I first heard Prince as an uncommonly innocent 8th-grade tomboy (all green and no purple, you might say) but from my first listen, I never looked back. By sophomore year we had come a long way together. My innocence was waning, and I was growing decidedly more comfortable with the whole complicated prospect of owning my female sexuality—though I guess I was still pretty ill-prepared, since I was learning it mostly from a 26-year-old guy.
The debut of my first pair of heels I owe to Prince. In those intervening years between junior high and high school, I’d been dragged kicking and screaming into puberty, scolded by everyone around me to please dress and act like the woman I would shortly become. And I consistently, adamantly refused because, Fuck you, I am who I am!
Except for the Halloween that I wanted to be Prince. I was a girl who mostly looked like a boy, and I wanted to look like a guy who was famous partly for how well he could look like a girl. Fortunately, it was the mid-1980s, so all the raw materials for that particular look were pretty close at hand. I already had tight jeans and a white trench coat. (Why? Who knows? It was the 80s.) The high-collared jacket to my Gunne Sax homecoming outfit served nicely as a ruffly New Romantic top, and by some divine fortune, my stylish, pretty sister-in-law had handed me down a brand-new pair of heels, which had been sitting unwanted and untouched in my closet for months.
Man, I wish I still had those heels: I would wear the shit out of them now. Maroon ankle boots with inverted wooden pyramids for heels that looked breathtakingly similar, I thought, to the stacked boots that Prince wore onstage to make himself look tall like a rock star. It didn’t matter that I had never once walked in high heels before, or that I could manage to fall down walking barefoot on a flat grassy lawn: I was gonna do this. I tugged it all on (oh, god, so skin-tight!) and was marginally pleased with the result. I did look kind of Revolution-ary.
Also largely unversed in the ways of makeup, I didn’t try any tricky pencil mustache or haunting cat eyes, just did my basic 15 different colors of eye shadow and a metric ton of purple eyeliner.
At that time Prince had only shown the world 4 official hairstyles: the Afro from the cover of For You, the press-and-curl on Prince, the Rude Boy punk rock cut from Controversy and Dirty Mind (none of which I had seen yet, mind you), and the current, reigning, overprocessed mess of a pompadour that endured for the whole 1999 thru Purple Rain period. I had no hope of approximating that one, so I just poofed all my layers over to one side, ending up with a respectable approximation of the oh-so-badass Wendy Melvoin from the band.
The finishing touch was a hank of cream-colored lace that I found in my mom’s sewing kit, which I wrapped around a beautiful maroon fedora lent to me by the white boy who was stringing me along at the time. (Later I would ruin that fedora for him in grand and vindictive fashion, but that’s a story for another time. Ha ha, Chris Hoyle, I have no regrets!) The hat dripping lace really did complete the whole picture I was going for. Once I had on the whole getup, I felt both mortifyingly out-of-place and disconcertingly comfortable in my skin. For years after that, I wore a string of lace around my left ankle—it connected me to my roots, I felt.
And as many of my tribe find out along the way, the getting ready for the party proved to be much more memorable than the party itself. I remember that it was held in a barn (not unusual for the rural Midwest), and there was no alcohol—which was good because the heels were not ideal for dancing, walking or even standing on a hay-littered dirt floor. I tried not to feel mortally overdressed, and took solace from the probability that even Prince himself might feel out of place in such a situation.
But nobody made fun of me, which was an improvement over everyday life, and for the most part people knew who my costume was supposed to be—so I considered the night a triumph. My mother considered it a triumph that I was finally starting to wear more feminine clothes.
And somebody had a camera. So, somewhere in the world, there is a photo of me in full Prince costume, air-guitaring like mad against the backdrop of the barn wall. I wish I knew what happened to that photo. I’d like to see it again. The way I remember it, it was the perfect representation of both the self-conscious 14-year-old I was then and the person I was looking to become—not a racially and sexually ambiguous rock star necessarily, but somebody who recognized their own power in a largely uncomprehending world, and had the balls to wield it. Fedora, lace, heels and all.