And so, this is not an argument highlighting the importance of rock-and-roll legend Richard Wayne Penniman’s flamboyant, gender-blurring, self-defining public style. It’s merely an acknowledgment of what he already made plain to the world: His style was profoundly influential. And it was quite something to see.
His look was at its best in the late 1950s and ’60s, when it pushed against the boundaries of traditional attire. Onstage, he dressed in a suit, but one with a little too much sheen — one that hung with a sensual slouch, rather than a businessman’s rigor. He wore ties, but they were a tad too narrow. And his shoes were multi-toned and the heels were inappropriately high.
With a little bit of nerve and cash, anyone could add a smidgen of Little Richard to their wardrobe.
By the 1980s, his style became more garish, more overtly theatrical. His clothes were wild, but not nearly as subversive. He was a showman, but by then he was also a rarefied bird. He had become a prisoner of his own image — a caricature as portrait. One could admire his bravado, but to mimic it was akin to putting on a costume.
In the beginning of his career, Little Richard, who died Saturday at 87, was a beautiful young man with high cheekbones and a face full of angles that caught the light. He had a wide forehead that could balance his hair and wide-set eyes with the expressive ferocity of a Greek chorus. His face wasn’t particularly masculine, but it wasn’t soft or delicate either. It was dramatic and distinctive. And he dressed accordingly.
Over the course of his career, he wore rhinestone-studded suits and mirrored vests, poofy shirts — or no shirts — and silky scarves. And his eternally thick, dark hair was ever higher, curlier and longer. It was his crowning glory. These were only some of the elements of his stage persona that served as the costuming inspiration for generations of young men who didn’t want to break from society; they just wanted to interact with it on their own glamorous terms.
Did Little Richard invent gender-blurring fashion? That’s hard to say. Fashion movements tend to spring unbidden from the earth — delicate shoots that are then nurtured by a whole range of people until someone brings them to the table for public consumption. Little Richard sashayed feminine-masculine style into the spotlight with howling shrieks of self-satisfied delight.
Before there was Prince in his ruffled shirts and redingotes, well in advance of an androgynous David Bowie, a bare-chested Mick Jagger and a lace-loving Steven Tyler; before every modern-day rock star or pop star who thinks they are making a statement by turning up in a sheer, frilly shirt, a bejeweled turban or a pair of high heels; there was Little Richard: preening. Today, a lot of outré style choices come freighted with cultural commentary and urgent political communiques. Fashion speaks ever more eloquently, but it can sometimes feel like a ponderous semiotics seminar.
Little Richard gave a full-throated speech about self-expression, identity, the broad spectrum of sexuality, masculinity and the complicated inner life of a singular man by showing up awash in glitter and a bouffant that reached up to heaven. He also remembered to bring the joy — so much sly, sensual pleasure — as well as the devilish whimsy and vulnerability.
His aesthetic, where he sometimes looked like the lead soloist in a rock-and-roll choir, served as a reminder that the sacred and the profane are intertwined. Sunday morning’s foot-stomping call and response is not at odds with Saturday night’s sweaty debauchery. They are both part of the human desire to feel alive, to be viewed through loving and accepting eyes, to be seen.
Sunday bests and Saturday-night finery hang in the same closet. When the Holy Spirit settles into the choir stand at a black church, it inspires bodies to dance with rapturous release. And late-night revelry after a long day’s labor can feel like nourishment for the soul.
Sometimes, the only distinctions between Little Richard’s style and that of a well-fed preacher were the height of the hair and the shine on the suit. And like a traveling evangelist, Little Richard converted generations of seekers. His sermon was a raucous shout. His hymns had a rock-and-roll swagger.
And his raiments boldly declared that the human soul can’t be contained by gender, stereotypes or the daily burdens of this earthly life.