Though I favor his work in the Jackson 5 (I know there are many dissenters, but I do so love Motown!), considering his youth and the parental/managerial influence present during those early years, I will concentrate mainly on his mid-to-late career, after he had emerged as a solo artist. I'll start then with his movie debut at age 20 as the Scarecrow alongside Diana Ross's Dorothy in The Wiz (1978), remake of the classic The Wizard of Oz (1939), which introduced him to the wonderful world of classic movies. I'm not the first to see how those suave, glittery MGM musicals manifested themselves both in Jackson's dancing and wardrobe.
Jackson regularly sported white suits (see Thriller album cover for a casual, pared down version) with matching fedoras bearing uncanny resemblance to the ensemble Fred Astaire wears with Cyd Charisse in The Band Wagon (1953). For those unfamiliar with that mediocre musical (for which I have an inexplicable tenderness), "The Girl Hunt Ballet" dance number is a musical-within-a-musical where Astaire and Charisse enact a '40s film noir-style murder mystery:
Michael in HIStory tour (1997) white suit:
"Beat It" video:
Michael's signature ankle-bearing pants paired with penny loafers and white socks highlighted his dance moves, it's true. But they also bear telling resemblance to another famous song-and-dance movie star, Gene Kelly:
Jackson and Brown performing at the 2003 BET Awards in Los Angeles:
THE DARK MISFIT
Thus far I've concentrated on Michael's fondness for classic cinema and musicals, but there were most definitely darker influences as well. His leather-and-buckle style emerged perhaps as Michael struggled with his life of imposed near-solitude and the battle for privacy he fought from the media and crazed fans. He seemed to identify with, and then project, a kind of misunderstood misfit persona, even while continuing grueling tours and recording sessions. April's auction of Jackson's ephemera included many of his home furnishings, sculptures, children's race cars, and many many spangly clothes, but what caught my special notice were the Edward Scissorhands (1990) prop hands.
It turns out that Jackson had aggressively lobbied for title part in Tim Burton's movie, and I've since realized this interest makes perfect sense. He was dressing like Edward Scissorhands before the movie was even made, with his wan skin tone, limp black hair, and ladders of leather straps and buckles. His penchant for these leather buckles was perhaps indicative of deeper, darker insecurities; desire for restraint in others and to be restrained oneself. They call to mind mental patients' restraints and also S&M gear, as was fitting for a man whose mental stability and sexuality were examined and questioned throughout his career.
Jackson's interpretations includes gold lame with leather buckles catcher kneepads in HIStory tour (1992) in Prague:
Michael Jackson touring Bad in Maryland 1988 (before E.S., the year he moves into Neverland Ranch):
The other side of the shy, misunderstood outsider was Jackson's royal persona. His astounding collection of military jackets are protective in their stiffness, and project masculine virility and power with their broad shoulders (which temporarily mask Jackson's narrow frame), and suggestion of violent battle. They are also commonly worn by male monarchs (who typically rely on medals rather than Jackson's rhinestones for bling). Jackson was dubbed the "King of Pop" because of his extraordinary talent, but he shared other, less desirable similarities with kings. Like any monarch, his movement was confined to his personal properties and heavily guarded mobbed public appearances, which was undoubtedly trying. And since he achieved such fame at such a young age, like any prince or king, he had virtually no opportunity for normal, unfettered geographic exploration, and he alternately embraced this gift/curse -- as in his royal military ensembles -- and fought against it -- as in his more threatening, soldier-based military ensembles.
Michael Jackson in military shirt with child in 1993:
Jackson in more aggressive ammo military gear in 1993:
In royal military jacket at Elizabeth Taylor's birthday celebration in 1997:
Some of Jackson's military jackets were rather conservative, approximating their official prototypes, but many more were colorful, glitzy, and laden with sparkles. It's no coincidence that Jackson was a huge admirer of earlier pop royalty the Beatles (he procured the publishing rights to that influential band's songbook) whose influential album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967) portrayed the Beatles in silly psychedelic '60s military gear:
The flamboyant "King of Pop" in his royal jacket, complete with golden sash and epaulets, with presidential royalty the Reagans in conservative suits in 1984:
Jackson's peek-a-boo curls emulate classic stars Rita Hayworth, Veronica Lake...
and bear eerie resemblance to his close personal friend who happens to be a classic movie star herself, Elizabeth Taylor (circa 1950s):
In the "Scream" (1995) video, Michael and sister Janet are dressed in identical outfits that are clearly designed to blur dissimilarities between the siblings, not least of which being their respective genders:
The umbrella Jackson started toting for portable shade blurred gender lines in a more subtle way, plucked from the long line of both Eastern and Western women protecting themselves from the sunlight's harsh rays by strolling with parasols.Michael Jackson with umbrella, circa 2009:
HIStory tour (1995):
Part of what feminized many of Jackson's ensembles were the sheer numbers of sparkles, lending a burlesque feeling to an otherwise masculine outfit. Much of his wardrobe was designed to remain visible to stadiums of thousands, but even in smaller gatherings and public appearances, the man indulged his penchant for rhinestones. Rhinestone studded and luminescent materials have a rich tradition in the (female dominated) burlesque world, highlighting every curve and suggestive movement for the audience. Again Michael taps into an overtly sexual genre, muddling his presentation of his sexuality.Dita Von Teese, covergirl of the neo-burlesque movement, as a sexy rhinestone cowboy: this slideshow. I mean, the man had bedazzled socks:
Guy Trebay of the New York Times wrote, "More than almost any entertainer in memory, Michael Jackson was entirely of show business, and was seldom out of costume." His influences were culled from a wide variety of sources, but it's striking that even as he borrowed heavily from both genders' beauty standards, a wide timeline of popular fashion and pop culture references, etc., the celebrity influences were primarily caucasian / Eastern. His narrowing facial modifications, relaxed hair and mysterious extreme pallor externalize a complex struggle with race identity (in addition to the feminine associations and gender / sexuality questions they raise).
Many of Michael Jackson's fashions caught on (the red leather jacket, the single glove is making a comeback on the likes of Biance and Victoria Beckham, etc.), but many more were just so outrageous (silken face masks, male burkas) that they die with the man. One of the amazing aspects of Jackson's style (and I think this is a typical marker of a fashion icon) is that no matter how outrageous he looked throughout his life, he was consistent in the visual motifs in which he decorated himself, ultimately lending an agelessness to the man -- after shedding his afro, he pretty much looked like an indeterminate 20-or-30-something-year-old, did he not? May we all leave such a legacy, fashion, musical, or otherwise.Further Reading / Viewing: