[1 June 2009]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
When people talk about Prince, they talk about a lot of things, from his compositional prodigiousness, technical prowess, and volitional perfectionism to his musical progeny, myriad projects, and multiple pseudonyms; from his penchant for making perplexing career moves like changing his name to an unpronounceable symbol, shutting down multiple fansites, restricting access to his songs and videos, and filing lawsuits to “reclaim the internet” to his battles with the music industry. Of course, mostly, when people talk about Prince, they talk about the music.
When they aren’t talking about the music, they talk about Purple Rain. People talk about how predictable and poorly pieced-together the plot was, while others argue that plot isn’t the point. Many remember how electrifying the footage of live performances was, and who can argue with that? We explore the film’s role in mythologizing its star—how, in fact, star-making was the sole purpose of it, and discuss the proliferation of the vanity projects that it spawned, both from other stars and from Prince himself. Fans praise individual songs, memorable scenes and favorite characters, while criticisms include everything from the misrepresentation of the Minneapolis music scene of the time to accusations of irresponsibly perpetuating misogyny. Whatever your opinion of Prince or Purple Rain, there’s no denying it made its mark.
The film made such an instant and indelible impression on popular culture, that not only is it still an interesting talking point, it’s still an ongoing influence 25 years later. Naturally, the soundtrack made the biggest single impact. Prince is, first and foremost, a singular, spectacular musical force, after all. But with Purple Rain he became an icon, and that’s due to much more than the music. Specifically, it’s a result of the image Prince projected as “The Kid”. It’s clear that Prince was well aware that, in image-making, the clothes truly do make the man. “Clothes by Louis and Vaughn & Marie-France” appears in the credits immediately after “Original Songs Composed and Produced by Prince”; that’s how important the costumes were to the film and to creating the iconic image of a star.
The fashion of the film, although not as talked about as the musical elements, was equally influential on popular culture. At least that’s how I remember it. I turned 13 the summer Purple Rain hit, and despite knowing next to nothing about its effect on the larger fashion world, I was acutely aware of the sartorial effect it had on me. As the adolescent aesthete, and future full-time pop-culture enthusiast, I was always interested in how the specific details of the look figured into the overall image of an idol. But it wasn’t until Purple Rain that a particular pop star began to affect my own fashion choices (sure, I’m a big fan of the Beatles—from birth—and I did have a fringe of bangs to my brows as a child, but I don’t think the two things are related ...).
I recall having an extended lingerie-as-daywear argument with a conservative Catholic grandmother during that year’s back-to-school shopping trip, and it had nothing to do with Madonna. Not that I was wishing to adopt Apollonia Kotero’s merry widow and cape get-up. I just wanted to appropriate some lacy, racy accents from Purple Rain. I was advocating for sleeveless shells and satiny silver V-neck tops instead of long-sleeved striped oxfords and mustard yellow shaker sweaters, that’s all. I had very little interest in becoming an underage “Sex Shooter” at that point, though I certainly knew girls who tried to make that look work. On Halloween 1984, no less than four bustier-and-stocking clad teen girls showed up as a member of Apollonia 6 at my friend Ashanti’s costume party. One of her brothers and his friends were The Time. The hostess went old-school, if I remember correctly: she was dressed as Vanity.
Meanwhile, I couldn’t be bothered with getting hosiery seams straight. I wanted to evoke Prince and his aura of appeal more than I wanted to emulate any of the women. I couldn’t have cared less about appearing overtly sexy just then anyway. I was much more concerned with finding a way to make it out of the house in my custom deconstructed (my mother preferred the phrase “ripped and ruined.”) creations, or how exactly to wrap a random piece of lace around my breasts—I possess feeble sewing skills at best—so that it might become a “shirt” that I could wear under my denim jacket in an approximation of some of Wendy’s tougher garb. Incidentally, I finally perfected that trick in 1988, and, perhaps unfortunately, there’s a high school yearbook photo out there that proves it. In 1984, though, I was still young and refused to accept that outfits like a one-sleeved, half-blouse, half coat and brocade slacks might be inappropriate middle school attire.
Not that anyone I knew personally could actually dress like that, of course. But we took our cues from the movie and music videos and got creative. A girl in my class took some satin that probably began life as a fairy princess costume, and fashioned some rather attractive pegged pants to which we attached studs on the left leg and little loops of tiny chains on the right. My study hall partner and I made a fun, flirty costume for her dance recital by tearing apart her brother’s (or cousin’s?) coat from the high school marching band. I’m sure her mother was livid, but we thought it looked great! I have a feeling that my mother made several appearance and clothing-related concessions during the mid-‘80s, which helped accommodate a Purple Rain fetish. In a gesture meant to dissuade me from further apparel butchery, she let Grandma buy me a long, lilac, Purple Rain T-shirt. I promptly split the sleeves so they would flutter and slit the hem so I could wear it as a mini-dress. There was the time I got in massive trouble for a series of multiple artistic crimes against my clothes (and the bedroom walls!), but later I was allowed to get permanent purple streaks in my hair and buy a frilly, frothy, gorgeous and utterly impractical white shirt with great big cuffs and a gargantuan collar.
Personally, though most people will tell you it’s the purple great coat with the studded shoulder that cemented Prince’s status as an icon, I think it was the shirt that sealed it. Lots of other pop stars rode motorcycles and wore satin, lace gloves, gold hoops and tight pants, but as far as I was concerned, only Prince could pull off the perfect white shirt. In fact, I think it was the poetic billows at the neck, or the open-to-the-waist ruffles with the crisp high collars and the pirate cuffs that anchored all the other pieces and gave an instant visual cue of that sense of romantic mystery Prince cultivates. This was years before I began reading Byron and decades before Captain Jack Sparrow stumbled across a screen dragging a romantic notion of pirate-chic back into our cultural consciousness again with one flick of his filthy frock coat cuff (Johnny Depp has famously said he based his character on Keith Richards and Pepé Le Pew, but I’d be willing to wager that there’s a little Prince in that pirate, too), Yet that mysterious quality, that thing that declares, “Baby I’m a Star!” without a word is all communicated in the cut of that shirt: Dangerous. Daring, Sensitive. Sexy.
But of course, it isn’t any one item that makes his Purple Rain persona so enduringly iconic. Lasting memory is formed from the seemingly contradictory details. Militaristic metal epaulets mixed with soft affectations of La Belle Époque. And collected—collective—memory ultimately becomes culture. How many pop stars, how many people in general, have appropriated some piece of their personal style directly from Purple Rain? I’m sure I unconsciously do it, possibly daily. Nothing is original, but it can be individual. Just as Prince combined and reinterpreted his musical influences in a way that was distinctly his own, he also borrowed from and blended various sources to create his signature look. Glitter, glam, and bondage punk met hippie-ish Hendrix and Sly Stone funk.
And that’s just one ensemble.
Christel Loar is a freelance writer and editor, a part-time music publicist, and a full-time music fan. She is often an overreactor and sometimes an overachiever. When not dodging raindrops or devising escape plans, Christel is usually found down front and slightly left of center stage reveling in a performance by yet another new favorite band.