American musician Prince (1958-2016) was known for his eclectic mixing of musical genres, his wide vocal range and his far-reaching falsetto. He created his own musical voice by seamlessly blending styles such as funk, R&B, jazz and hip-hop. And it is this act of blending styles that categorises not only Prince’s musical voice, but also the clothing choices that made him known as a fashion icon.
Through his fashion, Prince was always reinventing himself. Yet there is one constant thread that runs through every look he produced; he wrote this himself in the song I Would Die 4 U,
I’m not a woman
I’m not a man
I am something that you’ll never understand.
Prince was fiercely committed to androgyny and gender fluidity in everything he wore on an album cover, during performances, or at award ceremonies.
During a performance in Los Angeles in 1985, Prince wore a suit accessorised with a pink feather boa. Over time, feathers have come in and out of fashion. However, they have always been associated with female trends and often with female burlesque performers. The suit itself, while tailored with a traditionally masculine cut, is rendered genderless.
Despite its masculine tailoring, it is decorated with pearls and made from an iridescent, multicoloured fabric – and a quick search for ‘ruffle sleeves’ on Asos gives only options from the women’s section as responses. You would be hard-pressed to find a male suit with ruffle sleeves in a high street shop. The feminisation of the suit and an undone-looking hairstyle create the androgynous blend that categorises Prince’s style.
Another stage costume, this time from a 2011 performance at Madison Square Garden, is comprised of a gold, sequined co-ord, paired with gold, heeled shoes. Prince was never one to shy away from gold sparkle, opting to wear a different gold sparkled co-ord to the 1999 Diamonds are Forever gala fashion show.
However, this image is a perfect example of the gender fluidity in Prince’s clothing. In fact, the flared trousers Prince wears here have a history of gender fluidity; until the mid-19th century flares were a part of the British Royal Navy uniform. During the 1960s and 1970s both male and female artists were spotted in flares, and today they are often associated with the ‘wavy garms’ of a ‘basic white girl’.
Therefore, the shape of this costume is historically gender fluid. With this in mind, we can turn our attention to the traditionally feminine sequins contrasting with the masculine haircut, shorter on the sides and long on the top, to create a genderless ensemble.
When discussing Prince’s androgynous fashion, we cannot simply talk about the clothes, as Prince’s gender fluidity transcends clothing. On his self-titled album cover released in 1979, Prince is pictured without clothes, yet still appears androgynous. This is due to the combination of his moustache and chest hair, contrasted with the shaped eyebrows and voluminous, flowing hair.
Although androgyny is a common thread in all of Prince’s looks, we cannot ignore the other major similarity: theatricality. Prince’s looks command attention. Whether this is through shapes, fabrics or colours, whether he is wearing flats or heels, makeup or no makeup, you cannot look away from what Prince is wearing.
The singer, through his music and his clothing, made himself a sex symbol, and everything he wore was designed to attract some sort of gaze. However, we cannot look at Prince with a male gaze, nor a female gaze. Everything about Prince’s fashion, from his choices to our reactions to it, is completely and utterly genderless.
Illustrations by Verity Laycock