The Purple Trench Coat and Prince’s Style Revolution

Prince in shiny purple trench coat
Prince in his iconic purple trench coat. From the 1999 album cover.

My own relationship with His Royal Badness started as a young child, when cassette tapes adorned with bizarre gold squiggles were constantly playing in places like my kitchen and dads Ford Mondeo. But it was really when I first laid eyes on Prince during the 1991 MTV Video Music Awards in that canary yellow lace jumpsuit – ass out, hair piled high ala Lucille Ball – that I fell in love. Prince inspired me with his sheer joy of unapologetic self expression shown in every performance — and every outfit. I remember vividly, too, the first time I watched a midnight running of Purple Rain through the (naturally) purple bars of my bunk bed. My mind was blown as I saw Prince writhe on stage, dripping in rhinestones and adorned in lace. Around this time I was also discovering the glamour of Old Hollywood through film noir such as The Big Sleep and I began to realize that fashion could be more than what was on offer at the local Tammy Girl store. With the help of my Mum, a huge Prince fan herself, I began rummaging in charity shops, buying up 1980’s pleather pencil skirts and costume jewelry, trying to emulate Prince’s eccentric glamour. I went on to study fashion design, with images of Prince scattered throughout my sketchbooks and studio space.

A few months before I completed my Master of Letters (MLitt) in Dress & Textile Histories at the University of Glasgow, Prince suddenly passed away at the age of 57. I was heartbroken. I always had an inkling to academically study Princes style but from that point I was fully committed to exploring his impact on fashion. During this process I have been lucky enough to speak up and down the UK, including at the first ever Prince academic conference Purple Reign,held at the University of Salford in May 2017. Towards the end of last year I was invited to speak at the Prince From Minneapolisconference at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. As an independent researcher I had no funding for this trip, so I wasnt sure if I was going to make it, but thanks to friends and family pitching in, I was able to purchase a flight! Shortly before I flew to Minneapolis I interviewed Princes cousin Chazz Smith, an interview that provided invaluable insight into Princes relationship to fashion as a young boy. When I reached Minneapolis (surviving the citys worst snow storm in 18 years!) I visited locations linked to Princes rise to fame such as the Capri Theatre, and spoke to several fans who grew up in Minneapolis in the 1980s. I have used that research, along with historical evidence and my own analysis of Princes early outfits, to demonstrate how this influential artist created a purple revolution in his lesser-explored early days.  

From Secondhand Trench Coat to Style Icon

When we close our eyes and conjure up an iconic Prince image, many of us will think of him in Purple Rain (1984), perched upon a customized purple CM400 Hondamatic motorcycle, wearing a purple trench coat studded in glistening chains and rhinestones. This image has cemented itself as the epitome of Princes 1980s look and the foundation of his forty year long career in the music industry. But what came before? The journey to Purple Rain is a lesser-known history. In fact, much of this look has its origins in his third album, Dirty Mind, released on  October 8th, 1980. With this album Prince offered a more provocative, gritty sound than his two previous works (For You (1978) and Prince (1979)). It also introduced the world to his band, soon to be named The Revolution. Along with its provocative image, Dirty Mind challenged listeners with controversial lyrics, subject matter and innovative new sound. In the creation of both the album Dirty Mind and formation of The Revolution, Prince released his own manifesto to the world.

The first — simpler — trench coats. Dirty Mind album band shoot, Warner Bros. Photograph – Allen Beaulieu,1980

It was also during this period that Prince began to formulate a unique visual identity for both himself and his musicians. Enter the embellished beige army surplus trench coat: an accessible, affordable garment that could be easily acquired by almost anyone. Combined with black bikini briefs, stockings, and a neckerchief, Prince blurred conventional codes of race, gender and sexuality. With this controversial uniform Prince strutted onstage, intimidating and arousing crowds through his fusion of funk, new wave, punk, R&B and rock.

Charting music videos from the period of 1980 to 1982, one can see that the trench coat had many manifestations. With every nuanced change of fabric, detail or style it almost seemed like Prince was defining the iconic look of his character The Kid in Purple Rain. First, the video for Dirty Mind offered a gritty, rough around the edges performance which visually relied on popular punk aesthetics of the time such as spray paint, two tone and secondhand clothing. Prince wears what appears to be a light-colored secondhand trench coat (DIY customized with punk metal studs), skimpy black bikini briefs, stockings and heels. His hair is erratically crimped, very much inspired by the punk hairstyle of guitarist Dez Dickerson.

Beneath the trench: references to flashers and a jumble of deviant signs. Out-take from Dirty Mind album shoot, Warner Brothers. Photograph – Allen Beaulieu, 1980

In Controversy (1981) much of the punk details remain but the trench coat has now been dyed a deep purple and Prince is no longer topless. Instead he wears an oversized dress shirt with pin tucks and a skintight waistcoat as he dances before an ornately decorated stained glass straight out of a church. The shirt is so big for his petite frame that it reaches his mid thighs, but as he performs we can see underneath that he wears nothing but black stockings.

The purple trench appears! Controversy Album Cover, Warner Bros. Photograph – Allen Beaulieu,1981

Finally, in 1999 (1982) we see a bright purple lamé trench coat. He now wears the trench coat with full length tight black trousers with a cinched waist. Prince is presented more seductively, with close-up camera shots of his profile as he seduces the camera. He wears black eyeliner, mauve eyeshadow and his hair is exquisitely curled as he sings gleefully about the end of the world.

The iconic look. 1999 Album Cover, Warner Brothers. Photograph –  Allen Beaulieu 1982

There are arguably numerous forces that can be attributed to the trench coats central place in Princes early uniform. His admiration of David Bowie, who often wore the garment during his Berlin years in the late 1970s, likely played a part. To be sure, Prince was known to imitate his musical heroes in the style department. During my interview with Chazz Smith, Princes cousin and drummer of Princes first band, Grand Central, he reminisced about how the two young cousins would obsessively search secondhand stores in downtown Minneapolis for unusual clothing and accessories, such as the perfect platform shoes to emulate their idol Carlos Santana. The young men, both interested in music from a young age, wanted to stand out from the crowd and recognized the importance of image within the industry. With money scarce Prince and his peers would also be shopping secondhand.

It also seems fitting that a young Prince, who grew up without a lot of money, found his first trench coat at the local army surplus shop. This was confirmed during my conversation with Chazz who explained how both the army surplus and secondhand stores allowed you to buy fashionable garments for affordable pricing. While originally developed for English officers during WW1, the trench coat gained popularity as it began to be marketed as civilian rainwear during the 1930s and then was famously worn by Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca (1942). Fast forward to the late 1970s, when fans could easily replicate this look at army surplus stores for a low cost and could customize it however they pleased – just like the individuality seen in the trench coats of the Dirty Mind band.

Further, the inclusivity of gender and social class reflected by Prince wearing the trench coat went hand in hand with the punk-influenced politics behind the album. In her book Mens Fashion in the Twentieth Century, author Maria Costantino writes that punk took garments that were recognized symbols of the establishment and slashed them. Prince used the trench coat to a similar effect, defacing the military tailoring with studs and fetishizing the garment with stockings and briefs. Princes Dirty Mind uniform was also a big fuck you to the music industrys assumptions about race. He tore down societys perceptions of how a black artist should look by wearing heels and a high rise bikini brief. Peppered throughout his outfit there was an array of jarring visual nods to various subcultures: the Rude Boy pin, the homo-eroticized neckerchief, the punk-rock studs. He challenged the mainstream and juxtaposed preconceived notions of how tailoring should be worn by a man — vandalizing the traditional trench coat and elevating it in ostentatious fabrics such as lamé, shot taffeta, and brocades.

Prince’s non-conforming trench coat not only promoted his ideals, but was the start of a uniform for him and his growing Uptown tribe. Much like the DIY trend of the punk subculture, Princes trench coat invited wearers to customize and convey their own individuality too. He cherry-picked his musicians not only for their talent but also for their look. It has been noted in several interviews that around this time Prince was on the quest for creating the perfect melting pot of musicians, much like bands he idolized such as Sly and The Family Stone and Fleetwood Mac. He ultimately achieved this in The Revolution with an openly gay couple and musicians from different racial and social backgrounds. Throughout the album, too, Dirty Mind encourages the freedom of non-conformity with lyrical cries of free love, equality, and celebration of individuality.

From the beginning of Princes career he relied on the creation of customized looks for himself and his protégées. Dirty Mind bassist and childhood friend Andre Cymone credited his seamstress sister, Sylvia Amos, as the original creator of what became the bespoke trench coats for the band. This relationship harkened back to the early days of Grand Central where a young teen Prince asked his female friends to design and sew garments for his band. As Princes fame grew he began working with costume designers, one of whom was former Earth Wind and Fire costume designer Louis Walsh who sadly passed away in of this year. In an interview with Billboard magazine, Walsh recalled introducing Prince to lace: right away he caught onto [it]…it was a mixture of romanticism and punk, encompassing multiple genres, just like his music. Prince maintained close creative control over all aspects of his visuals throughout his career with archival sketches of stage outfits covered in detailed annotations by Prince himself.

Minneapolis and Fashioning an Uptown Utopia

In 1981, Prince was quoted in Rolling Stone as growing up on the borderline describing how he grew up in Minneapolis having both black and white friends and distinctly wanting to perform for mixed audiences. The world may not have known much about the city where Prince grew up in 1980 but by the time Purple Rain was enjoying worldwide success, Minneapolis was fast becoming forever affiliated with the Purple One. Importantly, Prince shaped Minneapolis as much as Minneapolis shaped Prince, often by projecting his own bohemian ideologies onto the city. The anthemic Uptown, heard on the Dirty Mind album, was one of Princes first love letters to his hometown. The song is a manifesto for freedom of self, with Prince singing proudly;

 

we dont let society tell us how its supposed to be/ our clothes/ our hair/ we dont care/ its all about being there/ everybodys going uptown thats where I want to be/ uptown/ set your mind free

 

Prince sang about Uptown, flashing the audience in his trench coat and batting his heavily lacquered lashes. He did this all as a young black male musician from Minneapolis — a state mostly known for its harsh winters and lakes. Growing up, Prince and his peers questioned the status quo, embracing their individuality through the worship of their musical icons with their style manifesting in the young mens own wardrobes. By the time Princes widespread success was becoming a reality he had fought off jeers and taunts and had done so in killer heels. Prince expressed himself through fashion from an early age and the Dirty Mind uniform he created for both himself and protégées was instantly celebrated by the very same freaks and queers he championed in songs like Uptown and Party Up. By bringing this bohemian mythology to the film set of Purple Rain and to the mainstream masses, Prince was finally reaching the audiences he dreamed of as a young teenager.

Today Uptown is a busy commercial district in Southwestern Minneapolis, Minnesota, centered around the Uptown Theater at the intersection of Hennepin Avenue and Lagoon Avenue. When I visited Minneapolis on my own personal purple pilgrimage, I made a beeline for Uptown hoping to see some men in stockings with exquisitely permed hair. However, from my view, the Uptown district about which Prince once sang was clearly long gone and in its place an Urban Outfitters, hipster barber shops and an array of health foods stores. But of course, its also likely that the Uptown of which Prince sang never existed, except for in his mythical projections. The First Avenue nightclub (actually located in downtown Minneapolis) that was portrayed in Purple Rain was more accurately a version of Uptown that was shaped directly by Princes mythos. Interestingly, local Minneapolis photographer Daniel Corrigan noted during our conversation in April 2018 that after the film there were plenty of mini Princes running around the club – something that was not at all a common sight before the Purple Rain explosion.

As Princes popularity grew, his music and image were increasingly made accessible by MTV. Judy McGrath, Creative Director to the station commented that the channel was an ongoing almost subliminal fashion show. The music channel immediately captured the attention of the younger baby boom generation, perhaps the richest consumer group in the history of the world. Queue the Prince lookalikes in malls all around America. After the shocking success (to everyone but Prince) of Purple Rain he quickly hung up his purple trench coat and moved onto new creative projects — which in turn engendered new uniforms (like the beloved butt-baring canary yellow jumpsuit by Stacia Lang).

The author at Paisley Park wearing her DIY Prince circle skirt, Minneapolis, April 2018.

Today Prince fans from all over the world flock to the Twin Cities to walk the streets of which Prince sang and visit his home in Paisley Park. The trench coat remains one of the most iconic looks that fans emulate. During Celebration 2018 (a 4 day event based in Paisley Park commemorating Princes life) fans from all corners of the world replicated the trench coat in its various guises. In true Dirty Mind spirit there was a wide array of customized denim jackets slashed, studded and patched with Prince iconography throughout the years. Much to my delight, one female fan pulled off the entire Dirty Mind look – bikini brief and all – at the First Avenue dance party. This visual identity of Prince fans, first formed in the early stages of Dirty Mind era has now evolved into a tangible ode to what Prince offered to music, fashion, and culture. The lewd “flashers mac” of Dirty Mind is now more generally known as a purple tailored trench coat but arguably, still holds the same message of slashing down assumptions about appearances related to race, sexuality, and gender.

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