Guest Book Review: “The King of Style: Dressing Michael Jackson”

Today’s book review of The King of Style: Dressing Michael Jackson* (November 2012, Insight Editions) by Michael Bush comes from Tove Hermanson, a Brooklyn-based fashion culturalist, interested in the intersection of politics, economics, gender, race, and pop culture. She is a contributor to Worn Through, the Huffington Post, and her own Thread for Thought, where she explores style as zeitgeist. She has previously explored Michael Jackson’s style in her piece “Who Inspired Michael Jackson’s Fashion?

As the subtitle suggests, Michael Bush has written this coffee table book about what it was like being the dresser / designer for Michael Jackson for twenty-five years: “his clothing was both reflection of and companion to his lyrics, music, short films [music videos], special effects, and tours; it contributed to a greater whole.” The book is a trove of spectacular photographs— including patterns, concert stills, fittings, designs in-progress, and glorious detail shots of intricate beadwork— accompanied by fragmentary personal remembrances of Jackson and the creative costuming process.

Dennis Tompkins and Michael Bush in their studio, 1992 (pg. 44)
"The chevron and armband of the Ice Coat are made of vintage 1920s flat-black square topaz" (pg 99)

Michael Bush and Dennis Tompkins were in charge of the fit, function, application, and maintenance of Jackson’s wardrobe for twenty-five years. Though Bush suggests “magic” is involved in every step of the process, his tales of the unending hours devoted to researching ideas, presenting Jackson with outrageously intricate handmade prototypes or finished products, and then maintaining them during tours repudiates the presence of mystical forces. Bush and Tompkins labored to anticipate Jackson’s taste—they repeatedly dipped into his favorite themes of Peter Pan and Tinkerbell and his obsession with British royalty, essentially reworking the same seven patterns with different decorative “icing” to keep the looks fresh.

Reflective materials were key in drawing the audience gaze to Jacksons’ dancing hands and feet, simultaneously advertising opulence befitting the Prince of Pop: crystal rhinestones and semi-precious stones, silver, gold lame and actual 18-karat gold plate were favorites. Working with such high quality materials had the consequence of adding significant undesirable weight to costumes, and weight was critical: Jackson’s costumes needed to be progressively tighter and lighter over the course of a live performance to accommodate Jackson’s exhaustion and water weight-loss, which could shave up to five pounds and several inches off his lean frame.

"The Lean Shoes in which Michael leaned live for the first time in Kansas City, 1988." (pg. 157)

Jackson’s penchant for form-fitting, heavily encrusted layers and athletic choreography challenged his designers. Bush would observe Jackson rehearse and reinforce invisibly pre-split seams with spandex, or add gussets in jacket arms to compensate for where the most stretch was needed.

The famous 45-degree ankle-bend in “Smooth Criminal,” inspired by the Tin Man, was only possible with ingenious costume technology. Tompkins strapped a boot halfway up Jackson’s shin to support and immobilize his ankles, and the soles of his boots clicked into hidden bolts in the floor for stability.

"The lean move on stage." (pg 158-159)

The famous rhinestone glove was originally leather and worn on alternating hands, but after the 1984 Victory Tour, it was made of more flexible spandex. When it settled permanently on Jackson’s microphone hand, the rhinestones were removed from the palm to avoid static interference of the rubbing stones; gloves “iced” in the round were subsequently worn only for photo shoots.

"1,619 rhinestones were the focal point of an iconic performance at the 1983 Motown 25 anniversary special, where Michael's moonwalk was born. After this unprecedented performance, Michael would forever consider the white rhinestone glove reserved for 'Billie Jean.'" (pg 34-35)

While most of his costumes were created from scratch, some staples of Jackson’s wardrobe were bought off-the-rack and then customized. Jackson would only dance in Florsheim shoes; having learned to dance as a boy in that brand, these were sacred to him. Bush wryly commented, “He could wear 18-karat gold leg guards and drape his furniture in Austrian crystal rhinestones, but don’t give Michael a pair of designer loafers.” Bush would merely replace the rubber soles with smoother leather, which would allow Jackson to moonwalk. Similarly, Jackson’s ribbed slouchy socks and waiter’s gloves were bought wholesale and Bush would deconstruct them, apply crystals, and re-sew them.

"These worn-out size 9 1/2 'dance shoes' from the Bad Tour have a piece of elastic on either side of the top part, which enabled the shoe to stay on when Michael danced and kicked." (pg. 54)

Though learning all these tricks of the trade was fascinating, I most enjoyed the fleeting allusions to Jackson’s past. Jackson had been in awe of Bush’s rhinestone applicator machine: as a child, little Michael had bent the tines around rhinestones on his Jackson 5 costumes by hand until his fingers bled, illustrating the depths of his childhood poverty and his father’s cruelty. In another rare but rewarding moment of insight, Bush writes that Jackson initially wore the Asian-inspired surgeon’s masks to avoid getting sick while traveling, but “After a while I think Michael felt safe behind the mask, so its function evolved to become more of a protective shield.” Bush refrains from suggesting that Jackson’s personal struggles with fame, race, and sexuality might have related to his permanent body modifications such as his numerous plastic surgeries, skin bleaching, and tattooed makeup, which, in fact, were not mentioned at all. The book is more geared towards casual readers and fans than dress scholars, who might find navigating the book for specific information challenging: the disjointed storytelling and chaotic chapter organization is neither chronological nor exactly thematic. That said, for the photographic evidence alone, this book redeems itself as evidence of Michael Jackson’s costume legacy.”

~Tove Hermanson


*Full Disclosure: This book was published by my employer, Insight Editions.(HV)

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