Since the early days of the Jackson Five, Michael Jackson has set himself apart from every other musical artist with his tremendous talent, but also utterly unique sense of style. From his bell-bottoms and Afro as a child star to his current military inspired suits, his fashion statements are etched permanently into our memory banks. Regardless of your particular opinion of Michael Jackson, it is undeniable that he has driven fashion and style to a whole new level.
In the last few weeks, about one particular person, there have been written such headlines, obituaries, paragraphs, bloglines, Tweets and tributes that, if piled all together in some mausoleum of dedication, would surely be visible from space. Superlatives have been exhausted; the end of an era has been marked. Michael Jackson’s passing has dominated the thoughts of all from the breakfast to the boardroom table. Of his status as an entertainer, much has been said. Of his unconventional childhood, much has been lamented. He has been praised and pitied; scorned and celebrated. An awesome showman, he could write and produce his own music; he danced like no other, inspiring a generation of Jackson-lite dancers. He was equipped with a unique voice, a taste for fantasy and an enduring Peter Pan personality.
What has received less mention is Jackson’s very evident, somewhat controversial, taste in clothing. By some he is cited as the last example of extrovert dandyism; in whatever theme of clothing he currently favoured whether it be creamy fedoras, glittering socks, diamante gloves, Napoleonic tunics, wing collars or sequinned blazers.
Jackson dressed like no one else. In many ways his extravagance was a renaissance of fashion showmanship unseen in centuries. For while it was undoubtedly idiosyncratic, it was actually well conceived. To some it was predictably vulgar, but to many it was an appealing extension of the Jackson aesthetic; a taste that embraced antiques, classic cinema, exotic animal pets, theme parks and history. He was evidently a curious and eager materialist who found delight in the sort of bauble and bangle that the most outrageous fop would question. But it was not only a willingness to wear what others might not wear; Jackson’s wardrobe was a premier example of personal couture. If Mr Jackson had the taste for a suit of armour, Mr Jackson would get a suit of armour. Indeed, when interviewed, Jackson’s costume designers, in acknowledging that Jackson never wore the same thing twice, indicated that Jackson was always the final arbiter on his clothing choices. But he was not simply an isolated fantasist. Jackson even had method to his adoption of faux-regimental clothing, considering that they ‘demanded attention’ had ‘clean lines’ and ‘fit…almost like dance clothes.’
It was not only that Jackson created his own unique wardrobe. He also, due to his magnificent fame, manipulated the mindset of a generation. I remember adopting some of Jackson’s milder clothing curiosities, a small trilby or penny loafer, and receiving my fair share of the humdrum commentary; “Look, it’s Jacko”, “Hey, MJ!”, “Ow!” For as much as penny loafers belong to a generation of Ivy Leaguers, for many younger people they are the stage-shoe of the King of Pop, and try as contemporary celebrities might to consistently adopt fedoras into their everyday headgear, they cannot shake off the glitter of mid-career Michael.
Some outfits of his in particular stand strong in the memory. The Billie Jean outfit, throughout the years of stage performance, remained roughly the same; a simple white t-shirt, skinny black trousers, a black trilby, black loafers and importantly, white diamante socks and a black sequinned jacket. A stage look, no doubt but wonderfully effective; the eye followed the gleaming socks in the moonwalk, the trilby was a clever prop. And as stagey as it appears, Jackson actually adopted more outrageous ensembles.
On a visit to the Reagan White House, Jackson was auspiciously centre stage. With a white wing collar shirt, black trousers, trademark white socks and opera pumps Jackson wore a museum-worthy creation half cartoon, half regimental elegance; a glittering blue mess jacket with light blue-edged lapels, dazzling gold epaulettes, gold sash and gold buttons – on his right hand he wore the legendary white sequinned glove. Such brazen pomp had probably never before been seen at the White House. As bizarre as the costume sounds, Jackson cut a marvellous, and extraordinarily gilded, figure; striding out onto the lawn between Reagan and his wife. For others, it would be impossible to imitate – for Jackson it was natural.
The one outfit that I remember, as a child, I ached to imitate was the creamy, faintly pin-striped suit from ‘Smooth Criminal.’ With a blue satin silk shirt, cream knit tie, spats and white fedora it was practically a parody of the gangster element which Jackson’s video highlighted. And yet it was simply the most wonderful thing I had seen. It wasn’t the white knight poetry of it, the obsession with Jackson himself or even the fact that I adored the song; Jackson simply dazzled.
In these times of political correctness in unrecognizable styles of celebrities it is popular to bash the fashion sense of Michael Jackson. But, those that look without prejudice were excited to see his unique fashion picks on that famous trial. For those who wish to draw from the Michael Jackson’s ever-changing looks, each decade of his career provides a host of incredibly creative design elements.
Michael Jackson burst upon the pop scene in the early 1970’s wearing fringed shirts, platform heels, and wide bell-bottom pants. With a “Huggy Bear” inspired hat to top off his look, he delighted crowds with his astonishingly polished stage presence. If you are attracted to this era of Michael Jackson, try paisley shirts, and suede vests.
As Jackson reached early adulthood, the album “Off The Wall” introduced a new sleeker look. With tuxedo jackets, pegged pants, black shoes, and stark white socks, his iconoclastic style was beginning to take shape. From all of the different fashion eras in Jackson’s career, this look is probably the most sophisticated and easily emulated. For this retro look, try a simple black suit with an open collared white dress shirt. Add black loafers, and a fedora hat, and you’ll be ready to impress everyone with your “moonwalk”.
What most of us think of as the “Michael Jackson” style came to fruition when the album “Thriller” shot to the top of the billboard charts. His signature red leather jacket with its zippered details, tight fitting parachute pants, and a single white sequined glove encompassed the look of the 1980’s. His hair was styled in collar length, Jerry curls and he was frequently seen in mirrored aviator sunglasses. While most of us would probably avoid wearing all elements of this look these days, a nod to Michael Jackson’s style can be achieved by donning a cool pair of aviator specs and a custom leather jacket. Who doesn’t want to look a little like Michael Jackson when they are belting out Billie Jean at the local karaoke bar?
When thinking of Michael’s fashion in 90s, what usually come to mind are his edgy, theatrical costumes he wore on performances. Forgotten are his fine, sophisticated suits and ensembles he was wearing those years. He always strived to look neat and sophisticated. Michael was never caught by the trends and popular fads of the moment. His fashion sense was composed of classic styles, with addition of his own touches like his trademark armbands and other military inspired accessories.
In the last several years, Jackson’s cutting edge fashion has taken a backseat to his drastic plastic surgery and his controversial lifestyle. While defending himself against charges of child molestation, crowds of reporters and fans gathered at the court house to capture a glimpse of what Michael was wearing each day. And they had what to see. Michael Jackson never wore the same thing twice for his courtroom appearances and clothes were made each day, his designers have revealed. He tended to favor an unusual array of greatly tailored suits with pinned brass medals, and brightly colored vests leaving a very strong impression. Once again he declined to “fit in”. Instead he was sticking to himself – superstar he really is. He even appeared before the judge one day wearing pajamas.
After being acquitted of all charges last year, he is living in Bahrain, planning an anticipated comeback. Michael Jackson now has an opportunity to recreate his image once again. Fashion will certainly play an important role. Who knows if he will remain commercially viable after such a long hiatus? What we know for sure: he won’t fashion what everyone else does. And that’s an important style lesson to be learnt from Michael Jackson.