by Reyna Workman, dramaturg
Whether you know him as “His Royal Badness”, “The Purple One”, or “The Artist Formerly Known as Prince,” ‘80s singer and songwriter Prince Rogers Nelson was the inspiration behind the costume design for this production of As You Like It. If you are unfamiliar with Prince (as I was when I began working on this show), he is not only famous for his unique music, but also his unique sense of fashion. Although he was considered a very masculine pop star, much of his style included feminine elements. For example, he was a wearer of eyeliner, high heels, crop tops, necklaces, lace, and feather boas, both on and off stage. He frequently could be seen in ruffled shirts and colorful, tailored suits, however, he never confined himself to one style. He was always trying new things with his look and with each new album emerged a new persona. (To get a better idea of his original and fluid style, check out this collection of photos containing some of his most iconic outfits).
In spite of his originality, one thing Prince did have in common with pop stars of the time was a proclivity for androgynous fashion. This is typically characterized by men wearing clothing traditionally worn by women, women wearing clothing traditionally worn by men, or clothing that is not characteristic of any particular gender. This style of dress blends both masculine and feminine elements in an attempt to appear genderless, disrupt gender norms, and utilize the best of both styles. There are varying levels of how androgynous a look can be, and in some cases (particularly when androgynous makeup is involved), it can even be difficult to distinguish whether someone is male or female.
The director of this production, Tony Gunn, had this in mind when he chose a Prince aesthetic for the show. In the play, Rosalind disguises herself as a young man named Ganymede when she is exiled to the Forest of Arden. She interacts with Orlando and her own father and neither recognizes her as Rosalind (or as a woman, for that matter). Seeing that the lines between masculine and feminine appearance are intentionally blurred in the setting of ‘80s androgynous fashion, it is a little easier to understand how Rosalind’s identity could have been preserved. Orlando might have noticed some of Rosalind’s inner feminine qualities shining through, but with her ruffled shirt, veiled fedora, and masculine-feminine ‘80s flair, it is difficult for him to be sure.
Rosalind’s purpose for dressing in this manner is clear: to disguise herself, test the love Orlando claims to have for her, train him in the ways of love, and eventually reveal her true self to him and live happily ever after. So what purpose did Prince have in embracing this kind of fashion, along with other androgynous icons like David Bowie, Annie Lennox, Boy George, and Grace Jones? For Prince, clothing was about self-expression and freedom from gender stereotypes. He did not wear his flamboyant clothing in order to appear like a woman; he wore it because he felt it looked good on him and made him feel confident. He and others wanted to show the world that fashion should not be confined by one’s gender, nor should it be an indicator of one’s gender or sexual orientation; rather, it should be a means of creative expression and identity.
Prince’s influence on the fashion world can be seen today in popular designers and fashion houses such as Gucci, Rag & Bone, Vetements, and Public School who strive to make more gender-fluid clothing and have chosen to put on combined shows where both men and women model on the same runway. There are also several celebrities such as Jaden Smith, Cara Delevingne, Tilda Swinton, and Harry Styles who continue the conversation of gender constructs and self-expression today through their androgynous styles.
Although this style may not be for everyone, I think it is important to recognize that being fashionable and stylish can mean different things for different people. Sure, we typically consider whatever is “in” or whatever is popular to be fashionable, but seeing that Prince’s wardrobe was nowhere to be found on other artists or models of his day, perhaps there is a little more to it than that. To Prince, wearing what you enjoy wearing and what makes you feel confident is fashionable. And although Rosalind might not have exactly enjoyed wearing her Ganymede getup, it certainly made her more confident to boss around Orlando until she could finally dress in something more comfortable.