what’s that underneath your coat

June 9, 2016 in sharp-dressed men, stop look & listen by editor

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Without question, the most iconic item in Prince’s killer closet is the purple trench coat from Purple Rain. It was made by Louis Wells, a prolific young designer who worked out of Bill Whitten’s LA studio, Workroom 27. Whitten was the go-to costumer for many top musical acts of the 70s and 80s, including the Commodores, Earth, Wind & Fire, and the Jacksons (Whitten is probably best-known as the architect behind MJ’s legendary crystal glove). Wells started off as a fabric painter and beader, and then became an assistant, but with drive and talent, quickly moved up the ranks, landing as lead designer for EWF in 1980.

When Wells first met Prince in 1981, the pop star told him about an autobiographical movie idea he envisioned. Telling the story to Billboard magazine, Wells recounted how, ‘He told me he would call it Purple Rain because purple was the color of royalty, and he thought of himself as musical majesty.’ Three years later, Wells and his assistant Terry Vaughn were busy setting up a sewing shop in the St. Louis Park warehouse where Purple Rain was being produced. Of the glossy moiré coat with the asymmetrically studded shoulder, Wells explained, ‘I chose this fabric because it was attention-grabbing. And a trench because he loved the drama and fit. You never knew what it would reveal when it blew open.’ In Purple Rain, a big breeze would have uncovered a frilly white shirt and high-waisted britches. (Much of Prince’s 80s wardrobe took Classical Period cues from his idol Mozart and the 1984 film Amadeus). But a few years earlier, it would have been an entirely different story.

Prince sported a similar coat on the cover of his 1980 album Dirty Mind, but pairing it with nothing more than a bandana and banana hammock. It was a risqué, gender-bending androgynous look that visually captured the album’s racy content. (He would pull the outfit back out of the closet for the ‘Dirty Mind’ music video.) For Controversy in 1981, he covered up a bit more, dressing every bid the rock ‘n’ roll Beau Brummel, wearing lavender and black versions with a white shirt, waistcoat, and neck tie. And then in ’82, there was the glammy metallic purple variation from ‘1999’ and ‘Little Red Corvette’.

By 1985, Prince had grown weary of Purple Rain-mania and was more than ready to move on. Within days of closing down the ‘Purple Rain’ tour, he retired the monarchial look he had worn for half a decade upon the release of his new album Around the World in a Day. Soon, he unveiled a sleeker, more high-fashion, paired-down aesthetic, but still as provocative as ever (only Prince could get away with a midriff-baring crop top). But over three decades later, it’s that purple coat that remains the pinnacle of his style legacy.

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Original costume sketch by Louis Wells as seen in Billboard