Book Review: The King of Style: Dressing Michael Jackson by Michael Bush

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Make no mistake, The King of Style: Dressing Michael Jackson is more than a picture book. Insight Editions has put together a customarily well-designed, hardcover coffee table book. Yes, it’s loaded with great photographs depicting a wide array of the King of Pop’s elaborate wardrobe. These visuals will undoubtedly be the primary draw for Michael Jackson fans. But it must be noted that author Michael Bush tells the stories behind the clothing. Throughout the 204-page book, the man who spent 25 years (along with his late partner, Dennis Tompkins) designing iconic outfits for Jackson shares his personal experiences. Unlike an outside observer, Bush was there in the thick of it. The warmly remembered details of interacting with Jackson as both a colleague and a friend make this volume far more than a collection of amazing imagery.

The King of Style while jacket (181x250).jpgEarly on, Bush outlines the “Four Fs” of dressing Michael Jackson: Fit, Function, Fun, and First. That last one isn’t as self-explanatory as the former three, but it refers to the goal of never repeating the same design. Bush and his collaborators set out to create something new every time. Looking through the evidence collected throughout The King of Style, it’s hard to argue they didn’t succeed. Clearly the exception to the “first” rule was the famed rhinestone glove. We all know the white one, but detailed via a series of photos is a surprising variety of glove colors and designs used at different times. The amount of jackets and other items is astounding, ranging from relatively simple and elegant to the more outlandish get-ups Jackson was known for.

The stories are often quite detailed, such as the time Bush unwisely tried polishing a pair of Jackson’s worn Florsheim shoes. He describes the startling anger Jackson exhibited as he admonished 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; they’re what he first learned to dance in. For the Captain EO film, the loafers weren’t appropriate for his sci-fi costume. To accommodate them, the soles were cut out of the high-top Reeboks he wore, so the Florsheims could be worn without being seen. Details like this run rampant throughout the book, making it a compelling read for serious fans.

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Bush even shares examples of things that didn’t quite work. At one point, Jackson insisted on having a jacket made of paper currency designed. His advisors managed to talk him out of wearing it in public, but we get to see photographs of it. The “next glove,” as claimed by Bush, was a pair of leg guards that Jackson took to wearing. It’s interesting to read about the origins of these guards, but I’m not sure the general public really regards them as iconic at the same level as the glove or the red, zippered jacket.  Regardless, they’re detailed here along with just about everything else Jackson was seen wearing on stage. There’s also a lot of interesting information about the “lean shoes” that Jackson used in concert to recreate the 45-degree lean from the “Smooth Criminal” video.

The King of Style crown (182x250).jpgBush was working on new designs right up until Jackson’s untimely passing in 2009. Some of the wardrobe for the never-realized This is It tour are on display. A rather touching final passage about the author’s own reaction to the news of Jackson’s death closes the book. This is a perfect example of why it’s so valuable that the book was written by someone closely connected to the man who wore the clothing. In the end, The King of Style: Dressing Michael Jackson is a vivid portrait, in words and pictures, of what Jackson referred to as “wearable art.”

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Chaz Lipp is a Las Vegas-based musician and freelance writer. His new jazz album 'Good Merlin' is now available.

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