I have always loved Prince. Like, old school Prince. I admit that only in the past few years have I been going in on Prince’s music, and my favorite record is probably Purple Rainas cliché as that seems. But even when I wasn’t listening to his music I was always attracted to his sense of style. As a little queer boy who got made fun of at school for wearing feather boas and sequin catsuits to the cafeteria, seeing Prince on television was like a beacon of hope for me. I was mesmerized that there was a black male out there who was expressing himself through fashion in much the same way as I did. The only difference is that nobody calls him a faggot like they did to me. What gives?
Prince wasn’t the only black male doing radical style. Sly Stone was cray, too. And I had a potentially unhealthy obsession with Lenny Kravitz, a person I wanted to sleep with because he was big and hot AND because I would get to play in his closet afterwards. But I was more drawn to his sense of style than anything else. In a pop culture seminar I’m teaching right now called LADY GAGA, one student brought in an image of Lenny Kravitz where he is working the New York City sidewalks and wearing clothes we typically label as feminine: he carries a murse, wears wedged boots, and has this drapey shirt on. One aspect of the image the class talked about was how for some people his look seemed completely normal, that there was nothing strange about it. For others, they could see how one would read him as feminine or queer, and we decided that being legible or illegible depends on the context and location.
Black style is a powerful thing. It allows us to reject dominant social rules about the “right” ways to wear our hair or the “correct” way to style our bodies. Michaela angela Davis, a founding editor of Vibe and one of my favorite commentators on black style, always says that black style is the one thing that could not be beat, raped, or whipped out of black bodies:
Black style is indestructible, baby, and abuse and oppression only make it fresher. Black style is our genius. We have finally made it to the generation that is baad and safe enough to holla and buck back if you try to take any more of our genius stuff (Rebecca Walker, Black Cool, 62).
Strange as it sounds, fabulous black style comes from the tension that’s the result of oppressive norms, from being made fun of, and from dealing with oppression, particularly when fashion has often been used to keep the boundaries between social classes in tact. Black style creates new possibilities for identity. Black style tells you you can be whoever you want — have you ever seen the inside of a beauty supply house??? Black style says to Do You and make the haters EAT IT!!!
This is where Prince gets really interesting. One of my favorite Prince videos is where he’s doing a live performance of “Darling Nikki,” a song I love because it sounds like it could have been written today. In the clip, he’s wearing see-through sequin pants with the ass cut out, which I own, pearl necklaces, which I also own, black arm length gloves which, ditto, and high heels, you get the gist. He’s got eyeliner on, too. And while he’s giving us all of this serious fierceness, he’s grabbing his crotch, thrusting it at no one in particular. He’s even shirtless, revealing no tits, a gesture which reminds us that he is wearing women’s clothes but, yes, he is male, even in the overt queerness.
When we watch him perform I don’t think we are thinking about him as a cross dresser, even if that’s what he’s doing. We just think he’s fabulous. We let him get away with it. I mean, he’s “Prince.”
Isn’t that compelling? I have always thought that the most interesting part of the video is not Prince himself but the front row, full of women who are thrusting themselves at him and basically throwing their panties onto the stage. But what does it mean for a dude in lace panties and high heels to still be read as unquestionably heterosexual?