One of the most fascinating aspects of Michael Jackson’s life and career was the distinctive differences in his style and look with each album release. By my count, MJ had 8 different eras in my lifetime, but I’m only ranking my favorite 5.
Six of the eras were powered by a solo album, and each of them brought new changes to his hairstyle, clothing and accessories. This will be exciting to dissect and evaluate, and I’m ranking the eras from best to least.
1. The Thriller Era, 1982–1985
No era for any musician or entertainer in history was as widely imitated, extraordinarily popular or commercially successful as this one was for Michael. The November 30, 1982 release of his sixth solo album, Thriller got this period started, quietly.
But within the first six months of 1983, the era had taken flight and introduced the world to a 24-year old living legend who wore a more stylized version of the ubiquitous Jheri curl of the day.
Michael’s hairstyle was one of the easiest things to emulate, though his edges were perfected slicked down, while some of his curls hung down over his forehead. In his groundbreaking short films, he tended to wear highly customized leather jackets with the exception of the clip for Billie Jean, in which he rocked a black leather suit.
However, his signature look of that era was best illustrated in the Beat It visual as well as the breathtaking flick for Thriller. In both instances, MJ wore hand designed red leather jackets with the sleeves rolled up.
When Jackson appeared at awards shows or other industry events during ’83 and ’84, he displayed an affinity for wearing jackets adorned with sequins, as was the case during his iconic performance during the filmed Motown 25: Yesterday, Today and Forever.
He took that look to another level when he showed up at the 11th Annual American Music Awards and the 26th Annual Grammy’s rocking band uniform-styled jackets with sequins and gold sashes, and epaulets at the shoulders.
Add in Aviator shades and his most attention-getting accessory, the single sparkly glove and you have the makings of a true cultural icon. The astronomical success of the Thriller album lasted all the way until the end of 1984, more than two years after its release.
MJ was performing with his brothers on the controversial “Victory Tour” during the final six months of ’84, and he replicated many of his more popular outfits on stage.
2. The Bad Era, 1986–1989
Jackson went off the radar for practically the entire year of 1985, and when he began filming the ambitious short film for the title track of his next album in late 1986, he was in a whole different headspace.
That album materialized to the public on August 31, 1987 as Bad, the long awaited follow up to the juggernaut that was Thriller. MJ officially ushered in a new era as he appeared on the cover of Ebony magazine with mulatto toned skin, longer hair, a sleeker jawline and a cleft in his chin.
I was very excited by the changes, though I had no idea that much of his style was going to be renovated. In the Bad clip, he sported the all black, buckle and belted outfit from the album cover. He wore a slightly modified version of that outfit during a special cameo on The Arsenio Hall Show in 1989, and during the AMA’s that same year.
In the The Way You Make Me Feel short film, he simply wore a standard blue shirt, unbuttoned with a white T-shirt underneath. Black pants and a white, karate style belt completed the look. In the Smooth Criminal clip, he wore a 1930’s inspired zoot suit with a blue armband and a fedora.
Most of his unique and highly customized looks were saved for “The Bad World Tour.” He wore a lot of simple clothes; long white shirts over top of white T-shirts and black pants was commonplace.
He favored multiple belts and buckles on his shirts and pants, and he made repeated use of black fedoras, which was becoming yet another signature element to his look. During this era, he also wore Ray-Ban wayfarer shades often and he always wore his indispensable white socks and black loafers.
This was also the era during which Michael began wearing white medical tape near the tips of three of his fingers on one hand. He vacillated between wearing his hair down at his shoulders and in a low ponytail. Needless to say, I loved this iteration of Michael too.
3. The Dangerous Era, 1990–1993
Michael had elevated his global popularity by leaps and bounds with his colossal, 16-month “The Bad World Tour” which ended in January 1989. He embarked upon his next era sometime around the middle of 1990, when he began crafting his follow-up album.
As had become customary with MJ, his face underwent more renovation and his skin lightened even more. By the time the public got the opportunity to be blessed with his new content, he looked considerably different from the previous era.
For me, I was in the early stages of my freshman year in high school and I was once again excited and fascinated by his new look. The Dangerous album premiered on November 26, 1991, and signaled a shift in the artistic trajectory of Jackson’s career.
He eschewed the use of Quincy Jones for production on this album, after a partnership which produced a triumvirate of enormously successful and acclaimed projects spanning eight years. He enlisted Bill Bottrell and New Jack Swing “creator” Teddy Riley for Dangerous.
The result was a markedly different sound, while still containing blistering tracks with a unique flavor; Jackson’s trademark vocal touches are what makes the shift in production style work seamlessly. In addition to a much lighter skin tone, even narrower nose and other subtle changes, Michael adopted a variety of styles for the album’s short films.
He wore lots of simple shirts, some with his increasingly present armband and black pants cropped at the ankles. His style was more Everyman, with a few twists. In the clip for the song, “Jam,” Michael is dressed like the common man in a red long sleeved shirt, unbuttoned with a white V neck shirt underneath.
He’s also wearing black jeans. But what gives the look its Jacksonian vibe is the white armband on one sleeve and his ubiquitous white socks and black loafers. Same with the short film for In the Closet. MJ is clad in a white tank top with black pants. In the Give in to Me clip, Jackson once again keeps it simple with two black shirts, one long sleeve, and black jeans.
What gives it the MJ edge is the white armband on the right sleeve, a single, fingerless white glove that reaches up his forearm near his elbow and his signature white medical taped fingers on one hand.
In a subtle way, Michael was showing the world that he’s mostly the same as all of us, but there are a few things that make him unique. The one short film that showcases MJ in his usual grandiosity is the visual for Remember the Time. Since it is ostensibly set in ancient Egypt, Michael’s attire is highly detailed, if not elegant.
He rocked a gold satin shirt with golden chain mail, and a white skirt over black pants. Even though his style in short films was more reserved during this era, he was more audacious during “The Dangerous World Tour.”
Michael often wore complex costumes with intricate details, including one black and gold jacket which resembles a military style getup, with what appears to be a stockpile of machine gun ammo criss crossing his chest. He also wore that during his famous Super Bowl XXVII halftime performance in January 1993.
His Aviator shades were also his preferred choice for eyewear during this era as was the occasional fedora. He wore his hair down, with wavy curls at times, then on occasion he would wear it in a low ponytail. This era proved that Michael could pull any look off effectively.
4. The Off the Wall Era, 1979–1981
This era took place during the pre-entertainment icon days of Mike’s career. He had not yet become a universally admired music immortal; in fact, 21-year old Jackson had only begun taking his first strides towards adult solo superstardom.
The driving force of this point of MJ’s career was Off the Wall, his masterfully composed and beautifully sung fifth solo album. The cover of the LP depicted Jackson dressed in a tuxedo while still sporting one of the most omnipresent style choices of 1970’s Black culture: the Afro.
During this period, Michael tended to approximate this general style with practically every public appearance. During the 1980 AMA’s, he wore a similar tuxedo with a sequined shirt and large bow tie. That style tie was one of his go-to fashion choices during this era, as was a short Jheri curl in his hair.
During the 1981 AMA’s, he sported another sequined get-up, this time a sweater with a button up shirt underneath and…the large bow tie! His short film for the smash hit, “Don’t Stop Til’ You Get Enough” featured Michael in the same classy tuxedo, almost appearing as a very gifted prom date.
For the Rock with You clip, he jazzed it up a bit with a blue sequined shirt and matching pants. The youthful exuberance which he displays throughout the visual epitomized his general public persona at the time.
His face had not yet undergone any significant modifications, so he still closely resembled the adolescent version of himself from roughly six years earlier.
His skin tone was brown and his nose was still broad, since he’d had just a single rhinoplasty (nose job) by the time this era came to a close. This was arguably the simplest era for Michael, but he still exuded sheer star power at all times.
5. The History Era, 1995–97
This was a most unusual era for Michael because it was the first one that began with him being viewed by some as a criminal. Towards the end of “The Dangerous Era,” explosive allegations surfaced against Mike accusing him of child molestation.
Predictably, it became a huge media story and dealt his reputation a massive blow, even as the superstar issued vehement denials. The matter was eventually settled out of court for a reported $20 million, which left many to believe that the massive payout was essentially an admission of guilt.
The aftermath of the sordid story never truly went away, even as I write this more than a quarter century after it took place. These are all very important details needed to understand “The History Era,” because the album that led this period, History: Past, Present and Future, Book I signaled something of a comeback for Jackson.
The sprawling double CD was one part greatest hits, and one part new material. The new tracks featured a Michael Jackson that we had never seen or heard before; he was full of anger, rage and seemed to have a huge chip on his shoulder.
The single, “Scream” was a duet with his sister Janet and served as a screed against “the system” that kept “kicking [him] down” according to MJ. There were a few other songs in which he addressed the media coverage and the judicial system as it pertained to his famous case, which was sad that things had come to that.
Even still, the music was great — particularly cuts such as “You are Not Alone,” the short film of which featured Jackson in semi nude scenes with his new wife Lisa Marie Presley. Overall, his style during this period was similar to “The Dangerous Era.”
He wore many simple button up shirts and black pants, often with a fedora. He had also taken an interest in wearing shin guards over the legs of his pants, which I found to be so cool. He trended towards wearing heavily customized jackets that were very detailed and resembled the sartorial style of royalty.
One of the signature costumes of “The History World Tour” was a gold “suit of armor” that was adorned with an assortment of straps and buckles, and paired with the aforementioned shin guards. This provided a dazzling visual whenever he performed on stage, and he also retained the single, fingerless glove from the previous era.
His hair style was interesting, as he wore it in what seemed to be a short, cropped perm. This was especially noticeable in the clip for You Are Not Alone, which also highlighted another interesting difference in MJ. His skin had become yet another shade lighter, to the point where he appeared to be almost porcelain in complexion.
Because of his semi nudity in the short film, it was very shocking to see how milky white his chest, arms, legs and face were all at one time. I never saw this as a bad thing or something to ridicule Jackson about; instead, I continued to marvel at his consistent ability to reinvent himself visually and artistically.
By 1997, Michael’s style was a bit different. During his famous interview with Barbara Walters, he sported his signature fedora, with his hair visibly longer and hanging down over his forehead.
He wore a black sport coat with a white V neck T-shirt underneath, and a pair of black pants with a vertical white stripe down the sides. He always looked sharp in the simplest of clothes.
Michael’s epic career was filled with a treasure trove of awards, milestones, record breaking achievements and show stopping brilliance. But he was also a fashion icon who changed the culture and elevated style and visual uniqueness to the highest of levels.
I salute him.