Renowned the world over as a visionary both musically and in dance, many may not know, but wouldn’t be too surprised, that Michael Jackson also aspired to be just as trailblazing in his style, stating “if fashion says it’s forbidden, I’m going to do it”.
Rather than drape himself in the latest runway fashions, he largely commissioned his wardrobe from personal costume makers. “Michael was infatuated with British hereditary and military,” Michael Bush wrote in his book ‘The King of Style: Dressing Michael Jackson’, who with his partner Dennis Tompkins, served as personal designers to the King of Pop for over 25 years.
Bush recounted, “Michael’s concept was, ‘I want the fashion designers in the world, the big conglomerates, I want them to copy me. I don’t want to wear what’s out there. I want to push my individuality; my look should be me’”. Incorporating both strength as well as whimsy; Michael’s magnificent military silhouettes covered in bullion embroideries, buckles, armour, and glistening rhinestone became his signature.
The military jacket, in all its eventual forms, came out of Jackson’s fascination with Disney fairy tales, the fantasy of a knight in shining armour with a form-fitting uniform. “It really pleased his female fans,” Bush told Rolling Stone. “Who doesn’t love a man in a uniform? It was about that creating the sexual mystique. But Michael made it his own by pushing the envelope, rebelling against the establishment the uniform is supposed to represent with all those badges and making it rock & roll.”
A uniform commands attention, Michael stated to Bush, broadening MJ’s shoulders with the military style along with enhancing his narrow waist. One of his favourite military jackets was the one he wore to visit the White House in 1990, it was black with a red armband and incorporated heavy braiding. After President Bush Senior presented him with the Entertainer of the Decade honour, Michael thought he’d treat himself. He showed his dressmakers a picture of the Queen’s Imperial State Crown, and off they went to the Tower of London to study the real deal.
“Michael would come out of European museums inspired to wear the antique costumes that were up on exhibit,” Bush said. “For Michael’s costumes, Dennis and I studied monarchs and European military history, taking particular notice of one of the most notorious kings, King Henry VIII of England”. Tompkins taught himself how to solder and sandblast metal and, over six weeks, created a sterling silver crown encrusted with costume stones and pearls. In place of the Second Star of Africa — which sits at the centre of the Imperial State Crown — Tompkins sandblasted an imitation diamond with the iconic image of Michael’s dancing feet. He never wore the crown out, but years later his children asked Bush and Tompkins to make a regal robe for their dad to wear on Father’s Day, and so alongside the throne that stood in his ensuite bedroom at Neverland — the King of Pop’s ceremonial dress was complete.
“My clothes should be as entertaining up on a hanger as they are on me,” Jackson once said. Early on, Bush worked out the “Four Fs” in dressing Michael Jackson: Fit, Function, Fun, and First. The last one not as self-explanatory as the former three, but refers to the desire to improve and innovate but never repeat the same design.
However, onstage the most important ‘F’ was Function, as Michael Bush told Rolling Stone, “they had to be like his second skin — wearable art accentuating both his style of dancing and the beat of the music.” Bush recounts the time when he unwisely tried polishing a pair of Jackson’s worn Florsheim loafer shoes. He described the startling anger Jackson exhibited as he scolded him for potentially ruining the footwear’s stage-readiness. “The leather is worn the way I like it. And if you coat them in polish, the shoes will slip,” Jackson explained, making it clear that his harsh reaction was due to practical concerns. “If I fall and twist an ankle, we are all out of a job.”
The Florsheims held an almost superstitious pull as they were what Michael Jackson first learned to dance in. In 1985, when filming ‘Captain EO’, Michael complained that he couldn’t dance at his best in the shoes provided as part of his sci-fi costume, but his go-to loafers weren’t appropriate for the films futuristic premise. As a solution, the soles were cut out of the high-top Reeboks Jackson was originally meant to wear, so the Florsheims could be worn without being seen.
Similar alterations had to be made to Jackson’s attire when filming the video for ‘Dirty Diana’, as Bush shared that originally MJ had on a jacket that just wasn’t working with the wind machine. The jacket was too heavy and didn’t flow during rehearsal, so Michael left the stage, went to ask for a different one. Then looked at Bush spying the white shirt he was wearing, which his partner, Dennis Tompkins, had made for him. The shirt was made of fabric so fine that it fluttered and billowed from the lightest gust of wind. Therefore, the Dirty Diana white shirt was born… off the back of Bush and onto the stage with Michael Jackson.
“Even though these costumes were grand, it was all in the details,” Bush said. The bullion crest accessory during the live performance of “Billie Jean” was made of 18-karat gold and sterling silver. “It wasn’t an ostentatious thing — it’s because Michael believed that silver photographed differently than chrome. And silver weighed a lot less, which made it more danceable.” Jackson’s rebellious sartorial streak led to him infamously wearing only one glove. “Everyone wears two gloves,” Bush recalled Jackson saying. “I’ll wear one and make them pay attention.”
When designing his stage outfits, Jackson followed a “look but can’t touch” mentality. “He would often say that if the guy sitting in the front row was wearing what he was wearing, then he’d stop being the entertainer.” Not too many of his fans were able to afford the custom-made shin guards plated with 18-karat gold he wore during his 1996 History tour. The leg armour Jackson wore was inspired by baseball being considered America’s favourite pastime. “Why do only baseball players get to wear shin guards?” Jackson once asked Bush. “I’m going to wear them.” The equipment also served to protect Jackson’s knees and shins from his own athletic drills during his aerodynamic dance routines. Although they were hoping to create the “next glove,” as claimed by Bush, the general public never regarded them as iconic as Jackson’s glove or red leather jacket.
The “Thriller” jacket Michael Bush created for the Bad tour in 1988 contained 11,000 light bulbs that would light up remotely during the performance and pulsate to the beat of the song. “It took three engineers to wire the electrical jacket so it would light up and one computer tech to keep it all sparkly with a remote control, because there was no way Michael would touch his jacket to turn it on. That’s not magic, that’s flipping a switch”.
For ‘Beat It’, there were different versions of his iconic jacket over the years, including an incredible eel skin version and one made of plastic which in reality was too hot for MJ at the end of the night because it didn’t breathe at all when he danced. Michael Bush has since described what a state the jackets would be in after a performance, “It was really ‘beat’ so to speak. Michael gave his Beat It jackets a whipping on stage taking them off and slamming them to the stage and stomping on them as he danced in his performance. After each show he would say to Bush, ‘You’ll need to fix my zippers tonight.’” Bush would stay up many late nights and early mornings painstakingly repairing the zippers which took the beating on stage restoring them for the next night’s show. “That way everyone received the same high-quality performance. That was how Michael Jackson always performed giving his very best to every show and every audience”.
“This was Michael’s favourite thing he ever wore,” Bush said. The white pearl jacket he wore when sister Janet presented him with the Grammy Legend Award in 1993. Which was a redesigned version of the jacket he wore when he accompanied Madonna to the Oscars in 1991. Michael Bush shared his very painful experience when he dressed Michael for the very last time… for his burial. “Who else could do it? I did it for my friend. I had to be the one to dress him for the last time”. However, Michael Jackson’s favourite pearl jacket could not be found, “I have no idea, Michael probably gave it away to a fan,” Bush speculated, so he and Dennis set to work crafting a new one.
Bush stated that Michael Jackson’s favourite Disney character was not in fact Peter Pan, but Tinker Bell because that is where the magic started. It was Tinkerbell’s magic dust that made it all happen. He would show up in the designers’ room and say, “Bush dust me!”. Michael Bush would pull out the sparkly glittery sequins and MJ would just brush through them with his fingers watching the sparkle effect, enthralled by the light, transcending to another magical place.
So, Dennis Tompkins and Michael Bush ‘Dusted MJ’ just as he would have wished by creating something very special for Michael, sewing it into his very last favourite pearl jacket. A beautiful, shining, crystal rhinestone Tinker Bell sewn inside the left side jacket. As Bush dressed Michael Jackson for that one last time, he carefully closed Michael’s jacket over his chest where Tinker Bell and her magic dust could now lay directly over his heart for forever more.