‘I’m not a woman / I’m not a man / I am something that you’ll never understand’ – we look at the late icon’s revolutionary attitudes towards gender and sexuality
Yesterday, the world was devastated by the news that 2016 had claimed yet another musical genius. There are few icons that defied categorisation as skilfully as Prince; after all, this was the artist that once adopted an unpronounceable symbol as his moniker and famously sung that he was neither man nor woman, but “something you will never understand”. In a music industry that offers unparalleled access to the personal lives of its stars, Prince is a glimmering enigma renowned for his genre-defying back catalogue and radical views on music as a commercial mechanism. The fashion industry was equally enamoured with his trailblazing attitude – Prince had an astounding ability to make women weak at the knees while dressed in an iridescent catsuit and four-inch heels. He embodied the transformative potential of fashion, reconfiguring stereotypes of male desirability in the process.
His refusal to conform made him an inspiration for a generation of young creatives disenfranchised with a label-obsessed society. His influence is best summarised by Frank Ocean, who yesterday published a heartfelt tribute crediting Prince with helping him “feel more comfortable with how I identify sexually, simply by his display of freedom from and irreverence for archaic ideas like gender conformity.” He cites Prince’s first television appearance as a particularly seminal moment – “he was a straight black man who played his first televised set in bikini bottoms and knee-high heeled boots. Epic.” At just 5’2”, the artist understood the power of boosting his diminutive frame with an array of high-heels; he famously owned pairs in everything from black leather to white satin.
Prince’s first television appearance on NBC’s Midnight Special on January 8th, 1980
Prince was also an artist unafraid of self-sexualisation, a fearlessness made clear throughout his various album artwork. Dirty Mind (1980) sees the musician clad in a pair of high-leg briefs, a bandana around his neck and a studded leather jacket left open to expose the bare midriff beneath, whereas the Parade artwork is a black-and-white portrait of a voguing Prince wearing only a crop top. The following Controversy cover is, unsurprisingly, even more controversial, depicting the artist in a pair of rolled-up pants staring brazenly at the camera. While these era-defining images might not seem so radical now, it remains almost unheard of for a powerful straight musician to sexualise himself by choice. He made a statement with his sexuality and divided his audience in the process, most notably at the 1991 VMAs where he performed in a yellow laser-cut suit with the two buttocks cut out. Prince toed the line between sensuality and raw sexuality; despite his ‘feminine’ clothing choices, his confidence exuded a masculine virility that drove women wild. To this day, he remains one of the most unconventional sex symbols in musical history.
When he wasn’t flashing flesh, the musician was busy making headlines with his taste for excess. Prince had an iconic taste for opulence which manifested itself in armfuls of jewels, glimmers of metallic gold and a well-documented obsession with purple, a colour commonly linked to royalty. It’s impossible to revisit the style legacy of Prince without even a cursory mention of the velvet suit worn on his Purple Rain cover – teamed with huge hair and a stiff white shirt with the collar pressed up, the look became a signature that was revamped for various tour dates and later performances. In typical Prince style, the regal look was sexualised on tour; a brilliant Rolling Stone article taken from 1983 outlines the incorporation of his “high-heeled boots and flouncy ruffled blouse” into a seductive “International Lover” segment which ends with him simulating masturbation. Even when he ditched the underwear and switched into his effeminate Edwardian drag, the star still possessed the ability to mesmerise an entire arena with his striptease performance.
Naturally, the fashion industry was quick to embrace Prince and his unique star quality. Over a career spanning several decades the artist has been shot by everyone from Richard Avedon to David LaChapelle and dressed by designers from Versace to Cavalli. A glance at the modern runway reveals his influence, particularly within the flourishing menswear industry; every sequinned jumpsuit, every stacked heel and every exaggerated ruffle was made possible by Prince and his progressive attitudes towards sex and masculinity. To reduce his appeal to catch-all terms like ‘androgyny’ seems unfair considering Prince didn’t just reverse or blend gender. He took things a step further, turning the concept of gender on its head entirely and staying sexy in the process. He was a sexual anomaly that everybody wanted to sleep with and, in many ways, the fashion industry owes its freedom of expression to him for daring to push boundaries.
The respect he commanded became evident this morning on Instagram, as everyone from Riccardo Tisci to Marc Jacobs posted visual tributes to the inimitable star. Donatella Versace penned an emotional letter, accompanied by a caption reminiscing on nights spent discussing the potential of youth in a club which Prince had rented for them to enjoy privately. Her words depicted a forward-thinking character driven by change and inspired by a new generation of youth that should learn from his legacy – “the young people were so important to Prince. They have to follow the example he set, to believe in their heart, respect their own soul and never trade their own individuality. It is what made Prince outstanding and relevant forever.”