This weekend, Little Richard’s passing from bone cancer at the age of 87 revealed the depth of his influence. As tributes from Mick Jagger, Bob Dylan, and Patti Smith poured in, fans revisited his music with the knowledge that he’d laid the foundation for rock and roll. Music had lost one of its true originals, but it wasn’t the only arena in which his presence loomed large. An unapologetic dandy, Little Richard (born Richard Wayne Penniman) helped to usher in an era of flamboyant menswear expression, leading by example with an outré wardrobe and fearless style.
From the beginning, fashion set Little Richard apart. Drawn to the stage in his teens after a chance encounter with legendary guitarist Sister Rosetta Tharpe led to featuring as her opening act, he moved from singing gospel songs in church to performing vaudeville with a showman’s flair. In the early ’50s when ideas about gender were hard-coded into clothing, he flouted the rules. An early stint performing in drag tent shows under the moniker “Princess LaVonne” was followed by the adoption of a freewheeling and flamboyant personal style. The capes and turbans came before he ever entered a recording studio. Inspired by openly gay blues pioneer Billy Wright, he adopted the sculpted pompadour and pencil-thin mustache that would become his signature and presented himself as though he was already a star.
The breakthrough release of “Tutti Frutti” in 1955 and “Long Tall Sally” a year later propelled him into mainstream celebrity, introducing audiences to his high-octane performance style and a wardrobe brimming with spangles and sequins. His raucous piano playing was complemented by custom suits and heels in vivid hues. Black-and-white television sets couldn’t capture the full range of Little Richard’s fabulousness, but the folks at home could see him sparkle. In thick pancake makeup and wigs, he became a whole new character. The flash of his clothes served a dual purpose, enhancing his onstage persona while pacifying fears of miscegenation within his integrated audience. “I wore the makeup so that white men wouldn’t think I was after the white girls,” he later told a journalist. “It made things easier for me, plus it was colorful.”
Forever straddling the line between being celebrated for his individuality and mocked for breaking from masculine norms, Little Richard only became more daring with time. As musicians influenced by his work rose to prominence, he embarked on a series of reinventions. If Jagger and Dylan were revisiting his old moves, Little Richard set out to create new ones. The ’60s and ’70s saw him embrace androgyny in lamé crop tops and brocade tunics fit for a love-in. Everything was amplified—the hair expanded into a bouffant, the sequins doubled, and in a body-con move for the ages, shirts became optional.
Age may have toned Little Richard’s wardrobe down, but he never lost his sense of fun. He sang his way into the supermodel era leading Cindy Crawford in rousing song and dance for Revlon’s Charlie campaign. One of the few people who could outshine Cindy C at the height of her powers, he stole the show in the Herb Ritts–directed clips. Though the image of Little Richard dancing and decked out in finery is how many will remember him, it was only one of a thousand incarnations for a performer who never stopped transforming.