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

Abstract: The King of Style: Dressing Michael Jackson by Michael Bush (Insight Editions, 2012) $45.00 9.2 x 1 x 12.8 inches: 216 pages. Hardcover. ISBN-13: 9781608871513

Reviewed by Nada Basheer, an avid non-fiction reader and reviewer, a long-time Michael Jackson fan and student. She blogs at and tweets @overloved.


Basheer, Nada. “Academic Book Review of ‘The King of Style: Dressing Michael Jackson’ By Michael Bush” The Journal of Michael Jackson Academic Studies 3, no. 3 (2017). Published electronically 21/2/17.

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Academic Book Review of The King of Style: Dressing Michael Jackson by Michael Bush
By Nada Basheer

Michael Jackson is more than just a talented artist, and his creative abilities were not only limited to the musical domain. His artistry was more diverse than any other artist of the 21st century. Not only did Jackson exalted the music video genre from a mere promotional expendables to a work of art in their own rights, he also fashioned an appearance that is original and recognized all over the world. Many of us can close their eyes and conjure up an image of Jackson’s Thriller jacket, or any of his fascinating regalia. Jackson had mastered the art of fashion to a degree that it became synonymous with him. He elevated his costumes and utilized them in terms of conveying a non-verbal communication with a worldwide audience. Michael Jackson ‘looks’ were more than outfits; they told a story, they’ve sent a message. This is what The King of Style is all about: the iconic fashion and the stories behind them.

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Michael Bush met Jackson on the set of the 1986 3D science-fiction film, Captain EO. Shortly after that, he advanced from dresser to designer alongside with his partner, Dennis Tompkins. Together, they were assembled by Jackson to be his creative team that helped to bring his fashion ideas into reality. The style that Tompkins and Bush created for Jackson resulted in being the most iconic fashion ever worn by a popular figure. This book charts the creative journey they shared with Jackson for almost 25 years, which was nothing short of magic.
Designer Michael Bush discloses in the opening, ‘Introduction: The Sum of a Man Is More Than His Measurements’ that it was Jackson’s idea for them to produce this book. He would often ask them excitedly, ‘wouldn’t you love to know how the Wizard of Oz was made?’ To Jackson, ‘it was a no-brainer to pull back the curtains and reveal our contribution to the makings of a pop icon,’ he explains (p.1). Working as Jackson’s creative team changed Bush and Tompkins professional lives, ‘the depth and complexities of our creations often surprised us–and that was because Michael was our muse’ (p.2). Jackson became their mentor whose philosophy of thinking outside the box, embracing change and looking for humor, they’ve adapted. ‘We likened Michael Jackson to a canvas. He relished the details, was always curious about the process and craved invention–compelled always to pull off something new,’ he notes (p.1). He avows that by understanding the fashion that Jackson wore, ‘an entirely new side of Michael Jackson is revealed’ (p.1).

Jackson’s teaching method was to riddle his team into finding the answers on their own. He didn’t use a direct approach to educate to enhance their power of focus and attention to detail. In order to keep up with him, they had to learn how to ‘forecast his needs and also think outside the box, but the final criteria for creating Michael’s pieces became clear to us only after we noticed what excited him about wearing them’ (p.25). ‘Chapter One: Thrilling a Style. Styling a Thriller’ discusses what excited Jackson about the ‘British heredity and military history’ and the meaning he was conveying through his classic military silhouettes, ‘Michael’s intent was to be rebellious in what he wore while applying a mix of authority through the rigid lines of the jacket’ (p.9). Jackson was steering the public’s perception of him by wearing a piece that signified status and gracefulness, which identified him as a royalty. ‘Michael’s creativity transcended anything Dennis and I thought could be perceived in reality,’ he remarks (p.19).

While the previous chapter viewed Jackson as an inspiring teacher, or as the author coined it, the riddler. In ‘Chapter Two: The Michael Mystique’ he is presented as the marketer, who perfected the showmanship, and his clothes served that purpose only. Privately and in casual days he sported the apparel that the author called the ‘Michael Uniform,’ which consists of a red corduroy shirt, black cotton pants, and loafers. Bush harks back to the beginning of the white sequined glove which Jackson used to hand-make as a child by pressing the stones one by one using his bare hands and the prongs would often result in causing his fingertips to bleed. As Jackson’s performing style expanded, so did the famous rhinestone glove. Bush offers in this chapter the making of the glove step by step, and then he overviews its progression. Bush moves on to recounts Jackson’s fondness for rhinestones, ‘For Michael, slinging dust [rhinestones] never got old. This appreciation for detail and for the things in life so often taken for granted was a part of his magic’(p.40). Just like every area of his artistry, when it came to style; Jackson was a visionary. He valued his individuality that he declined offers to be dressed by people from the fashion world, he told Bush, ‘I don’t want to be a walking billboard for a conglomerate’ (p.44). Jackson’s sense of singularity is unfolded in this chapter, which encourages scholars and researchers to further the exploration of his mindset.

‘Michael Jackson was a stage magician,’ declares Bush in ‘Chapter Three: The Message in Michael’s Magic’ (p.53). To study and understand Jackson’s live performances in-depth, this is the chapter to come back to as a reference. It’s the most comprehensive part of the book because in it Bush divulges in dissecting Jackson’s four acts of magic: Florsheim shoes, rhinestone socks, pants, and bigger appearance, ‘making Michael taller and broader was a big part of his magic act–the illusion that his physical presence was even more majestic and grand’ (p.63). Bush details the facets of Jackson performances with profundity.

The most important feature to Jackson’s fashion were evidently the jackets. In this chapter Bush chronicles the evolution of his jackets, including his most iconic Thriller and Beat It jackets, which were a constant part of his live performances but just like everything with his style, they continually progressed. Therefore, the invention and reinvention of his jackets are the main focus in ‘Chapter Four: Chasing the Magic’ and ‘Chapter Five: Cloaking a King’. ‘Chapter Six: Master of Ceremony’ is a fantastic continuation to ‘Chapter Three: The Message in Michael’s Magic’ in terms of expounding Jackson’s live performance, the costumes and life-on-the-road.

The use of accessories in Jackson’s outfits is further discussed in ‘Chapter Seven: The Next’. The accessories that Jackson employed for his outfits were more than just a complementary to compound a piece of clothing; they were symbols. Behind each little detail, there was a story that demanded attention and analysis. ‘In designing for Michael, our process often became one of elimination: what hasn’t he worn? What haven’t we done yet?’ Bush reflects.
Michael Jackson’s boundless creativity made his team in a constant state of development to keep up with the flow of his thoughts and wishes; such as creating shoes that would make him perform a move that defied gravity–that is known as the Lean Move, or to create a story belt that would depict Jackson’s life, or to make boots that are completely out of metal. ‘Chapter Eight: Limitless’ tells how Jackson helped his team to transform from designers into inventors. ‘Dennis and I, a team originally comprised of a cutter/fitter and a designer, had grown into artists and engineers,’ Bush acknowledges.

The final ‘Chapter Nine: Unfinished’ explores the incomplete project of Jackson’s concert series, ‘This Is It’ with plentiful photographs that illustrate what direction Jackson’s fashion was going to look like at the age of 50.
The creative journey finishes with a touching ‘Afterword’, in which Bush writes about the final mission that was assigned to him by the Jackson Family; to choose and create the last ensemble that Michael Jackson will be buried in. ‘When Michael stopped, it all just stopped,’ he asserts. Bush delineates beautifully about the kingly costume they reinvented after Jackson’s favorite military jacket that he wore for the Grammys in 1993 – he was awarded the Grammy Legend Award by Janet Jackson, and he narrates the recreating and dressing process. ‘We beheld not a funeral, but a coronation,’ he concludes.

The clothes that Michael wore were more than just fancy garments; they were an expression, a statement and how he liked to be perceived. Bush presents an opportunity for theorists, authors, and academics to unravel a part of Michael Jackson’s mystique through his fashion. Jackson admirers will find a haven in The King of Style with its personal anecdotes and the plethora of stunning and informative photographs. The King of Style brilliantly showcases Michael Jackson’s fashion from the team who created it; ‘it is the first-ever pictorial compilation of the evolution of that process,’ Bush describes. Therefore, it is a major source for further research and analysis.

Just like The King of Style unveil a vital side of Michael Jackson that invites a more in-depth conversations by academics, there are other books that were written by people who worked closely with Jackson, such as Michael Jackson: In Search of Neverland by Gloria Rhoads Berlin, Maker of Dreams: Creating Michael Jackson’s “Neverland Valley Park” by Robert E. Swinson and In the Studio with Michael Jackson by Bruce Swedien, which serve as reasonable sources in connoting the artist, perhaps then it will be possible to grasp the man behind the spectacle, with the help from the people that knew and worked with him.

Where to buy: The King of Style: Dressing Michael Jackson by Michael Bush: Amazon UK and Amazon USA.

Nada Basheer is an avid non-fiction reader and reviewer, a long-time Michael Jackson fan and student. She runs a successful blog, filled with fantastic insights and remarkable detail on her reading at Overloved and tweets prolifically at @overloved. Her work for The Journal of Michael Jackson Academic Studies, includes academic reviews of ‘Keep Moving: The Michael Jackson Chronicles’ and ‘Otherness And Power: Michael Jackson And His Media Critics’. Find out more about Nada here.