This is the first in a two-part series on Graffiti Bridge fashion adapted from my recent paper, ‘New Power Style: Graffiti Bridge, body wear and self-expression’ at the Dirty Mind 40 Graffiti Bridge 30 Virtual Symposium in June 2020.
In 1980, Prince began his revolution, adopting a risqué uniform for his Dirty Mind record consisting of a customised trench coat, bikini briefs, stockings and heels. Ten years later, with the release of his fourth film and corresponding album Graffiti Bridge, the purple provocateur was now dressing for a new spiritual revolution.
Six years on, Graffiti Bridge picks up sorta where Purple Rain left us, with The Kid and Morris Day still bickering over control of the local club scene. Aura – an angel sent from Heaven – visits Seven Corners and that’s when things get really complicated. The film ends up feeling like Prince’s take on Westside Story but with celestial beings. Visually the film looks sensational with Blade Runner inspired lit backlots with piercing neons and gritty alley ways but ultimately Prince’s self directed project falls short for a number of reasons. But that’s not to say you can’t have a really good time watching this film. Graffiti Bridge is interesting from a fashion perspective as it signals a new era in Prince’s career where he is navigating relevancy and evolving spirituality. Along with an emerging fresh sound, what sartorial tactics did Prince use in the reintroduction of both The Kid and himself to a new audience in 1990?
Fashion professor Jennifer Craick states, ‘when pop and rock culture developed in the 1960s, the strategic use of official and quasi-uniforms in the language of radicalism was reinforced. Here the adoption of quasi-uniforms was an effective means to establishing distinctive identities, and recognition and identification with audiences, as well as making social comment and attracting growing media and public interests in this burgeoning phenomenon.’ Prince needed a uniform to start his revolution back in 1980 – this materialised in the DIY punk trench coat and by the time Purple Rain came round his look was crystallised into a merging of varying subcultural references. Following astronomical worldwide success Prince stepped away from his purple visage and began to experiment with silhouette, fabric and colour. Six years after the success of Purple Rain, The Kid appears almost evangelical in comparison, layering monochromatic loose vestments over skin-tight, flesh-baring bodysuits. Percolating alongside the musician’s developing spirituality, the refined New Power style seen in Graffiti Bridge heralded Prince into the new decade.
The Kid’s costumes aside, Graffiti Bridge visually reflects emerging youth trends of the early 1990s with representations of streetwear, grunge and club kids within Seven Corners. Purple scholar Scott Woods states that Prince’s multiple reinventions were ‘accessorised with new utopias’ and we of course can see that in Prince’s Minneapolis in Purple Rain and Graffiti Bridge’s Seven Corners fantasy club hub. There are a lot of similarities between the two films particularly with the focus on youth and sub-cultures in both worlds. Purple Rain saw The Kid dressed in his now iconic New Romantic finery, a sub-cultural style rooted in historical clothing, juxtaposed with glam rock and gender fuck that came to influence mainstream fashion by the mid 1980s. The purple trench coat, ruffled jabot and skin-tight ruched trousers is forever entrenched in our pop culture minds and reflected a hyped version of contemporary subcultures at the time. In comparison the fashion worn by The Kid in Graffiti Bridge represents a personal style more akin to the clothing worn personal by Prince with some garments not even specifically designed for the filming.
Did Graffiti Bridge show a more authentic visual representation of the artist? Was the stripped back fashions an indicator of his maturing spirituality and relationship with God? His visual representation in Graffiti Bridge, although on the surface appears more conventional, it can offer us a more in depth understanding of the artist during this period in his career.
Lay Down Ur Funky Weapon – Introducing The Kid in 1990
We are re-introduced to The Kid with the opening performance of New Power Generation with Prince demanding his audience to ‘lay down ur funky weapon’ and ‘Ur old fashioned music, Ur old ideas.’ The Kid is dressed head to toe in black, his look heavily layered, each garment cut to expose flesh. First, a loose fishnet long sleeved crop-top which is worn under a skin-tight one-sleeved unitard with self-covered buttons on the sides of the legs. The outfit is finished with a sleeveless cropped tabard, a delicate gold waist-chain and heels. An early rendition of the Love Symbol appears on both the back of the tabard and heels. There is power within this look in the juxtaposition of the traditionally masculine stacked shoulder pads and the soft fluidity of stretch fabric as it cut across his body. A strong angular silhouette compliments the battle-cry of the song New Power Generation. Prince is surrounded by his newly formed band the New Power Generation who mirror Prince’s all black ensemble but are heavily styled with street wear staples such as berets, enormous studded waist belts and an abundance of gold chains. A look not far from the emerging hip-hop scene peppered with references to signature styling from designers Dolce and Gabbana and Versace. This reintroduction to The Kid exuded power and strength and signalled a shift in his music and aesthetics.
The Love Symbol Motorcycle Jacket
One of the key garments worn by Prince in the film is the black leather motorcycle jacket. The motorcycle jacket has long been associated with youth and rebellion and is synonymous with the depiction of the ‘outsider’. Following the success of The Wild One, the motorcycle jacket increased in popularity in America during the mid-’50s and enjoyed a revival among the 1960s counterculture and 1970s punk rock scene. In wearing the customised motorcycle jacket, Prince representing the Black rebel but instead of wearing traditional workwear such as blue jeans, underneath he wears skin-tight bodywear.
Not just any old battered up motorcycle jacket – garment had been noticeably been augmented to reflect Prince’s unique style with black leather tassels and one absent sleeve. Two gold metal early renditions of the Love Symbol protrude from both the back and sleeve. These symbols were commissioned by Paisley Park with Minnesotan jewellery designer Liz Bucheit discussed the process of mounting the symbol onto the back of the jacket. Initially I wondered if this was a stylistic choice, a type of armour to compliment the traditional masculine toughness expressed with motorcycle leathers but she explained the metal piece was mounted a few inches on top of the garment to stop any oxidisation with the tough leather interior underneath. She also expressed that Prince at the time was into black and gold which explains the unusual gold fastenings and trimmings of the jacket and throughout the film.
Slightly cropped the jacket is cut close the body and featured an unusual one-sleeved design detail that cast doubts of the jacket’s perceived functionality.Underneath the jacket Prince wears softer, stretch garments – the jacket acting as a protective shell in the streets of Seven Corners. In the place of gang insignia on the back of the jacket was a bold gold metal Love Symbol that literally exuded a few inches of the garment. Mirroring Prince’s fashion worn in Graffiti Bridge, the metal symbols were clean, graphic and bold. Wearing symbols and text upon his body was not unusual for Prince. We are of course aware of his use of simple, clean graphics worn on his body during the Parade, Sign of the Times and Lovesexy eras that are worldwide signifiers for love and positivity. Wearing the Symbol literally embedded into his clothing signalled the importance of the emerging design within his work.
This was also not the first time Prince had worn a motorcycle jacket with variations of the style being worn in previous films Purple Rain and Under the Cherry Moon. There is a distinctive design development from Prince’s early trench coat prototypes of Dirty Mind to the fringed motorcycle jacket. All these garments are key signifiers of youth culture, particularly the rebel and Prince identified with this image throughout the first decade of his career and beyond. By branding the jacket with his emerging symbol, Prince was defining his visual identity for the new decade.