The first Prince song I ever heard was “I Wanna Be Your Lover”. It was 1980. I lived in rural south east Nigeria. I was captivated. I voraciously read the album sleeve. The picture of the bare chested young man on the album sleeve looked vaguely like the only picture I had of my older brother.
I developed an obsession for this artiste that looked like my brother (and me I guess) and this single. Those carefree days when one had time to listen to a song over and over and over and over again. Till you knew every word, every crescendo, very note, every chord, every accent, every lead in.
It’s lyrics were just the right amount of risqué for prudish me. Compared to his later lyrics “I Wanna Be Your Lover” seems innocent and romantic now. Just like the album cover. Then one day I read in Ebony Magazine that Prince was a diminutive 5’2″. I don’t know why I felt betrayed and heart broken but I did. I took down his poster from my bedroom wall. Thereafter I always looked at him with side eye.
(I must seriously explore my issues with diminutive men. I am not similarly dismissive of diminutive women.)
What I didn’t ignore, what I paid keen attention to were his fashion choices. I loved his glamorous subversive 80’s style. I remember thinking “If I were a male rock star I would totally rock high heels, makeup, purple, crop tops and frilly shirts like Prince” because men’s fashion (especially white male inspired fashion) is generally really really boring.
Rock stars, royalty and African men seem to be the only ones that can break male fashion rules with impunity. And few aristocratic men do anymore except at ceremonial occasions. Prince evoked the extravagance of men’s fashion in Louis XIV’s France and Tudor England. Men’s fashion has become decidedly plebeian and conservative in the last few centuries.
Was that the influence of the American Revolution or the Communist Revolution? Or both? I’m sure some intellectual somewhere has expounded a treatise on it. Fashion has always been a status symbol. Only royalty ‘dressed up’ everyday. Only royalty was permitted flamboyant sartorial displays. Only royalty could afford it.
For the rest of mankind it just wasn’t practical because, you know, they have to do real work. So they created these acceptable uniforms for ordinary men and women that both announced social and gender status and kept the people trapped within them. It was and is a display of power just like any masquerade contest in Africa attempts to do. Its all theatre. Village Square Theatre.
I always felt sorry for men because of the social restrictions on their fashion choices. At least women, royal and plebeian, were still allowed to adorn and display themselves. I hated shopping for my sons, there never seemed much variation in the offerings for young boys. I spent hours obsessing about dressing them with some individuality.
What happened to men’s fashion that all you can boast of is the quality of the fabric and cut? Anyway I looked at it, it was still a a rather uniform suit, whether it had three buttons or one, a peaked or notched lapel, made in Aba or by Ermenegildo Zegna. The suit and tie seemed so status quo, so reactionary.
Music is visceral. Art is visceral. And good music and good art challenges and questions the status quo. We feel before we think. And Prince, his music, his art and his fashion made us feel. Both comfortable and uncomfortable emotions and that was his true genius. Then it made us think. And his visionary style empowered many to break out of anachronistic fashion rules. Today we have cool fashion lines for boy’s and Jaden Smith. Prince was part of THAT revolution.
That he was a black man is no surprise (because Elvis was just too theatrical if you know what I mean.)