Watching Michael Jackson’s Thriller (Landis, 1982) for the first time at a friend’s birthday party as a kid must rank as one my earliest cultural treats.
Videos were much more of an event in the 1980s anyway, and with music videos still in their infancy, there was an aura of anticipation of watching this extended horror pastiche. Primarily it was the dancing that we loved, but with Jackson, the style is as stage-crafted as the moves.
So I was intrigued to hear more about the man behind the King of Pop’s costumes, Michael Bush, who was interviewed by Ali Vowles as part of Bath in Fashion. Bush (as the other Michael called him) has just written, The King of Style: Dressing Michael Jackson – the first art-driven book about his costumes. Although it was Deborah Nadoolman Landis who derived the iconic red jacket from Thriller, Bush along with his late partner, Dennis Tompkins created 800 to 900 costumes for Michael Jackson over a 25 year period, and was the only person whom the iconic pop-star would allow on stage with him. Indeed Bush and Tompkins’ names have been sewn into all the costumes at Michael Jackson’s insistence.
Back in his childhood home of Ohio, Bush used to watch his grandmother dress-making, thinking it was the last thing he wanted to do with his life. However it must have been in his blood, albeit with a showman’s twist, as he headed to Las Vegas to work in show business, which gave him valuable experience in creating fashion designed for performance.
Dressing Michael Jackson was a constant challenge to combine elaborate show-stoppers with functionality. Jackson wanted outfits that were ready for ‘showtime’ and matched his performance on stage, with his outfits “as entertaining on the hanger as they were on him”. Complex dance moves necessitated costumes that could absorb sweat without damaging the fabric, and multiple versions of his outfits were created as during a stage performance Jackson could lose four to five pounds, so needed different-sized trousers for the beginning and end of the show. It was also useful as Bush admitted that Jackson would often give his outfits away to fans or friends. Costume changes were designed to fit in with the songs and energy levels, so they might start with a lightweight piece for the vigorous numbers, heavier jackets for ballads, and returning to lighter fabrics for the finale. The belt pictured above may look too heavy to dance in, but Ali Vowles picked it up for the audience to prove it was actually lightweight, created from thin gold.
A regal fashion influence was only fitting for the ‘King of Pop’, for instance pearls nod to King Henry VIII’s, while red heels are drawn from Louis XIV (pictured above). During Louis XIV’s reign, red signified wealth and power as the cost of red dyes was high, but he went further and created an edict so that only nobility could buy red heeled shoes. Emphasising strength and masculinity, military styles with embellishment and wide shoulders are another Michael Jackson staple. Authenticity was important to Jackson, so Bush sourced originals such as military buttons. He once discovered 300 military buttons from a dealer in Camden Lock without name-checking Jackson. The dealer would have been pleased with the final owner as he confided in Bush, “if only Michael Jackson could see them!” Bush told of how he and Tompkins were paid by Jackson to visit the UK to get inspiration from the Crown Jewels – it was important to soak up the aura of majesty. Movie influences are also evident from gangster films, hence the fedora hat and spats shoes (pictured below) as well as taking inspiration from street style.
The costumes were also part of the ‘Michael Jackson’ performance. Short trousers (which grew shorter and shorter) helped draw attention to his dancing feet and rhinestone socks which sparkled under the stage lights, and he liked to ensure that people at the back of large auditoria could see the tiny details too. Jackson also wanted to illicit a questioning response from the audience, by adding quirks, such as a band on one arm.
The craftsmanship and technical effort that went into creating the costumes was immense, such as the single glittering, sequinned white glove, or the anti-gravity shoes. These high-tech shoes, which were patented by Jackson, Bush and Tompkins, allowed Jackson or his dancers to lean beyond their centre of gravity via a special heel which slotted into the stage. Despite all this fancy footwear, he always wore loafers to practice dancing – an everyday brand called Florsheim.
At the end of the interview, an audience member asked Bush where he’d got his cowboy boots. (I’m sure we’d all been wondering… ) He answered London, and asserted it was the best place to buy them. There, I have to disagree – it’s Bath. My boyfriend bought my trusty cowboy boots in The Yellow Shop, and they have been re-heeled and re-heeled. It will truly be a sad day when the cobbler finally says, enough.
Over 1,000 lots of Jackson items were auctioned last December, and 55 of them caught the eye of Lady Gaga, who is keeping them Stateside in the public domain. You can find out more about Michael Jackson’s costumes by reading Michael Bush’s book, King of Style: Dressing Michael Jackson. There is also a interesting piece on the influences on Jackson’s style in ‘Worn Through‘.
Who’s your fashion pop idol? Let me know in the comments box below.
A young dance troop gave a surprise performance before the interview to a mash-up of ‘Thriller’ and the Yeah, Yeah, Yeahs’, ‘Heads Will Roll‘. But I’ll finish with the original Thriller moves…