When Prince ascended the stage of the 1985 Academy Awards to accept the original score Oscar for “Purple Rain,” his body appeared to be draped in purple glitter. Atop a black pant suit, he wore a shining purple shawl that covered his head, shoulders and arms — and pulled the attention away from the high heels on his feet. His hands were tucked into a pair of black lace gloves, while at his side stood The Revolution’s Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman.
This image of a secure and assured black man embracing both the masculine and the feminine is what I will remember most of the musician who died Thursday. Though I wasn’t alive, the YouTube video of the moment became a reference point for this gender-nonconforming man who needed permission to be himself. Prince taught me how to transgress gender roles, but his daring difference in gender-bending style and fashion liberated generations more.
And while gender can be a trap for a person of any race, even now black people more often find themselves born into this suffocating box that hews too closely to an identity that doesn’t fully encapsulate our complexities and nuance. For black men, gender is a straitjacket, and day by day we find ways to live with our hands bound.
Prince, however, found a way to break free. He shrugged off the confines of gender giving way to a persona that was masculine and feminine, and the world had to deal. Looking at how he moved through the world, seemingly without a care, I saw a way that I too could somehow balance these seemingly opposite identities.
His stage silhouettes ran the gamut and are the most obvious examples of how he blurred gender lines. A “Dirty Mind”-era Prince arrived at Los Angeles’ Flipper’s Roller Disco Boogie Lounge in 1981 wearing a tank top, bandana, thigh-highs and black underwear.
In 1984, he donned a high-collared, ruffled white shirt, pearl-studded jacket and a pink feather shoulder piece during the “Purple Rain” days. Following the release of “Lovesexy” in 1988, he wore a black-and-white polka-dot blouse with an oversized collar and matching white-and-black polka-dot high-waisted pants.
And of course, there were super skin-tight cropped tops, the occasional pair of cheeky trousers with open-air derriere, baggy double-breasted suits and voluminous turtleneck sweaters.
Prince was more than a style icon, more than a rebel for rebel’s sake. Seeing femininity as the close friend of masculinity, when he clothed his body in paradoxical fashions he simultaneously shed the expectations automatically placed on us by being born black and male. Prince gave us all permission to be free. And for that I am grateful.
Staff writer Adam Tschorn contributed to this story.
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