young Michael Jacson in sequins

In the wake of Michael Jackson’s recent sudden death, there has been a predictable spike in pictures, radio and videos runs, articles and blog posts about the star. We often have the tendency to think of style icons as Athena: “born,” emerging from Zeus’s head swathed in what was to be her trademark ensemble of full armor. This theory has been confirmed by the fact that most fashion discussion I’ve found has focused on Jackson’s “iconic style” with parades of comparative photos of current celebrities wearing military-style coats, red leather jackets, mono-gloves, aviator shades, etc. — all of which is appropriate testament to his talent and breadth of influence — and yet there has been very little discussion on what influenced the man himself. At the risk of stating the obvious, none of us live in vacuums — not even the rich and famous — and as is my wont, I’m far more interested in the idol’s own historical sartorial references, which he so successfully appropriated and interpreted that most people see him as a completely original trend setter.

Though I favor his work in the Jackson 5 (I know there are many dissenters, but I do so love Motown!), considering his youth and the parental/managerial influence present during those early years, I will concentrate mainly on his mid-to-late career, after he had emerged as a solo artist. I’ll start then with his movie debut at age 20 as the Scarecrow alongside Diana Ross’s Dorothy in The Wiz (1978), remake of the classic The Wizard of Oz (1939), which introduced him to the wonderful world of classic movies. I’m not the first to see how those suave, glittery MGM musicals manifested themselves both in Jackson’s dancing and wardrobe.

Jackson regularly sported white suits (see Thriller album cover for a casual, pared down version) with matching fedoras bearing uncanny resemblance to the ensemble Fred Astaire wears with Cyd Charisse in The Band Wagon (1953). For those unfamiliar with that mediocre musical (for which I have an inexplicable tenderness), “The Girl Hunt Ballet” dance number is a musical-within-a-musical where Astaire and Charisse enact a ’40s film noir-style murder mystery:

Here’s Michael’s version from the “Smooth Criminal” video:

michale jackson smooth criminal lean in white suit with spats and fedora

Michael Jackson in Smooth Criminal, wearing white suit with spats and fedora. And isn’t the 45 degree lean dance move a more graceful version of the Tin Man’s move from the original Wizard of Oz?

Even the alternate, more informal versions of Jackson’s look consisting of black slacks, white tank top, unbuttoned white undershirt and fedora may very well have been a deconstructed vestmental homage to Astaire, one of the most formal of the musical men in film. (I admit I may be reading just a wee bit too much into this one, but isn’t the game fun?)

Michael Jackson in white undershirt and fedora

Michael Jackson in white undershirt and fedora

Michael Jackson white suit HIStory tour 1997

And West Side Story (1961) undoubtedly influenced both the “Beat It” (1983) and “Bad” (1987) videos, down to the line dance choreography style. Jackson’s videos have only slightly less dubiously threatening song-and-dance gang confrontations. “Bad” even mimics the set of West Side Story‘s “Cool” number, which also occurs in a garage, moments after the Jets’ gang leader (Riff) is killed by the rival gang in a scuffle:

“Bad” video:

“Beat It” video:

Michael’s signature ankle-bearing pants paired with penny loafers and white socks highlighted his dance moves, it’s true. But they also bear telling resemblance to another famous song-and-dance movie star, Gene Kelly.

Gene Kelly in loafers and rolled pants

Gene Kelly in loafers and rolled pants

Michael Jackson’s cropped black pants and loafers

Though not a movie star, the undeniable live concert showman James Brown was explicitly credited by Michael as being hugely influential. They share a talent for energetic performances, impressive tonal ranges (not many can hit those upper registers like these two!), and love of shiny jackets and straightened hairstyles.

Jackson and Brown performing at the 2003 BET Awards in Los Angeles:

michael jackson and james brown at BET awards 2003

There was also a healthy dose of Elvis inspiration evident in Jackson, what with his penchant for gold lame and gyrating crotch moves. In an interesting (some might say disturbing) twist, Jackson actually married Presley’s daughter Lisa Marie, thus tapping into his idol’s bloodline while possibly attempting to silence gay / sexual deviant rumors (the molestation trial was a mere year before the short-lived marriage).

Thus far I’ve concentrated on Michael’s fondness for classic cinema and musicals, but there were most definitely darker influences as well. His leather-and-buckle style emerged perhaps as Michael struggled with his life of imposed near-solitude and the battle for privacy he fought from the media and crazed fans. He seemed to identify with, and then project, a kind of misunderstood misfit persona, even while continuing grueling tours and recording sessions. April’s auction of Jackson’s ephemera included many of his home furnishings, sculptures, children’s race cars, and many many spangly clothes, but what caught my special notice were the Edward Scissorhands (1990) prop hands.

Johnny Depp as Edward Scissorhands (1990)

Johnny Depp as Edward Scissorhands (1990)

It turns out that Jackson had aggressively lobbied for title part in Tim Burton’s movie, and I’ve since realized this interest makes perfect sense. He was dressing like Edward Scissorhands before the movie was even made, with his wan skin tone, limp black hair, and ladders of leather straps and buckles. His penchant for these leather buckles was perhaps indicative of deeper, darker insecurities; desire for restraint in others and to be restrained oneself. They call to mind mental patients’ restraints and also S&M gear, as was fitting for a man whose mental stability and sexuality were examined and questioned throughout his career.

Jackson’s interpretations:

Michael Jackson in gold lame with leather buckles and catcher kneepads in Dangerous tour 1992 Prague

Michael Jackson touring Bad in Maryland, 1988 (the year before he moves into Neverland Ranch)


The other side of the shy, misunderstood outsider was Jackson’s royal persona. His astounding collection of military jackets are protective in their stiffness, and project masculine virility and power with their broad shoulders (which temporarily mask Jackson’s narrow frame), and suggestion of violent battle. They are also commonly worn by male monarchs (who typically rely on medals rather than Jackson’s rhinestones for bling). Jackson was dubbed the “King of Pop” because of his extraordinary talent, but he shared other, less desirable similarities with kings. Like any monarch, his movement was confined to his personal properties and heavily guarded mobbed public appearances, which was undoubtedly trying. And since he achieved such fame at such a young age, like any prince or king, he had virtually no opportunity for normal, unfettered geographic exploration, and he alternately embraced this gift/curse — as in his royal military ensembles — and fought against it — as in his more threatening, soldier-based military ensembles.

Prince Charles:

Prince Charles in military uniform

Michael Jackson in fedora military shirt 1993

Michael Jackson in military shirt with child in 1993


Michael Jackson in ammo military leotard 1993

Jackson in more aggressive ammo military gear in 1993

Michael Jackson royal military jacket at Elizabeth Taylors bday celebration 1997

In royal military jacket at Elizabeth Taylor’s birthday celebration in 1997

Some of Jackson’s military jackets were rather conservative, approximating their official prototypes, but many more were colorful, glitzy, and laden with sparkles. It’s no coincidence that Jackson was a huge admirer of earlier pop royalty the Beatles (he procured the publishing rights to that influential band’s songbook) whose influential album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967) portrayed the Beatles in silly psychedelic ’60s military gear, and Michael’s interpretations:

Beatles – Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

Michael Jackson and Brooke Shields at American Music Awards 1984

Michael Jackson and Brooke Shields at American Music Awards 1984

The flamboyant “King of Pop” in his royal jacket, complete with golden sash and epaulets, with presidential royalty the Reagans in conservative suits:

1984 award ceremony, in which President Ronald Reagan acknowledged Mr. Jackson's contribution to the drunk-driving awareness program

President Ronald Reagan praises Jackson’s contribution to the drunk-driving awareness, 1984

As many rock stars do, Jackson walked a tightrope between hyper-masculinity and femininity. Even glossing over the gory details of the Neverland Ranch kiddie porn/molestation fiasco (starting in 1993), I would be remiss to ignore Michael Jackson’s gender and sexuality issues. He never shied from gender ambiguity: on the contrary, he seemed to revel in them. His willowy body, straightened, flowing locks, lack of visible body or facial hair, permanent eyeliner and lipstick, and surgically slenderized jawline all contradicted his signature performative crotch grabs and pelvic thrusts. “In the Closet” (1991) is delightfully questionable in meaning, possibly referring to the unwanted media attention or to his ambiguous sexuality.

Jackson’s peek-a-boo curls emulate classic stars Rita Hayworth, Veronica Lake, and bear eerie resemblance to his close personal friend who happens to be a classic movie star herself, Elizabeth Taylor:

michael jacksons flowing locks

Elizabeth Taylor, circa 1950s

Elizabeth Taylor, circa 1950s


In the “Scream” (1995) video, Michael and sister Janet are dressed in identical outfits that are clearly designed to blur dissimilarities between the siblings, not least of which being their respective genders:

Michael and Janet Jackson Scream video still

The umbrella Jackson started toting for portable shade blurred gender lines in a more subtle way, plucked from the long line of both Eastern and Western women protecting themselves from the sunlight’s harsh rays by strolling with parasols. Compare to a geisha under a parasol (note the similar white skin and red mouth):

Michael Jackson with umbrella

Michael Jackson with umbrella, circa 2009

geisha under parasol

geisha under parasol

The body suits of the 1990s were generally worn by women, and then underneath pants. Jackson’s body suits worn over his pants, served as inner-as-outwear, much as Madonna used Gautier’s external corset/body suit in her Blond Ambition tour (1990). Though they were a female fashion, Jackson actually uses them to emphasize his crotch (Madonna did as well), both confusing gender lines and emphasizing male ones. Finally (but less interesting), the body suit has practical applications, staying put while the body underneath gyrates and writhes in dance, though I somehow doubt that’s what attracted Michael to them.

Compare Michael in his HIStory tour (1995) to Madonna in Jean-Paul Gautier’s Blond Ambition bustier (1990). (She sometimes wore it over pants like Michael.)

Michael Jackson gold lame bodysuit HIStory tour 1997

Madonna in Gautier bustier Blond Ambition tour 1992


Part of what feminized many of Jackson’s ensembles were the sheer numbers of sparkles, lending a burlesque feeling to an otherwise masculine outfit. Much of his wardrobe was designed to remain visible to stadiums of thousands, but even in smaller gatherings and public appearances, the man indulged his penchant for rhinestones. Rhinestone studded and luminescent materials have a rich tradition in the (female dominated) burlesque world, highlighting every curve and suggestive movement for the audience. Again Michael taps into an overtly sexual genre, muddling his presentation of his sexuality.

Compare Dita Von Teese, covergirl of the neo-burlesque movement, as a sexy rhinestone cowboy, to selections from Michael’s bedazzled wardrobe can be found in this slideshow. I mean, the man had bedazzled socks:

Dita Von Teese as rhinestone cowboy

Michael Jackson sequined socks


Guy Trebay of the New York Times wrote, “More than almost any entertainer in memory, Michael Jackson was entirely of show business, and was seldom out of costume.” His influences were culled from a wide variety of sources, but it’s striking that even as he borrowed heavily from both genders’ beauty standards, a wide timeline of popular fashion and pop culture references, etc., the celebrity influences were primarily caucasian / Eastern. His narrowing facial modifications, relaxed hair and mysterious extreme pallor externalize a complex struggle with race identity (in addition to the feminine associations  and gender / sexuality questions they raise).

Many of Michael Jackson’s fashions caught on (the red leather jacket, the single glove is making a comeback on the likes of Biance and Victoria Beckham, etc.), but many more were just so outrageous (silken face masks, male burkas) that they die with the man. One of the amazing aspects of Jackson’s style (and I think this is a typical marker of a fashion icon) is that no matter how outrageous he looked throughout his life, he was consistent in the visual motifs with which he decorated himself, ultimately lending an agelessness to the man — after shedding his afro, he pretty much looked like an indeterminate 20-or-30-something-year-old, did he not? May we all leave such a legacy, fashion, musical, or otherwise.

Further Reading / Viewing:

  • Deborah Nadoolman Landis, costume designer of several M.J. videos including Thriller, writes for FrockTalk “Michael Jackson fashion icon
  • Video mashups:
  • West Side Story with “Bad” (1987) playing, sampling clips from WSS’s knife fight scene and the “Cool” numbers. (There are many other similar mashups that actually splice Michael Jackson video clips with West Side Story ones.)
  • “Puttin’ on the Ritz” with Michael Jackson actually ballroom and tap dancing in white tails and top hat circa 1977 when he was 19.
  • Fred Astaire set to Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal”
  • New York Times slideshow