When Did You First Learn the Value of Style?

My grandma, mom and I on Easter Sunday 1967

This month, I’m voluntarily taking on the challenge to dress up daily — but how did I feel about dressing the part back when I was a toddler? I marvel at the fact that my mother had me all dressed up in white gloves and stockings with a knitted yellow scarf on my head (Mom tells me that my great-grandmother, a Swede, knitted these for me) — and as the cherry on the sundae, a yellow corsage pinned to my lapel. Whether or not I enjoyed dressing up is unclear as I have no memory of this moment, but what is clear is that I seem to think the handbag handle is designed for chewing.

While I may not have valued style back then, I certainly have come to appreciate it as an adult. My in-depth scientific research has unearthed a telling moment in Prince’s own fashion evolution — perhaps one of the first moments that demonstrated Prince’s own understanding of the value of style.

In Owen Husney’s memoir, Famous People Who’ve Met Me, he writes of the day when Prince unboxed his first album, For You. It happens to coincide with the moment when Husney notices that Prince’s style has begun to gel. Husney writes:

“I couldn’t help but notice the up-tick in Prince’s appearance when he walked into my office … Now his emerging look was less casual, augmented by a trimmed fro, black leather jacket, a pullover white V-neck linen shirt, dress pants, and high-heeled boots … I was opening a square box that was just delivered via UPS. It had a big WB logo on the side and was marked in block letters “Promo Copy – Not For Sale BSK-3150.” “Do you want the honors?” I said as soon as the box was pried open. “Sure” came Prince’s one word reply. He reached in and produced a single vinyl album from the box of twenty-five. On the top it said “PRINCE-FOR YOU.” … Prince then reached in the album jacket and pulled out the dust cover. “Let’s see if they got it right” he said, examining the superimposed shot of him naked on a bed, a guitar covering his private parts. “It’s perfect.”‘

Was it a coincidence that Prince stepped up his style at the same moment that his first album was released? I think not. But while this particular style worked during the For You era, Prince wasn’t married to it. By the time Allen Beaulieu photographed Prince for the cover of his next album, Dirty Mind, Prince taken his wardrobe game in a vastly different direction. He sported straight, spiky hair and wore a knotted red bandana around his neck, combined with a studded purple trench coat, a fedora and “rude boy” pin on the lapel (and not much else). Dirty Mind was heavy on new wave and punk elements and Prince dressed the part.

How to Build Something Substantial

Fire hydrant outside of Paisley Park.

Did you make a New Year’s resolution? If you did, chances are good that you’ve abandoned it by now, because 80% of resolutions fail by February. But if you managed to beat the odds and keep your resolution going, you might already be seeing the benefits of consistency and experience the subtle but powerful way that success compounds.

While I may not have achieved the creative output of Prince, I’m publishing a blog post every day and that feels like a brisk pace. It feels particularly brisk on a Sunday evening when I realize I don’t have enough posts to fill the coming week! Still, if I manage to keep up this pace for a year, I will have built something substantial. I am accumulating 400 words per blog post, five days a week, for 52 weeks. That comes to a grand total of 104,000 words, or precisely one 400-page book.

If I was a financially minded person, I’d make some comment about the time value of money here. My husband, a CPA and CFP, likes to remind me of the time value of money when I want to spend and he wants to save. Money, like the written word, also compounds over time.

While cranking out blog posts like a veritable content machine, I’ve continued to do Alternate Day Fasting, January’s challenge. (That means I’m eating 500 calories one day and whatever I want the next). Some days I mess up on my fasting days and eat too much, and sometimes on my eating days I eat too much sugar and get annoyed at myself (not to mention that I pay a steep price the next day because too much sugar on an eating day makes me hungrier on a fasting day). But so what? I pick myself up and try again. And I am seeing slow but incremental weight loss, in addition to feeling light and strong on fasting days. Surprisingly, the initial feeling of constant hunger dissipated and now that I have reached 51 days of Alternate Day Fasting I am over my habit of snacking and no longer suffer from cravings. The compounded effects of Alternate Day Fasting are liberating.

On top of those two endeavors, February saw me add a third ball to the juggling act in the form of dressing up daily. Today is a snow day and the kids are home from school but instead of cozying up in sweats, I’m wearing a sweater dress, tall boots and my beloved mirror heart bracelet, and I took a photo of it for posterity, which I do daily. While getting dressed up daily takes effort, I am motivated by the idea that at the end of the month, I will have photographed 28 outfits that I assembled from what was already hanging in my closet. I’ll have a handy reference guide when I don’t know what to wear.

What you do each day matters and builds on the rest.

God’s Favorite Color

Our family lost a home in the Great Recession of 2008. Eight years later, we were living a simpler life – one that was leaner, greener and richer. What I didn’t realize was that in order to take the final step in healing, I needed to add the color purple to my life’s palette.

The heart mirror bracelet visited Paisley Park on Sunday.

Author’s Note: Happy Valentine’s Day! Today, I’m hitting “pause” on the regular schedule of “Living Like a Prince” blog posts to share a personal story. It’s my way of sharing some of my heart with you all on a day celebrating love, affection and friendship.

The bass is thumping, the club is dark and concertgoers are jockeying for position in front of the stage. As a young person, I would have felt right at home at Minneapolis’ legendary First Avenue, the nightclub where Purple Rain was filmed. But tonight, I haven’t been drinking, I’m with my husband of 15 years and our plans for later include making sure our kids get to bed at a decent hour. In a word: I feel out of place.

As Prince’s former band, The Revolution, takes the stage, a surge of energy lights up the crowd. Some instinctive part of me, apparently having been in a Rip Van Winkle-esque slumber for decades, comes to life. At first I tentatively clap on the two and four. Then I’m lifting my arms to the sky to wave them. Is that me, cheering? Muscle memory kicks in and soon I’m singing every lyric. I dance, and dance some more. Halfway through the show, The Revolution launches into the searing ballad from Purple Rain, “The Beautiful Ones,” and whatever discomfort I’d experienced has dissipated. What remains is the realization that the former strangers surrounding me feel more like kin.

The next morning, bleary eyed, I’m brewing coffee when something catches my eye. From our kitchen window, I see a purple balloon tied to our neighbor’s deck railing, blowing with the breeze. Hot tears pool in my eyes as I flash back to our family’s recent experiences. One thing seems clear: God has brought our family to the right place.

I didn’t always feel that way. During the Great Recession of 2008, our family got caught in the housing bust with a too-big mortgage on our dream house. We wound up selling at a loss and moving into a rental down the street. What should have been a tragedy for our family turned out to be a blessing in disguise. We started living leaner, greener and richer. We cooked at home instead of going out, rode bicycles around town and with the money that used to go to a big house payment, take trips and do activities together as a family. Out of financial necessity, I set aside my career as an author and went back to a full-time office job. In 2014, we were able to buy another home.

Mere months after we moved into our new home, my husband came to me with news of a job offer in Minneapolis. Before my brain could interject with concerns about the weather or another major upheaval, my heart said, “Minneapolis sounds good.”

That was how, in March 2016, I landed in the purple state of Minnesota, much like Dorothy falling out of the sky and crash-landing in Oz (this time, no witches were killed in the process). What I didn’t realize was that three miles down the road, my musical idol was living out the final days of his illustrious life.

In the 1980s, Prince Rogers Nelson had risen to worldwide fame, in the process achieving arguably the greatest run of creativity in the history of pop music. He took the proceeds from his 1984 smash album and movie Purple Rain and built a sprawling studio and recording complex in Chanhassen, a suburb west of Minneapolis. He called it Paisley Park. He’d invested his newfound riches in two things he held dear: his music and his home state.

On April 21, 2016, Prince died of an opioid overdose. Yes, we lived only a few miles from Paisley Park, but I had arrived too late to see Prince perform at his legendary compound. (The cry of “but I just got here!” wasn’t my first reaction to his death — although it may have been my second). Emotions came rushing in like a purple tidal wave. I’ll admit it: I lost my mind that day, a day our younger son recalls as “the day mom started crying and didn’t stop.”

Minneapolis radio stations played Prince’s music 24/7 in the wake of his death, and it became apparent that I had missed a lot of Prince’s career. By “a lot,” I mean nearly a thousand songs. While I’d been changing diapers and packing lunches, Prince had continued to live a life full of creativity and audacity and dedication, and he did it just down the road from me. What excuse did I have not to follow suit?

A persistent voice inside me insisted that there must be a reason that I, a writer, had landed in Chanhassen. Tearing open dozens of as-yet-unpacked cardboard moving boxes, I emerged triumphant, grasping my copy of Possessed, the one book I owned about Prince. I decided I should let the author know that I was in Chanhassen, in case he wanted to do an update and needed research assistance. Alex Hahn and I struck up a friendship, which grew into a partnership, as we started out on a journey to tell the story of Prince’s rise to fame. After having left my beloved writing career in favor of more practical paying pursuits, I was back in the game. This time I would be a biographer, with an insightful and generous writing partner. This was a small miracle as well as a tremendous gift, and it wasn’t the last.

As I listened to Prince’s early songs with their infamously provocative lyrics, I recalled my shock and delight hearing them as a teenager hanging out in my friend’s paneled basement rec room. Thirty years later, I was the parent of a teenager, and while “Purple Rain” was still a song about a romantic break-up, the image of purple rain emerged as a metaphor for the redemptive power of God. “I Would Die 4 U” could have come directly from Jesus’ mouth. Some lyrics of “Diamonds and Pearls” sounded a whole lot like God talking to Prince. And “When Doves Cry” was more than a heartrending story of Prince’s family life. Crying doves symbolize hope. Prince was sending us a message of hope. Could it be that all along, Prince was showing us that yes, you can have all those feelings of growing up as a teenager, and still love God?

As I explored Prince’s catalog, it became clear that what I’d noticed was no aberration. Prince had moved beyond the purely raunchy songs that had caused our parents to raise eyebrows or worse, ban us from buying 1999 or Purple Rain. As the years progressed and his fan base grew older along with him, Prince put on shows that fans could bring their kids to without fear of what might happen on stage. The tremendous adversity that Prince overcame in his dazzling rise to fame – including obstacles such as the entrenched racism of a music industry that separated artists onto either the “black charts” or “white charts,” and a difficult childhood that had him leaving home at the tender age of 12 — Prince’s personal and musical journey caused him to mature spiritually. He was still on that journey when he died.

One night, I stumbled upon a playlist for a monthly radio show that Prince had launched in 2000  (Prince had a radio show, in addition to recording 38 studio albums, rehearsing and touring? Did this guy ever sleep?). This show, which aired on Sept. 18, 2001, seemed to have special meaning and significance. In the wake of 9/11, many people were looking to celebrities to make statements, and Prince’s was a God-centered message of peace and positivity. The songs, largely unknown to mainstream audiences, included “Eye No,” “Love …. Thy Will Be Done,” “The Plan,” “I Wish U Heaven” and “Still Will Stand All Time.” Informed by his faith, Prince was sharing messages of hope.

In those first months after Prince’s death, you couldn’t go anywhere or do anything in Minneapolis without being reminded of him. Bridges were lit purple, Purple Rain played at cinemas and artists painted his likeness on restaurant walls or across buildings in gigantic murals. As brand-new Chanhassen residents, wherever we went – the dry cleaner, the tailor, restaurants, the grocery store — my husband and I made a hobby out of asking locals if they had a Prince story. It turned out to be a remarkably effective icebreaker as we explored our new town.

While Prince was widely acknowledged as the epitome of cool, he was also a regular guy who shopped at the hardware store, and who would get cravings for cherry pie from our local grocery store. My hair stylist had been a server at Perkins and would wait on Prince and his band when they’d come for pancakes on Sunday morning. A woman whose property bordered Prince’s recounted how she was invited to a bonfire where Prince played guitar with his back facing the fire. She had the impression that he kept his back to the others because he was shy. Others said they’d see him walking the shoreline of his beautiful, wild 180-acre property that ran between two of Chanhassen’s nine lakes. A Verizon salesperson fixing my phone shared that he’d appeared in “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World” video as a boy. (Only five years old at the time, he’d horrified his mother by boldly asking Prince, “Why do you wear high heels?” Prince had smiled and replied, “Because I can,” then spun on his heel and walked away).

Prince was more than a neighbor. He was a loyal Minnesotan who’d given many locals the opportunity to work at the highest levels of their profession, whether that was costume design or sound engineering. In many ways, he’d put Minnesota on the musical map, pioneering and promoting a style of music called “The Minneapolis Sound.” As a result, he was dearly beloved in his home state. I reflected on the virtue of loyalty, and Prince’s unusual choice to stay in Minnesota rather than decamp to a major cultural capital of the world – a choice that most newly minted pop stars would have made. It was a touching act of commitment and faith that made me feel an immense swell of gratitude for the opportunity in my own life to put down roots after a decade of upheaval and instability.

In the name of research, I struck out on my own to attend book signings, browsed at Prince’s favorite record store and went to concerts at a jazz club where they marked his former table with a purple flower. I found myself eating chicken wings with one of Prince’s childhood friends and then driving around their former neighborhood as he recounted stories of forming Prince’s first band together. Friendships formed naturally as I would bump into familiar faces at concerts or gallery openings, and I soon had a solid circle of friends. The people I met at Prince-related events were remarkably open and welcoming, and I quickly adopted the same attitude. One of God’s gifts is community and connection, and I marveled at the richness and diversity of my new friends, who were always up for seeing a show. Some say that Prince’s greatest legacy is his music, but I think it’s his fans. Of all of Prince’s talents, his greatest feat may have been bringing together people of all races, ages, backgrounds and creeds, and my gut said he was doing that with intention. Connecting with people who might be outside of my usual sphere of lifted my spirits, brought joy and brought me closer still to God.

In February 2017, Alex Hahn and I published The Rise of Prince: 1958-1988. I like to joke that Prince made me an author again, and on publication day, my older son said he could imagine Prince calling to me: “It’s your turn! Get up on stage!” Through Prince, I had been given the opportunity to excel at my craft, as had many others before me.

Only God knows his favorite color – and of course, like his children, all colors are his favorite – but ask me what mine is, and I’ll tell you it’s purple.

Are You a Courageous Dresser?

Wearing sequins to a Minnesota Timberwolves game? Why not!

With 13 days of dressing the part under my belt, I’m starting to feel like I’m becoming a more courageous dresser. Adhering to my rules about no jeans, no loungewear before 6 p.m. (even when working from home) and not leaving the house unless I had done hair and make-up was rugged for the first week of the challenge due to our wow-this-is-how-winters-used-to-be weather. I wanted to wear was jeans, long underwear and big fluffy fleece hoodies and shuffle around the house in fuzzy slippers. But NO! I held myself to a higher Princely standard. It was a pain in the ass, to be honest. But it’s produced at least one positive: I’ve cranked out more work in the first one and a half months of 2019 than I did in the last quarter of 2018, and I don’t think that’s a coincidence.

The more I dress up, the more courageous I get. Tonight, I’m going to the Minnesota Timberwolves game where Sheila E. is doing a halftime tribute to Prince. I’m wearing a sequined jacket. Why not! Maybe I’ll blind the opposing team!

Consistency compounds like interest.

If You’re Not Interested in Style, You Can Still Dress Well

This is a typical casual outfit for me these days. It’s amazing how the no-jeans rule (ahem, thanks, Prince) has pushed me to grab skirts and dresses from the far reaches of my closet. I’ve been wearing them like no one’s business despite the fact that temps here have been frigid. I had myself convinced that I couldn’t wear them in the bitter cold. But forced to go beyond jeans (ahem), I layered up with a pair of knee-high socks and fleece tights over them. I’m as toasty as I would be in jeans, which aren’t very insulating anyway.

Although I love fashion, I know there are many who aren’t interested in fashion, and that some feel that style is over their heads or challenging or frivolous. Others feel that to be stylish, you have to have an innate talent — and you either have “it” or you don’t. While I agree that some people do have a bent for fashion, or a good “eye,” and enjoy expressing themselves through style, I fall firmly into the camp that believes that even those who don’t have a natural bent for it can learn how to style themselves. It takes effort, but everyone can learn through trial and error about fit and what looks good on them and to discern good quality items from bad, and what colors they prefer, and what kind of style expresses their personality most.

Here’s another combination:

Another easy formula with tunic and leggings.

Most days, I keep it simple. A tunic, a casual topper, a pair of leggings and some short boots and I’m done. Prince, when he was first starting out, often wore flared pants (always with the perfect pants length so they would almost skim the ground), a collared shirt, a leather jacket and low-heeled pointy-toed boots. He didn’t try to wear a million different kinds of outfits. He developed his eye, he became discerning about fit and quality, and he found combinations that looked great on his body while expressing his personality and made him look on the outside the way he felt on the inside — like a rock star.

Put on Your Power

The sparkly cardigan has become my new power suit.

Clothes do much more than cover your body and protect it from the climate and elements. As it turns out, clothing invades your psyche and affects your body. What you wear changes your psychological experience. There’s a name for this phenomenon — enclothed cognition, a term coined by researchers at Northwestern University.

I am living proof the enclothed cognition is real! Dressing up daily in February has nudged me to try on new outfits and new personas. Now in the morning, I lay in bed for a moment while I wonder who I want to be that day. I might start with a vibe. Do I feel artsy? Laid back? Cozy? Powerful? Sassy? Other days I start with a song. If I wake up humming “Diamonds and Pearls,” then I might be inspired to wear yellow. “Willing and Able” cues the earth tones and a rich brown. And on yet other days, I start with a wardrobe item that pops into my mind, like my green moto jacket, and then build an outfit around it.

You could say I’ve become a mood dresser, and at the same time, I’m becoming more intentional too. Because clothing can be used as a competitive advantage.

The old adage about “dress for the job one level above yours” proved true for me back in my public relations agency days in New York. I would strut around in a pinstriped suit with a Chanel-inspired gold chain link belt feeling all good about myself as I climbed the agency ladder from intern to associate account executive and beyond. I figured dressing the part worked because others would see you as someone who looks presentable for that role. When you dress like the vice presidents, the higher-ups can more readily imagine you as a vice president. They can imagine you fitting in at the conference table with important clients.

But there’s another layer of nuance expressed in the concept of enclothed cognition, which is how you feel inside. You throw your shoulders back and carry yourself a little taller, you take pride in everything you do and you pay attention and give care to your work. Very Princely indeed!

My Stylish Inspiration

The great-aunties, circa 1920.

These four sisters were born in Taylors Falls, Minnesota between 1896 and 1905. They were daughters of Swedish immigrants and although they are not strictly my great-aunties, that’s what I consider them. They were my great-grandmother’s double cousins, meaning that my great-grandmother’s mom and their mom were sisters, and my great-grandmother’s dad and their dad were brothers.

You can tell by the photo that they were tall! Their names are (L to R) Ida, Myrtle (Mert), Anna (Ann) and Gertrude (Gertie). They enjoyed a close sisterly bond and kept track of each other through thick and thin. Their father died at age 37 when they and their two brothers were very young. Their mother Jennie kept the family going by using her skill as a dressmaker. Eventually, Jennie owned a boarding house on the University of Minnesota campus in Minneapolis where some professors lived. The University wound up buying the house and demolishing it to make room for the football stadium.

Ida, on the far left, was very tall and slender, with long strawberry blonde hair. She went on to be a fit model and traveled often from Minneapolis to Chicago clothing manufacturers for work. Ann, the third from the left, was a fashion buyer for Dayton’s who traveled the world on buying trips, and later went on to own an exclusive women’s boutique in Elm Grove, a suburb of Milwaukee.

I may not have inherited their height, but I did inherit their love of fashion!

How to Dress to Stand Out

Andre Cymone, Prince and Dez Dickerson on Dec. 5, 1981 in Chicago. (Photo by Paul Natkin)

This experience of Dressing the Part has placed me — sometimes uncomfortably — in the position of dressing outside the norm of my environment.

Beyond the fact that I am going about my day wearing a mirror heart bracelet, there’s the fact that I am dressed up to the nines. Living in Minnesota, the climate is extreme. We have hot, humid summers and bitterly cold winters. We have hail, sleet, snow, ice, and torrential downpours. Despite the climate, people here are hardy souls and many are outdoor-sy. They love Minnesota’s lakes and they dress for the outdoors and head out in all kinds of weather. I admire that! That means that in the winter, it’s puffer coats and big snowboots and in summer, it’s shorts and a t-shir.

I finally wised up and turned the point of the heart toward me!

I’m not bothered that I’m dressing outside the norm. I like the way it feels to dress like this, and if it’s a bit more effort than wearing jeans, well, it’s worth it for the difference it makes in how I feel. I’ve been wearing dresses (no jeans allowed! #BecausePrince), vibrant colors, texture in the form of faux fur and suede, and shine in the form of metallic colored handbags and of course, the mirror heart. In the past, I’ve been guilty of “saving” nice things for a special occasion. But now I notice that my spirits rise when I take my nice things off their hangers and wear them. My closet isn’t a museum, after all.

One of my favorite parts of the Paisley Park museum is the hallway of photos of Prince and the evolution of his image. You see the 1970s era when he was photographed naked playing guitar on a bed (shot at Macy’s in San Francisco, according to Owen Husney’s memoir) to the 90s, when a lip-licking Prince covered in glitter is photographed wearing a gold Versace tank and sporting cropped hair, to the early 2000s, when Prince went glam rock with long flowing locks and huge hoop earrings.

Daring and extraordinary, Prince was never afraid to show the world who he was. I may not be as daring as Prince, but every baby step gets me a little closer.

You Don’t Have to Be a Rock Star to Have a Signature Style

Prince performs at his birthday party at First Avenue on June 7, 1984 in Minneapolis. (Photo by Paul Natkin)

Prince was a bold and daring dresser. Witness his choice of costume for his 25th birthday celebration performance at First Avenue in Minneapolis: He had no problem combining burnt out velvet and mesh with a leopard print guitar strap and topping off the ensemble with a dramatic gold necklace.

Prince’s style evolved over the years, but his love of dramatic lines, bold color and complex fabrics never changed. His clothing was integral to his rock star persona and helped him achieve his status as pop icon. If ever someone had fun with fashion, it was Prince.

I feel like a rock star wearing this outfit!
When in doubt, add a pom pom.

Prince loved symbols and wore dove, guitar, heart, peace and flower icons as part of his stage costumes before he evolved into using the Love Symbol in 1993. I love that Prince communicated through his accessories or through the fabrics of his clothes themselves, such as the Lovesexy blazers that had “Minneapolis” emblazoned on the lengths of the sleeves. Every day, as I put on either the mirror heart bracelet or mirror heart earrings to my outfits, I am surprised at how my spirits life. The heart emblem is now part of my own signature style.

After spending time in January stressing about fasting when things were rocky, I’ve resolved lighten up and have fun with dressing the part. After all, while Prince was a serious musician with the highest of standards, he flaunted butt-less yellow lace “Gett Off” pants and tunics from 20Ten printed with Debbie Guan’s sketches of him. He had fun experimenting with his style — and we should too.