Saturday, July 25, 2009

Michael Jackson: Fashion HIStory

Because Michael Jackson was such a massive pop-culture icon, nearly ever aspect of his iconography has been re-examined in light of his death--the music, the videos, the dancing, the bizarre behaviour, etc. A lot of people are over-saturated with of all of it by now, I think.

Most biographies typically pay some small homage to MJ's fashion throughout his career. I have always felt these segments to be cliched, repetitive and unsatisfying.
The typical overview of MJ's clothes merely tends to point out what is plainly evident anyways: the "Thriller" jacket, white rhinestone glove, fedora, etc. The guy was one of the biggest celebrities in the world. We all know what we wore.

In this posting, I hope to do more than make a list of what M. Jackson wore and when. Instead, I propose to comment as to why some of the outfits worked, and others less so.

Roll up your sleeves

There's no denying that Michael Jackson sported some great leather jackets during the Thriller years; specifically the Red/Black V jacket from the "Thriller" video and the red jacket from the "Beat It" video.
But one of the key elements that really added to the look was how MJ wore the jackets. By by adapting and rolling up the sleeves, Michael really owned the jackets. He really looked comfortable in them-- they weren't just showpieces.

Michael didn't only do this with his leather jackets, but also with his tuxedo jackets in both the "Don't Stop Til' You Get Enough" (see comments below) and "Billie Jean" videos.

Currently, Kanye West is pretty good at channeling this vibe with his jackets.

King of Pop

One of the ways Michael was able to successfully proclaim himself as the "King of Pop" was by dressing like a king. True, the outfits can also be taken as military uniforms, but heads of state often decorate themselves in military regalia.

I also think Michael put a nice spin on this, by glittering-up this uniform-- He was a king of POP after all.

In my opinion, this was Michael at his creative peak in his career, and it's no surprise that he looked his best in this era of his career.

"We Are the World" Video, 1985

Visiting the White House in 1984. Doesn't he look like a real life prince?

Prince of Wales

Prince of Pop, mid-80's

Having said that, I think Michael sometimes went over the top with the rhinestones and glitter, especially in the "Rock with you" video.

"Rock with You" screen captures, 1979

Victory tour, mid-80's

Man in the Mirrors

Because they prevent eye contact, sunglasses are also a great way to cultivate a mystique, especially when worn indoors. Michael perfected this to a "T".

Black or White

In the "Off the Wall" and "Thriller" years, Michael rocked the tuxedo. I loved the way Michael gave a casual flair to the look by dancing while holding the tuxedo jacket over his shoulder and by rolling up his sleeves (see comments above).

"Billie jean" video

"Off the Wall" promo pic, 1979

"Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough" screen capture

Personal Quirks

Many fashion icons have a couple of unique style quirks that set them apart from everybody else. It's a great way to cultivate a mystique. However, it's equally important that the quirks aren't too overwhelming else the look simply becomes eccentric. Jackson fell victim to this in the latter part of his career.

But in his prime, Michael Jackson had no shortage of great quirks that only he could get away with. Some of the more famous ones:

  • white glove

  • white socks
  • cropped pants

This site gives a great, simple overview of his trade-mark pieces:

Unfortunately, after his fashion peak in 1984-5 or so, Michael's fashion sense steadily declined almost in lockstep with the demise of his music and public standing.

Not Bad

None of Michael Jackson's outfits during the "Bad" years (1987-1989) carried the same cultural impact as the Thriller years. He will never be remembered for anything he wore in this period, or anything after.

That being said, the outfits were decent in the "Bad" period. He primarily featured clothing with lots of buckles and straps, something he retained for the rest of his career.

"Bad tour", late 80's

"Bad" album cover, 1987

He also began sporting an arm band and fedora, both of which he would wear from time to time for the rest of life.

"Smooth Criminal" video, late 80's

For me, arm bands only look good on Nazis, and a fedora just never sat well with Michael's dainty face.

He also liked loose, plain-coloured, long-sleeved shirts (usually wore either a plain white tee shirt underneath or while bare chested). While I applaud the simplicity of this look, it didn't flatter his skinny physique. This look persisted well into the 1990's.

Dirty Diana video, late 1980's

"The way you make me feel" video, late 1980's

Dangerous and beyond (1992-2009)

As far as I'm concerned, by the time of the "Dangerous" album (1991) , Jackson's plastic surgery had caused him to look so freakish that it was distracting to anything he wore.

The Dangerous tour outfits were some weird combination of gold, sci-fi, and S&M.

"Remember the Time" video

Michael also wore an open, loose-fitting white shirt in the "Black or White" video

In the years that followed ("HIStory" (1995) and "Invincible" (2001)), MJ, adopted a mishmash of styles listed above.

  • fedoras and arm bands

  • straps, buckles, shinpads and rhinestones

In the final years from his trial and leading up to his death, Michael's fashions were just downright eccentric: lots of silk, embroidery, tacky arm bands, and formal-wear worthy of a bad prom.

When combined with his truly bizarre facial features, the look was often shocking (and I won't even both discussing the masks, veils and bandages). Sadly, the decline in his appearance seemed to dovetail with the decline in the quality of his music and creativity. My own preference is to remember Michael when he was at his creative peak in music, fashion and dance.

-The Scandal


  1. The Victory Tour picture is my favourite. He just looks so ballsy and cool.

  2. Generally you seem only to approve of the style of the thriller era and before. While this assessment is in line with the current 80s revival seen on the catwalk and on the streets - have you considered that your discounting of MJ's post Thriller style points has a lot to do with the fact that these style points are just not trendy right now.

    Crazy buckles, leotard over pants, lose and open button downs, scarf belts - sure they are totally out of style right now but in the early 90's when he wore them - he was killing it. and his way of wearing - with the same casual flair as the tux... such style. One day it will be back and people will be inspired by MJs contributions to these looks.

    LOL at tacky prom - certainly true at times - the upholstery fabric vests don't do it with the rest of his look. This was not his best time but he still has some relevant style points to take away. for example, embellishment at the neck is the perfect alternative to a tie or bowtie and armbands add flair to a business suit (I have begun adding armbands to my rotation and people are loving it).

  3. That's an interesting point about the 80's revival. However, I think Michael's clothes in the 80's were so unique that they should be considered 80's style pe se. i don't see a connection between michael and the current 8o's revival...but maybe there is something to what youre saying

  4. I personly think michael have a diffrent style, that i think is cool.. because he's wearing the clothes he like and gives a shit what anyone else thinks.. Go on michael! RIP

    Love a big fan!<3

  5. The Balmain military jacket that currently celebrity are sporting today is inspired by Michael style in the '80s. Personnaly I love Michael style throughtout all his life. He was stylish when he was kid up to the end. He can rocked everyone when he is in buckles, rhinestone jacket and even when he only have the simplest white shirt. When someone is wearing a fedora and an arm band, you know instantly it is Michael's style. Even he make wearing the mask looks cool (should be in season during the swine flu). And I love those shiny shinpads. No one can pulls it better than Michael himself. He was stylish all the way to the end. Go Michael, the only one true King.

  6. michael was this most creative till the day he died, i really disagree with some of your comments, because every style that he created was the most unique for its time. To me, Micheal Jackson never had a dicline in stlye....he could always leave u wondering.... regardless. R.I.P

  7. I personally think that each different style Michael wore, all throughout his career had an impact one way or another. Yes, he pulled off the glittery jackets and suits through the OTW/Thriller eras. But in my opinion he also pulled off everything that the blogger seems to dislike.
    The fedora, the armband, the open shirts etc fit him quite well. I guess it's all down to what someones preference is.
    I also think that the invincible era had shown a lot of classy suits and silk shirts. There may be an off fashion day for Michael, but he's only human.
    He liked to experiment and didn't give a sh*t about what people thought of him. And I'll always admire him for that.

  8. I totally agree with the above poster! Michael was beyond fashion. I adore all his looks because they were so Michael and so incredibly unique and wonderful! And he was the consummate showman - his style was built for the stage. I love you MJ! xxx RIP

  9. all of ya'll are sucking Michaels dick stop talking shit about him if he was alive ya'll wouldnt be saying jack shit about him PUSSIES!

  10. I think Michael never looked sexier than in the movie "This is It" but I loved the tight pants with all the buckles and belts the most. (And I'm a 59 year old white woman...
    Thing is, people have always talked about things that don't matter about him. Why didn't we hear about his loving, kind, generous heart instead of plastic surgery, skin, style and allegations.
    What a shame. Thank heavens Kenny Ortega gave his fans such a generous gift. Thank you Kenny.

  11. This article is WAAAAAAAY OFF!! The white suit and fedora are iconic pieces as well as the high water pants with the cloth belt and long sleeved shirt. The buckles were also memorable. I think every artist loses a bit of fashion sense over time (that's if they had any to begin with). People also need to stop with the melancholy tragic address of Michael's life. It was what it was and yet he was still more successful than any solo artist could dream of being.

  12. An armband is not generally associated with Nazis. It's a sign of grief or paying respects to the under privileged & the poor (people that Michael cared about). The Spice Girls memorably wore black arm bands to the 1997 MTV VMAs as an expression of mourning Princess Diana's death.
    I always liked the "Dirty Diana" look. His sister Janet also rocked a similar outfit in "Black Cat". Not all of his clothing was going to be impressive. Every artist changes over time (for the worse or better). His music & public standing declined yet he still grew as an artist. The differences between Off the Wall, Thriller, and Bad showed progression into new areas, not regression. Many legendary artists before Michael never grew. He did and that's why his musical legacy is intact despite the scandals and self-destruction.

  13. It's funny that nobody complains about David Bowie or Boy George looking like freaks.

  14. He wasn't "one" of the biggest celebrities in the world. He was the biggest celebrity. Why do you think the global media had a freaking melt down when he died. He was an industry by himself. People remain in denial about this. He was more famous than world leaders,activists, and other prominent societal figures. That was largely made him so "dangerous".

  15. well the article started off good,
    but went ary somwhere, glossing over the most stylish and Iconic styles that Jackson rocked.

    the Bad era, the gold leotard, the Millitary styles are Jacksons best, and when we look back those are the key elements people love to see, and try to do. they started calling him King of Pop during this time, yes the time of his "declining career"

    Not to mention the infamous Dangerous Red and Black that is so copied by all the wannabees today.

    this writer of the artile seems to be distracted my his plastic surgery to not give true credit in his fasion sence. but I wonder what the heck is the writer talking about??? A few nose jobs dont make some one a "freak".

    maybe the writer needs to do a lil more research, learn how he got the title King of Pop, find out what the arm band is really for.
    and for god sake, look up the word Vitiligo in the dictionary.

    all of a sudden this turned into a bashing, so I simply just stoped reading the comentary, and looked at the pictures the rest of the way.

    Jackson looks so handsome, in his debonair attire. And as he grew up his style grew with him. His style did not exatly change, for it was the same consept,it just matured along with him.

    That is one man who knew how to dress to impress.

  16. May I ask why is kanye west picture there, other that to show how people are copying Jackson.

    west is neither talented nor educated.
    he is just a dum rapper, not worth mention in the realm of great rappers, much less The King of Pop.

  17. He was so beautiful and creative all his life and i will always love him ...RIP my Michael