In the wake of Prince Rogers Nelson’s unexpected death a year ago on Friday, I paused to think about his music, his legacy, and recall my personal homage to the singer-songwriter that had me sporting his fashion styles decades ago.
Imitation is sometimes the sincerest form of flattery. In my case, there was a hitch: Prince was an inherently talented musician and I was a shy girl from Massapequa, Long Island, who could not carry a tune or dance with any level of professionalism. I also lacked the commitment to become a musician of any magnitude. So this shy girl paid tribute to Prince by imitating his fabulous fashions.
Officially, I was first introduced to the music of Prince in 1979 after I received my first record player as a Christmas gift. In the holiday package were several vinyl albums, including the self-titled album, Prince, and Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall. I was an avid fan of Jackson’s music, a continuation of my Jackson 5 obsession in my youth.
My dressing like Prince came as a shock to people who knew me first as a Jackson fan. On June 24, 1984, I wore one white glove in homage to Michael Jackson at my high school graduation. But, the next day, Purple Rain the album was released and I immediately descended into Prince “fandom.” I was 18 years old.
I can admit not being in “swoon mode” over Prince at first sight. For reasons unknown to me, I did not find the naked photo of him on the back cover of his Prince album very sexy. His musicianship, however, was the standout for me. He was so young, and his sound and style of playing music was well beyond his years.
Later, after the release of Purple Rain, I had fully embraced Prince’s clothing, wearing tailored tapestry blazers and coats and lace jabots (removable collars). I also wore the famous high-collared ruffled shirt, which was the so-called “Puffy Shirt” from Seinfeld (which was never directly credited to Prince, but every true fan knew its origin).
My ability to “Prince-out” my wardrobe increased exponentially through one of my post-high school jobs – selling men’s clothing at DJ’s Fashion Center for Men in the nearby Sunrise Mall on Long Island. Their nearby unisex sister store, Merry-Go-Round, began selling a “Purple Wear” clothing line inspired by Prince and his band, The Revolution, during the film’s early run.
Although those clothes were mainly for men (it was highly unlikely that I was going to wear tight pants with diagonal buttons across the crotch), I chose garments like the ruffled shirt, which did not seem to be gender specific. I added vintage lace gloves and just about anything else I could find at thrift stores that might help replicate Prince’s sometimes Victorian/punk rock style.
Once dressed in Prince mode, surprisingly, there was even a competitive aspect to wearing the “Purple One’s” attire; other people were doing the exact same thing. Especially during lunch hours, my co-workers and staffers at the mall went in and out of stores to see what Prince gear others were wearing.
Out-lacing the competition
It was a silent battle to see who could “out-Prince” the other. The goal, mainly among the women, was to “out lace” each other. This was challenging because we did not have much money; the minimum wage at that time was embarrassingly low. So, our novice attempts at even coming close to the magnitude of his celebrity were at futile, at best. Nevertheless, someone always went a few fashionable steps further.
Some days I would win the unspoken contest – after receiving a “head-to-toe, up-and-down once over” followed by resigned, wistful stare from a Prince-dressing opponent. The outfits that I had created in Prince’s honor had won the day! And yes, I wore the same envious look on my face when I relinquished the Prince fashion title to a rival.
There were pros and cons to dressing like Prince. It was very stylish and current and I did not have to worry about being on trend. Most times, I planned my outfits the night before.
But Purple Rain was released in the summer and the look involved layers. I found that wearing so many clothes; it was very hot, and it became uncomfortable. Since I walked to work, it wasn’t a good look arriving at the job drenched in sweat. To my chagrin, I would sometimes find myself walking with the lace dragging behind me after it had worked its way down to my ankle. At times, it was even dangerous. I completely abandoned this style after I tripped on the sagging lace when a high-heeled shoe ripped a big hole in it!
In 1985, I gave up dressing like Prince for good. Parenthood had played a role in that, but I had a blast listening to his music and I felt immense pride in paying tribute to a musical genius in a way that made me, an introverted girl from Long Island feel special. Unfortunately, I never met him in person. Not even during my time as Rhythm & Blues editor at Billboard music magazine. I did get to see him perform just once and even though I had to stand on tiptoe to catch a glimpse of him, I am proud to say that he was still the master of music and a fashion style that I remember fondly.
Anita M. Samuels is a journalist and cultural critic who writes about media, fashion and music. She has written for the New York Times, the New York Daily News, Billboard, Essence, BET Weekend and other publications. Samuels is the author of Rants & Retorts: How Bigots Got a Monopoly on Commenting About News Online, which targets hate speech against African Americans on mainstream online media websites. The book is available at anitamsamuels.com.