Tuesday, May 21, 2024

STEVEN IVORY: Star Time Dress Code

May 2, 2007 by  
Filed under Entertainment, Weekly Columns

(Akiit.com) They were flat and off key. I expected that. Musically, things aren’t what they used to be.

But there’s simply something wrong about a platinum male vocal group being onstage looking as if they’d just traipsed in from McDonald’s. Sagging jeans and designer sneakers, however coordinated, don’t exude much show time luster.

If there’s something I regret nearly as much as the sad fate of modern black music, it is what became of the black performer’s onstage fashion. Yeah, I know. But even in the age of Keeping It Real, there ought to be some measure of classic decorum. Pop star style has gone to the dogs. That’s spelled dawgs.

According to James Brown, “a real star should always dress like somebody that someone would pay to see.” While he took his credo to its apex–in his meager professional beginnings, Mr. Brown was known to drive a Cadillac with all the windows up in the dead of summer, lest anyone realized Mr. Dynamite didn’t have factory air–he had a point.

Call it old fashioned, but the difference between you and I and a true pop star, aside from stupendous talent, should be some sequin, damn it. Something you can’t get off the rack. It’s called “show business.” With all the branding among today’s business-savvy performers, there is obviously plenty “business” underway; the “show” part, however, has lost ground. Never seen so many folk hawking clothing lines so tackily dressed.

In the early ’70s concerts of my youth, the music was only half the act. The other half? The threads.

With bated breath we waited to see in which outfits the Jackson 5 would take the stage; what custom suits the Temptations would sport.

Hell, a black concert audience itself would be dressed to the nines: Deep purple leisure suits, royal blue floor length coats and hot pink hot pants against skin dark as the night.

Cats would spend a paycheck getting shit custom-made or rescued, finally, from that goods purgatory called layaway, in order to participate in the impromptu fashion show that enviably went down when house lights came up during intermission between Chi-Lites and O’Jays sets.

This exhibition of self pride wasn’t relegated merely to pop music concerts; this was who we used to be as a people. Black folks dressed up to travel–Sitting, clean as the Board of Health, on an airplane. For four and a half hours. In Coach. You’d stroll down the ramp into the arms of waiting relatives, styling.

We used to honor the act of Sunday worship by dressing for the occasion. Today, dressing up, like manners and language, is more loosely defined.

But not every black performer has forfeited his right and obligation to charismatic style. Take, for example, a man who knows not the meaning of casual Friday: Prince.

Some years ago in Minneapolis, while waiting for His Royal Badness to arrive for an interview at his Paisley Park headquarters, I wandered about the complex until coming upon a room where two women designers toiled diligently among fabrics, sketches and mannequins.

“So THIS is where Prince’s costumes are made,” I mused aloud. To which one of the women, requisite measuring tape hanging from her neck and tight, reprimanding smile on her face, replied, “We don’t use the C word here. Prince dresses like this everyday.”

Yep, and Prince is the way I want my stars to look: rocking the hell out of something most of us wouldn’t be caught dead in. He’s not supposed to look like us. He is a star.

Then again, in the end, style, no matter who you are, is ultimately a matter of personal taste.

I was backstage at a San Fernando Valley nightclub where James Brown had just performed one evening in the mid ’80s, when a bodyguard-flanked Michael Jackson, at the zenith of his superstardom, came back to pay respects to his idol.

The two icons hugged, after which Mr. Brown, eyeing MJ’s trademark black high water tuxedo pants, lost his wide smile and remarked, “You really need to talk your tailor, Mike. He’s got you floodin, brother.”

Jackson and everyone else in the room laughed. But I think the Godfather was serious.


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