells, who passed away in August of last year), Terry said: “I would say we influenced the world of fashion with Prince. You would characterize Prince’s influence with the ruffle shirt, the purple trenchcoat, the fitted pants with the shearing up the side, the diagonal fly with the big, 20-mm. buttons, certainly the leather jacket with the scarf with the tassels and the motorcycle,” Terry said. “Even now, we’re still using it. I do storyboard references at Coach [where he freelances] pulling out Prince pictures. It’s still influencing fashion tremendously.”
I told you we'd get back to this. No pun intended. In 1991, Prince appeared on the MTV Video Music Awards to perform the single “Gett Off” from his then-not-yet-released LP Diamonds and Pearls, his first album with his new backing band, New Power Generation.
In a Facebook post, designer Stacia Lang remembered the moment she got the assignment:
Prince's secretary came to me shortly before the MTV Music Awards and said something to the effect of, "You're not going to believe this.... You'd better sit down. " And she proceeded to tell me that Prince wanted a costume with the BUTT OUT.
Ummmmm, OKayyyyy. What? How on earth would we do this? What fabric? How much "exposure"? Would his butt skin really be bare? Does he have a hairy butt? Or WHAT? Since there was no time to waste, he had said that he wanted to see sketches ASAP in his office. I set in to sketch. I finished within a couple of hours. I headed to his office, white knuckling it down the hall.
It was just him and me.... Looking at the sketch... So quietly....I cleared my throat and said, "Prince, I've done two versions for you, one with more exposure, and one with less." The surreality of that moment cannot be over-stated here. Without a word, he took a pencil and put an X thru the version with "more exposure". After all, a man must have some semblance of modesty, right?
Shortly after his now-infamous MTV Video Awards performance, Prince began using "the symbol" (copyrighted as "Love Symbol #2") as his stage name, in rebellion against his label, Warner Bros. Records. Letting go of his regal title, he also dropped his signature color, embracing a wider spectrum, like the yellow and blue satin jumpsuit he wore for the World Music Awards in Monaco.
It was also around this time he began writing the word "SLAVE" on his face. Personally, I don't understand all the legalities behind his relationship with Warner Bros. Records — this is a fashion retrospective, after all — so, I will note, that's some creative typography there with the "A" and "V" stacked vertically.
With the arrival of the new millennium, his contract with Warner Bros. expired and he began to use his real name again. But while the moniker returned, the frilly blouses and purple lace did not. For this new era, Prince dressed simply, but sharply, in beautifully tailored suits, like the white one he wore for his induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, or the turquoise one he sported at the 2007 Super Bowl.
But there was still one more look to explore: from flasher-in-the-park to Edwardian-nobility to sharp-dressed-man to... hippie guru?
Towards the end of his career, Prince emerged with his new backing band 3RDEYEGIRL ("not to be confused with Third Eye Blind," Wikipedia laughably tells us). With the spiritual tradition of the "third eye", it seemed suitable (no pun intended) for Prince to begin wearing flowing dashikis, like the cult leader he had become.
His now-iconic 3-eye-sunglasses were designed by twin sisters Coco and Breezy, Minnesota natives who were then based in New York. Breezy told NBC, Prince reached out via Facebook. “We ignored the messages… we didn’t think it was Prince, Prince. We would never think that.”
It's morbid, but after a life lived fashionably, you can't help but wonder what the Purple One was buried in. Well, um, he wasn't. But we do know that his ashes are kept in a customized urn displayed in the foyer of Paisley Park. The piece was co-designed by Prince’s sister Tyka Nelson and nephew President Nelson. The facade opens to reveal "a miniature replica of Paisley Park’s grand atrium, including the singer’s signature purple Yamaha piano, white ornamental doves, and decorative tile floor. The interior even includes real working lights."
It's a fitting resting place for Prince, in an urn as one-of-a-kind as he was, placed in his palace of Paisley Park. Rest in peace, sweet fashionable Prince.
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