Prince of pop, king of style
As a new exhibition brings a collection of the performer's stage costumes and jewellery to Ireland, Rose Mary Roche looks at the legendary singer's legacy as a fashion icon
Prince was a musical genius - a multi-instrumentalist who wrote, arranged and performed prolifically throughout his 58 years. But he was also one of the most flamboyant, fearless and provocative dressers to grace a stage.
A new exhibition, opening today at the Newbridge Museum of Style Icons (MOSI), in collaboration with Julien's Auctions of Hollywood, showcases how Prince loved clothes, devoted immense resources to crafting his singular style and understood innately the power of image in forging his status as a rock icon.
Often boundary-pushing, frequently shocking, the diminutive musician (5ft2in) was always supremely stylish and dressed to elicit a reaction. Most of what Prince wore was custom-made because of his slight frame and exotic tastes. As Martin Nolan, the Executive Director of Julien's, explains: "Prince had a certain style that was impossible to pull off and only he could do it. His clothing is super flamboyant and sometimes borderline skimpy, but the clothing is what helped him become so famous as his style was so unique."
In his band, Prince was the only one permitted to wear purple. His penchant for the regal hue first featured on the cover of 1984's Purple Rain, his breakthrough record. It remains his iconic look: an Edwardian style purple metallic coat and trousers paired with a dramatic ruffled white shirt, lace gloves and a bouffant permed mullet.
As Prince's fame grew, he continued to experiment with his image: he maintained a dedicated wardrobe department and collaborated with designers, including Pablo Lobato and Jose Arellanes whose work features at MOSI. Nolan believes Prince used costumes to bolster his confidence. "He certainly maximised the power of clothing to compliment his amazing stage performances and perhaps helping to distract his audiences as he tried to disguise his shyness."
The grandiose showman was a persona Prince put on with his costumes: on stage, he was a hypnotic presence, courtesy of his talent and sense of style. It is hard to conceive of Prince as shy when you see his more outré outfits - his signature look encompassed brocade trouser suits, ruffled dandy shirts, opulent fur coats, sequinned jumpsuits, stacked heels and slickly tailored Zoot suits. He always presented an aura of cool confidence but his costumes were the essential props that helped Prince Roger Nelson transform into Prince the superstar.
Prince purloined from multiple sources and eras: the influence of James Brown, Little Richard, Jimi Hendrix and Marc Bolan is evident in his costumes, but he managed to assimilate all the style references into his own glamourous visual identity.
Nolan found cataloguing Prince's possessions a fascinating and intimate process.
"Prince was naturally provocative as expressed in his music and wardrobe," he says. "He possessed a great sense of confidence as many men would be quite shy about wearing many of the costumes he wore brilliantly."
Prince constantly pushed the boundaries in terms of what was considered 'suitable' male dress (stacked heels, transparent fabrics, women's lingerie, stockings and cut-out trousers). He loved to generate a visceral response and his costumes and clothes made him synonymous with adventurous sexuality and gender fluidity.
Androgynous and slight, he was a chameleon who adopted many personas - the skimpily dressed seducer, the debonair dandy or the sharp-suited smoothie.
The ease with which he integraed feminine elements of dress foreshadowed the gender-fluid style of current fashion and he has had a major influence on designers like Donatella Versace.
Notable looks in the MOSI show include an electric blue ensemble worn on stage in a 1999 performance at Paisley Park (estimate: $40,000-$50,000); Prince's two piece Devoré costume worn in the 1986 film Under the Cherry Moon (estimate: $10,000-$20,000) and a floor-length red tunic with high slits on each side, worn with a pair of custom-made red satin booties (estimate: $20,000-$30,000).
The clothes are displayed on headless mannequins in glass cases, but the curators go some way to evoke the world of Prince by surrounding visitors with clips of the singer's performances and music videos, playing on screens around the exhibit.
Given contemporary culture's enduring fascination with celebrity, Julien's anticipate a successful auction in New York in May. Nolan explains the appeal of celebrity memorabilia as "an opportunity to own something representing their amazing careers, keeping their memory alive".
Prince's death in April 2016 at Paisley Park, his home and creative HQ, was sudden and shocking, but he lives on in his songs and his brave personal style, which challenged the boundaries of masculinity, sex, race and music. He lived big, encouraged others to emulate his freedom and was an artist down to the soles of his high-heeled boots.
The exhibition runs until May 10. Tickets available at newbridgesilverware.com/tickets or at the Newbridge Silverware Visitor Centre.