By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 27, 2009
Michael Jackson could not resist epaulets. As his solo career blossomed and he transformed from the lead singer of a boy band into the King of Pop, he embraced all the pomp and circumstance that the title implies, displaying his rank on his shoulders. He made himself over from a kid performer who dressed like a little man wearing all the fads of the day -- bell bottoms, vests and collars that spread from one shoulder to the other -- into a character who seemed to have sprung from the imagination of a child.
It's impossible to separate Jackson the performer from Jackson the man. He was always in costume. He could not bring himself to wear a simple black suit, at least not in public. He would always adorn it with an armband that had meaning only to him or a series of medals and ribbons that commemorated some event that only he could name. It's tempting to say that Jackson was a flamboyant dresser because he wanted to stand out, because he needed the attention. But he would have been recognizable in a pair of Levi's and a white T-shirt. He dressed in his own peculiar fashion because he was always being Michael Jackson the star. It was really the only identity he had ever known and certainly the only one he ever let the public see.
The only distinction between his stage clothes and those he wore on the street seemed to be in the density of sequins. He sparkled more onstage, which seems to be both a fact and a metaphor. Jackson came of age before it was common for celebrities to let the public into their lives, before it became a rite of passage to tear down the wall that separates fans from stars. Jackson made it clear that he was never going to be like anyone else. He was larger than life. He was a star.
He used style -- from its subtleties to its grand flourishes -- in the same way that he employed a barely perceptible head tilt or a series of dizzying spins to mesmerize an audience. The single sparkling glove remains his most memorable signature. No rock star stylist or hip-hop costumer has been able to equal it in flair or sheer audacity. The silver glove couldn't be traced to some unseemly beginning -- like the droopy jeans that rappers picked up from prisoners who'd been forced to give up their belts. It wasn't uncomfortably androgynous in the manner of guyliner. The single glove was odd and startling -- and somehow so right. It had Mick Jagger panache and James Brown flamboyance, but paired with the fedora and the cropped pants -- and that glorious moonwalk -- it also echoed the dapper style of such men as Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly, men whose graceful movements Jackson admired. If Jackson was forming a bridge between rock-and-roll and rhythm and blues in his music, he was evoking every era between MGM's Tinseltown and MTV's Hollywood in his costumes.
As his career progressed, Jackson became more enamored with militaristic style. He took on the look of a toy soldier ruling over a Willy Wonka empire. He was the kid playing dress-up and leading a merry band of followers on a tantalizing adventure. Everyone talks about Jackson's childlike quality, but he never seemed like the sweet, docile kid. He was the leader of the pack, the one who determined which games would be played, how it would be scored and who the ultimate winner would be. Jackson might have been dressing like a toy soldier, but his rank was general.
When he did tough, he dressed like a Broadway gangster, as if he'd stepped from the chorus of "Guys and Dolls" and "West Side Story," instead of the streets of Compton or the Bronx or any other neighborhood that popular culture has designated as epitomizing street-thug cool. Jackson didn't interpret the world from his own experiences but once removed. Like a foreigner who learns a language by watching television, Jackson was forever a child interpreting an adult society through TV, movies and theater.
There were times when the military jackets were discomforting. When they turned dark and threatening and vaguely fascist and Jackson didn't seem to understand how the images resonated in the real world. That, after all, wasn't where he was fully living. Occasionally he was thrust into a harsh reality, and he seemed completely baffled about how to comport himself. He did not know how to dress for court and often seemed to costume himself as a little prince who was being unfairly punished or like a prep-schooler arriving at the principal's office. His vision of crime and punishment did not seem to have matured much beyond the naughty mat.
It will be difficult to forget the images of Jackson heading into court in his pajamas, as if whining for a sick day, or waving to fans outside the courthouse from atop a car, and looking like head usher in an old vaudeville theater. But equally memorable -- and actually influential -- are the ways in which Jackson blended popular culture into personal style and public identity. He slipped into his Sgt. Pepper jackets and designated himself the leader of some youthful group of troubadours that represented every corner of performing arts. He took the archetypes from television and film and blended them with virtually every musical genre. Everyone was welcome to join in his fun. He was sure to have a little something for anyone willing to come along.