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The Immaculate Style of Prince

April 22, 2016

“What a strange thing you are. Flung out of space!” The quote is (more or less) from the movie Carol, and relates to a shy young girl: how much more apt it is for Prince. David Bowie is the Starman, but Prince Rogers Nelson, to give him his full name, seemed much more likely to have arrived fully formed from a distant planet than cockney Dave. 

As many others have said, 2016 seems like a terrible year full of celebrity deaths. In the same week as Victoria Wood died, Prince also passed away (so far of mysterious causes) at the age of 57. Victoria Wood was a fine writer and performer, and she’ll be much missed.

But it was Prince who had an ever-changing array of stylish and outrageous costumes and outfits, so a fashion tribute to him seems fitting.

The Early Years of Prince

Prince's early years.

Prince’s early years.

 

He was born in 1958 in Minneapolis, Minnesota USA and early pictures show him as a typical 70’s teen, with a denim jacket and afro.

His mother Mattie Della was a jazz singer and performed as a backing singer and dancer for The Prince Rogers Trio, and his father was called John Lewis Nelson – also known as Prince Rogers, his stage name. Prince was called after him.

Prince and the Music

Both Prince and his sister Tika Evene always had a keen interest in music, encouraged by his parents. Prince wrote his first song, a funk tune, on his father’s piano aged 7. He was in a band at high school, playing guitar and drums, which played professional gigs around Minneapolis at clubs and parties. His first recordings were when he played guitar on Pepe Willie (his cousin’s husband)’s album of 1975, when he was 17.

Prince then recorded a demo album of his own, which helped him to get a three album deal with Warner Bros, for which he was allowed all creative control. His first album, For You, was released in 1978 and according to the liner notes, Prince wrote all the tracks except one, which he co-wrote with Chris Moon, and produced, arranged, composed and played all 27 instruments on the recording. His multi-talented skills netted him a few chart hits, but not a lot of attention.

His second album, Prince, was released a year later in 1979 and went platinum. It included the song “I wanna be your lover”, a classic that still echoes through heads today. This was the start of Prince’s true stardom.

Only a year later on from the album Prince came the next album, Dirty Mind, in 1980 and he confirmed by the title that he was out to shock.

Backstage at Greenwich Village gig in 1980.

Backstage at Greenwich Village gig in 1980.

 

Here he is at the age of 20, backstage at a Greenwich Village gig with his own band in 1980. His look by now is suitably rock star-ish, with his open silky blouse and louche gaze, if not exactly ahead of the curve with a look that’s more 1970s than 1980s.

This outfit is a bit more daring, a kind of matchy-matchy Rocky Horror Punk combination. His sound at this time was described as “sensual disco”.

Prince and Controversy

But his music, if not his fashion, was breathtakingly original and critics absolutely loved his groundbreaking combination of funk, new wave, R&B, and pop, and the album hit gold. Some of the sexually explicit songs were controversial, including one called Sister and one entitled Head. Just to confirm this, his 1981 album was entitled Controversy. His status as a star was cemented, although the talented artist who could play 27 instruments never stuck with just one genre either, not only blending styles but moving from one to the other.

Here’s a look from the Dirty Minds cover, still kind of Rocky Horror with the stockings but definitely making it his own now. The trench coat is probably a playful reference to just how dirty he is, like a dirty old flasher in a raincoat.

Purple Prince

 

Prince performs in "Purple Rain", the film.

Prince performs in “Purple Rain”, the film.

 

In 1982 the album 1999 was released, and since MTV had launched a year before, this was Prince’s chance to make his image really count. Up until now, music videos weren’t always released with songs or if they were they were usually more of an afterthought, but Prince (along with Madonna) seized on the chance to create his own iconography and mythology. Now fans started to copy his look, and by 1984 when he released Purple Rain which was tied in with a film of the same name, the world was going crazy over Prince. This look is iconically his. He loved the colour purple, becoming known amongst fans as “The Purple One” or “His Purpleness”. He also had other notable quirks, including using text speak well before texting was invented; he wrote “to” as “2” and drew a pictogram of an eye for “I”.

Prince Beautiful

Prince was gorgeous and sexy, unafraid to play with his feminine side and to heighten his pixyish good looks with plenty of eyeliner and make up. He liked to play with different hairstyles: most recently he sported a natural fro that echoed the halo he wore at the beginning of his career. In between, he has straightened his hair or won it in perfectly sculpted curls, and it has been long and short, loose or swept back. Here in 1983 he brilliantines it into 1920s style Josephine Baker finger waves, and looks smouldering.

Prince’s height was a famously tiny 5’2, and though he wore specially made stacked heels his wife, Mayte Garcia, said he wasn’t actually self-conscious about it. Most likely he just enjoyed the way they enhanced his strut. His bum was just as famously tiny, and he certainly didn’t feel bad about that, at one point wearing a catsuit with a derriere exposing gap. At other times he wore outfits which showed off his ripped abs, or his chest.

Music just poured out of Prince, and as well as regular album releases from the beginning onwards, he often played more than one gig a day, performing at a stadium gig in the evening and then doing a smaller impromptu gig later that night, right up until recently.

Petulant Prince

The artist formerly known as Prince. Photograph Brian Rasic Rex Features

The artist formerly known as Prince. Photograph Brian Rasic Rex Features

 

The quality of the music could vary massively though, especially if he was cranking them out to satisfy musical demands. In 1993 he caused a massive outcry when he was trying to get out of his Warner Bros contract, performing with the word “Slave” written on his face. He didn’t get out of his contract and just churned out some work which many consider substandard, or made up the required number of albums with a hodge podge of B sides and studio floor sweepings. When his contract was finished he noted himself as “Emancipated”. Despite his African-American heritage, this was skating on thin ice. His refusal to be known as Prince at that time, instead replacing his name with a self-invented hieroglyph for which there was no word forced the media to be content with the awkward “The Artist Formerly Known as Prince”, “Squiggle” or “Symbol”, a move that earned him more derision than respect. He went back to “Prince” once he was free from Warner.

After that he went through a lot of record labels, including EMI, Arista, Columbia, Universal, his own label NPG (standing for New Power Generation) and, astonishingly, back to Warner again. He also decided to give his 2007 Planet Earth album away free with the Mail on Sunday, despite being signed with Columbia Records at the time, who he didn’t consult. They weren’t too pleased. He later experimented with releasing his music himself through downloads on his website, but had an aggressive policy when it came to people uploading his music unauthorised on YouTube, having it pulled in every instance. One of the most startling instances of this came when Universal, which owned the rights to his song Let’s Go Crazy decided to sue a mum called Stephanie Lenz who had uploaded a small video of her children dancing to the tune.

Prolific Prince

His one and only UK no 1 hit single was The Most Beautiful Girl in the World in 1994, but he was as well-known in the UK as America and his greatest hits resonate for many.

Prince still performed regularly in live shows and on TV and was planning on releasing more records. The Guardian journalist recently described a really bizarre encounter with the star as he and a small group of other music journalist were commanded to visit him at his home/studio complex Paisley Park in the US, without being given a reason. It transpired that it was to promote a planned European tour. However, Prince didn’t want to answer questions, playing the theme tune from The Twilight Zone when he was displeased. He did also play them some of his greatest hits though, and this peculiar audience at least gave them something to write about.

In total Prince released 49 albums, and it’s said that there is a huge amount of other songs stashed away, waiting for release. Prince may have died but you can bet that his music will live on, and on.

 

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