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Prince: Style and Subversion

15 Dec 2012

Weird, repulsive, sexy or glamorous, the image of Prince is as sensual and unforgettable as his sound. Author, journalist and academic Sarah Niblock examines how Prince is a master of the power of imagery in marketing, self-styling himself as someone ethically ambiguous, androgynous and aspirational.

Whether he is stealing the limelight from the models in tomato satin and sunglasses at Paris Fashion Week or reclining seductively in brocade and doe-eyed mascara in one of his films, Prince commands our attention. How could this 5ft 2ins multi-ethnic feminised male make such a profound and memorable visual impact? A visual journey through some of his most iconic fashion moments shows how Prince utilises a dazzling array of visual signifiers from head to toe. Whether he’s sporting that iconic lavender raincoat in Purple Rain to adjusting the cufflinks of his immaculate jazz suits, Prince’s exuberant campness, full of visual puns, comments on the banality of white, mainstream, Western masculinity.

His theatrical ethnic masculinity offers a powerful visual and symbolic assault on the mainstream. His dandified zoot suits harness the raw energy and anger of hard-time street fashion coupled with decadence and indifference to aristocratic mores. Mapped against the vigorous representations of white American rock, Prince’s preoccupation with gender bending, the feminine and the effete is startling. Over three decades his look, with all the indisputable signifiers of femininity, class and ethnicity, has helped reconfigure our views around sexuality, race, gender and normalized behaviour.

Sarah Niblock is Professor of Journalism at Brunel University, London. She is the author of Prince: The Making of a Pop Music Phenomenon (Ashgate 2012, co-written with Stan Hawkins) and several other books, chapters and journal articles on journalism and visual culture. She has been a journalist for more than 20 years, writing news and features for the national and regional print media including Company and Cosmopolitan magazines. Her latest book, Media Professionalism and Training, is due to be published by Palgrave Macmillan shortly.

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