Style Icon: Michael Jackson


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.


  1. Barima said:

    I’ve been waiting for this, and, of course, you didn’t disappoint. To nitpick, the glove was usually mandatory for ‘Billie Jean’ performances as well. My favourite iterations of the outfit remain the iconic Motown 25 ensemble and the version that appeared on the Victory Tour the following year, in which he donned a brilliant, print sequined t-shirt that appeared in both red on blue and red on white

    I’ve always made a point to lionise him as an inspiration – the high watered leather tuxedo in the ‘Billie Jean’ video, along with the patent spectators, is the height of offbeat elegance for me, and I have often thought about resurrecting my childhood loafer obsession, which I naturally wore cropped trousers with to show off my socks. Your own “gentleman greaser” look also echoed his lower half’s style in the ‘We Are The World’ video, though I thought it too obvious to point out at the time. I seem to recall that he was a massive Grease fan and took particular inspiration from Travolta’s appearance and dancing

    Although not openly stated, the ‘Smooth Criminal’ video, and Michael’s outfit, was influenced by ‘The Girl Hunt Ballet’ number in his idol Fred Astaire’s film, The Band Wagon, down to Fred’s own attire and the cartoonish gangster violence. In addition to being able to view the excellent original sequence on YouTube, a canny editor set scenes from the movie to ‘Smooth Criminal’, which can be found by adding the song’s title to Fred’s name in a search

    Like his music and his performances, his clothes were always progressive, inspiring, eye-catching and full of life. A complete and consummate showman to the end

    July 8, 2009
  2. Thanks Barima. Particularly for the information about ‘The Girl Hunt Ballet.’ It adds a great deal of depth to the legend of that ensemble now.

    It’s interesting that you noted he was keen on progressive clothing – it’s very much in line with what his outfitters once said (paraphrasing); ‘Michael would come in and show us pictures; “That’s what the world is wearing. Top it.”‘


    July 8, 2009
  3. Keith said:

    Great post. I really liked his suit in Smooth Criminal. That was one outfit that I always liked and wanted one of my own.

    July 10, 2009
  4. Excellent post… I prefer the Thriller outfit though

    RIP MJ

    July 26, 2009
  5. ryan said:

    i have a question though about what Barima said about the victory tour print sequined t-shirt that appeared in both red on blue and red on white what was the design on that shirt??? cause it’s the best bille jean outfit i think

    September 24, 2009

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