Today is the 33rd anniversary of the first time Prince ever performed “Purple Rain”. Here’s how I’m remembering him.
While making a David Bowie tribute costume, Prince unexpectedly left us so it seemed only right that my next project should be a Prince costume. Like Bowie, Prince was legendary: super talented and highly original, creative and prolific, with a specific and unique style and sound. I had just curated an 80s costume as a side project, and wasn’t feeling that inspired by the Purple Rain look that so many others have done well. My favorite looks of his were all modern. I can’t get enough of that knit top with flared bell sleeves silhouette, paired with flared 1970s inspired pants in the same stage-worthy fabric and coordinating vest, that ups the whole look from “glam prayer outfit” or “jazzy, perfectly tailored PJs” to “rock star legend”.
I don’t know for sure, but that seemed to be Prince’s style formula, and I love it. It is so practical and comfortable looking because of the knit fabric, and yet has such stage presence because of the fabric choices (metallics, for example, and for the vest, fur, feathers, leather). I imagine his uniform is highly versatile, appropriate for everything from snoozing to high-profile performances in the spotlight that require rocking out. The silhouette is unique to him, and that makes him instantly recognizable. Brilliant.
One of my favorite outfits of his is what he wore to the SNL40 after party. If I ever get to make a second Prince costume, that would definitely be it. I really liked the “third eye” glasses he wore to the 2015 American Music Awards and for one of his album covers because like Bowie’s outfits with an exposed arm and leg, the third eye glasses seem to have been Prince’s thing. (You can actually buy third eye glasses from the original designers Coco and Breezy here, but they’re very expensive and I wanted to see if I could make them.) I also liked his 2015 AMAs outfit because it combined a mustardy yellow and gold perfectly, something I never would have dared to do.
I decided to see how well I could replicate that 2015 AMAs outfit with a limited budget, but my main motivation for making the outfit was really so that I could make what I had initially envisioned when I first heard the sad news about Prince: a three dimensional cloud sculpture with purple “rain”. I liked the idea of the Prince costume floating around under a cloud raining purple. It seemed symbolic of the great loss and sadness surrounding his unexpected passing.
Making the costume
The first step was to make the wearable portion of the costume. I wanted to save the cloud project for last because I couldn’t find any tutorial for the type of cloud I envisioned, making it a riskier project. What if I couldn’t figure out how to make it? Finishing the outfit first would ensure I had something to wear, plus I really wanted to make the third eye glasses. Could I do it? I wasn’t sure.
I started with the top and pants. I couldn’t find any fabric at first in the right yellow color, so I purchased a white polyester prayer top with bell sleeves and true vintage high waisted light yellow polyester bell bottoms and decided to try coloring the top to match the pants. Just reading that, you may know this was doomed to failure.
Dyeing polyester was one option, but I couldn’t find polyester dye locally so opted to try fabric paint first. The cost of fabric paint added up quickly as I experimented with colors hoping to find a match. The polyester fabric dyes I found online didn’t look like the right yellow, and dyeing fabric to match another color sounded pretty technical and hard.
Abandoning that approach, I went back to my local fabric store, and found a mustard yellow spandex that I thought would work. I must have overlooked it last time (in my determination to avoid sewing entire garments). The fabric was actually a gold metallic lamé laminated on to yellow spandex. I didn’t like that at first because I knew it wouldn’t be breathable, but decided to embrace it and try to make the outfit reversible. You never know when you’ll need a matching shiny gold top and bottom, right?
I used various tops and pants as templates for cutting out the pattern (and found this YouTube video helpful for learning how to sew pants). I decided on a boatneck type neckline against a turtleneck, which Prince sometimes wore, since the fabric wasn’t breathable. I just eye-balled the patterns and hoped they would work out, figuring if the garments they are based on fit and I was cutting them larger than that, the resulting garments should also fit. To make the bell sleeves, I just flared the pattern pieces of the sleeves out towards the cuff. For the pants, I flared the inside only so that I wouldn’t have to sew an outer seam because I was hand sewing and wanted to minimize the work. I made sure that the top was tunic length because that was Prince’s style and I liked the look of the longer shirt with the flared pants. I found some neat explanations online of different hand stitches and tips on how to make them even to make the hand sewing more enjoyable. I watched a lot of amazing YouTube tutorials on how to make foam armor to pass the time. I can’t really offer any machine sewing tips because of this, except that everyone says to use woolly nylon for sewing spandex so that the seams have stretch or use a zig-zag stitch to enable stretch and prevent seams from ripping.
Because I wanted to make each piece reversible, I had to think about how to finish the seams so they would look nice on both sides. I can’t find the name of the type of seam I made now, but I basically hid the raw edge inside the seam and in some places sewed the seam down flat like a flat felled seam. For the hems, neckline, and sleeves, I attempted a rolled hem. Maybe there is a better way to finish those edges. The fabric didn’t want to roll, and you can see the stitches up close (see photo below).
The final outfit was slimmer than I thought it would be. I was originally going for a looser fit, but it worked. The sleeves bunch a little at the shoulder more than I’d like (maybe because of the thick reversible seam), but the vest covers most of that.
Vest front and back, photographed against the original white faux leather fabric.
Making the vest
Initially I thought maybe I’d find an inexpensive jacket or vest that could be modified. Not so. I couldn’t find the right faux gator leather type material in the right gold color either. Like white, there are surprisingly many different types of gold. I ended up buying an off-white vinyl material embossed with the gator texture and tried to cut my pattern pieces so that the gator print matched Prince’s (it really was the best looking way to lay out the pattern I think, no surprise there). I used a jacket I had and improvised a pattern from it, modifying the lines where needed. The collar took several freehand attempts to get the shape more or less right. I think I just got lucky there. I then proceeded to cut away material from one side in the front and one side in the back to mimic the original design, but accidentally made the cuts on the wrong sides. At least they are still asymmetrical, so the overall look and idea is the same. If I were doing it again, I’d want to cut the pattern to eliminate those 90 degree corners along the bottom of the front of the vest.
I thought about lining the vest with black fabric but decided against it for three reasons: the cost of the additional fabric, the work required to hand sew it, and two layers of synthetic non-breathable fabric sounded uncomfortable enough without a third layer. I do think the vest would look much nicer and photograph better with black lining.
Spray painting the vest gold
To get the vest gold, I used Rustoleum metallic spray paint and the Rustoleum Comfort Grip to apply it. The grip attachment makes spraying the paint much easier and smoother and is worth every cent. I wish I had invested in one sooner.
I do not recommend this other gold Rustoleum spray paint for this particular application because when I tested it, it had a shiny plastic looking finish and looked more tan than gold. Although it said it was made for plastic and seemed to adhere better to the fabric, the color and glossiness was not right for this project for me. The upside of this paint is that the improved nozzle design makes it much easier to spray and paint flows evenly out of the can with little effort (unlike the old style topped can I used). The shiny finish feels smoother and more durable (although still does not really adhere to this fabric) such that I think it would be a better choice if you were going for more of a patent leather look. I mention this in case you find yourself standing in front of both cans at the hardware store unsure of which to get. In the photo below, the largest area of gold is the finished vest (“Rustoleum Metallic gold spray paint”). Note that colors may appear differently on your screen. They did not photograph exactly accurately, either, but I think it’s good enough to at least make the point that the golds are different.
What I learned from spray painting is that you should not paint if there is wind or even a light breeze (because a lot of the paint will blow away or lead to unevenness in coverage). Try to keep the nozzle the same distance from the surface at all times and keep the can moving. The grip attachment keeps the paint flow continuous and even so you don’t have to worry about that. Also make sure the surface you are painting is as flat as possible. If I were doing it over, I’d paint the pattern pieces lying flat before sewing them together.
The faux leather fabric is kind of a slick surface. I didn’t do any prep work to the surface before painting and didn’t use primer. The spray paint will come off with certain paint removers, so it is not technically adhered, but for light indoor use I think it is acceptable.
Making the third-eye glasses
This was such a fun part of the project. I looked at a lot of different glasses in brick and mortar stores and just could not find the right combination of gold frame, truly round lenses (so many were slightly oval), and lens size. EBay has a better selection. It took four pairs of glasses to find the right proportions. Once I found a pair that would work, I ordered a second and used “tin snips” to separate a lens from the second pair. It was a little difficult and I did end up with a small hairline crack in the lens. It’s not that noticeable, but next time I would try wire cutters.
I think that the “third eye” of Prince’s glasses is actually slightly smaller in diameter than the lower two lenses, but when I tried this, the proportions were not right so I ended up going with two identical pairs of glasses.
The nub left from where the lens frame connected to the “ear arm” would not come off, so I decided to make it part of the design. The end of that metal nub became the surface I glued to the intact pair of sunglasses. I cut a small piece of scrap metal from the glasses “arm” I had to remove and used it to fill the space on the other side between the other lens and the “third eye”. The length of the “spacer” piece wasn’t an exact fit, but it was close enough. It actually looks better with the third eye set off from the other lenses a bit than with the three lenses stuck directly together with no space in between.
E6000 worked like a charm to stick everything together. Soldering would no doubt lead to better results, but I had leftover E6000 and no soldering iron. My glue tube came with an attachment nozzle for detail work (a smaller nozzle opening than the tube opening itself) and that worked really well. It took a couple tries to get everything in place, and then it was about propping the whole thing up so the glue would cure in the correct position. E6000 is viscous and takes a while to “set”, which makes using it in this particular application slightly challenging but not impossible. I doubt the glue is that durable, but I like that it is supposed to be somewhat flexible. I consider the finished glasses fragile, and will be handling them with care, but think they look awesome. From very close up, you can kind of tell they are glued together, but at any kind of distance, it looks like they just came that way. The only downside is there is no case wide enough to fit them. I wonder if Coco and Breezy’s glasses come with a special extra wide case?
Total cost for the glasses not including cost of glue and tin snip tool was about twenty dollars including the other three pairs of glasses that didn’t work out. There are some inexpensive glasses on EBay great for costumes!
Side project: shoe covers
For shoes, I found some 70s inspired, chunky heeled gold faux leather platform sandals on sale to go with the outfit. They were fine as is, but I’ve always wanted to try to make removable shoe covers. It just seemed like a great way to change the look of a pair of shoes temporarily. Plus, Prince didn’t really rock sandals as far as I can tell. He seemed to prefer pumps.
To make them, I layered newspaper over my shoes like papier mâché and then taped it in place with yellow duct tape that I had left over from my first costume. I worked around the whole thing, then removed the newspaper backing where possible and duct taped the back. Removing the newspaper was critical, because leaving it was too bulky. I then covered the outer surface of each with a few layers of gold and purple glitter nail polish to make them look less like duct tape and more like leather. I E6000’d scrap elastic (leftover from the waistband of the yellow pants pictured above) to the back of the shoe covers so that they would stay in place. This design may not work for all shoes – you need a good flat surface for the elastic to grip on to – but it does work well for these. There’s another photo of the shoes further down.
I walked around for over eight hours and did not have any problems. E6000 is amazing (but smells bad, so make sure to use it in a well ventilated space).
Purple Rain cloud
If you’re still reading, thank you for making it to my favorite part of this project! This was the biggest costume challenge I’ve taken on so far.
Trial and error
How to make the cloud part was tricky. I wanted the cloud to be lightweight and collapsible. I originally had other ideas about how I wanted to incorporate the cloud into the costume that required it to collapse, but ended up not needing that feature in the end. My first thought was to glue plastic grocery bags together to form a cloud-like shape.
I tried to collect some bags. They are banned where I live now, but some retailers still use them. I found one that had a cotton ball like shape that I liked, but the retailer wouldn’t give away the bags and I couldn’t make enough purchases to collect enough to get the coverage I needed. They did happen to have a purple umbrella for under five dollars that became the base structure for the cloud.
Experimenting with plastic sheeting
I went to the hardware store to look at plastic drop cloth sheeting in the painting section and found they carried different weights and types of plastic. I believe I ended up with 4 mil polyethylene plastic sheeting. It is lightweight, translucent, and has a bit of texture to the surface that makes it look cloud-like, especially when light shines through. The only problem with it is it lacks stiffness and does not stand up on its own very well.
Plastic sheeting comes in heavier weights and there may be other plastics that may work better, but I didn’t have money to fund experimentation so I started experimenting with ways to make the 4 mil sheeting work. The first thing I tried was laminating two layers of the material together by ironing them together. (I don’t recommend this because the plastic melts and off-gases and if you don’t pay attention to what you’re doing, you can melt holes right through the plastic.)
I started the iron on the lowest setting and adjusted from there to get enough heat to melt the layers together but not make holes. I ironed them on top of a magazine and put a few layers of newspaper over the plastic before ironing. I made sure to move the iron around continously and work quickly. Others that have tried something similar said to NOT use steam. I agree that that sounds like a bad idea.
Ironing two layers of 4 mil together changes the material properties of the plastic. The resulting plastic is thicker, glossier, and smoother. It’s hard to explain or capture on camera. The 4 mil material is like a thin plastic shower curtain liner, but the laminated plastic is like a thick wax paper or something. That’s probably not a good analogy, but it’s the best I can think of.
After a lot of sketching, research, and building a small prototype out of duct tape and newspaper to make a pattern for scaling up, the easiest solution I found was to cut semi-circles out of the plastic, iron them together along the curved edge, then flip them “inside out” so the seam was inside, and connect these little plastic domes together randomly. This is essentially making plastic bags without handles and joining them together (my original idea). I made the domes different sizes to get a more natural cloud shape. I joined some of them together by ironing them, but the iron was too wide, resulting in too much space between the “bumps”. I saw a mini travel flat iron in Sephora for about twenty bucks, and still wonder if that would work, but I opted for a lower tech and cheaper solution: hand sewing with fishing line. Heavy duty white thread may also work. Fishing line blended into the plastic sheeting pretty well and is very strong.
Before attaching the cloud layer to the umbrella, I used white primer paint from the hardware store to paint the outer side of the umbrella dome white. I tried leaving it purple, but the purple showed through and made it look less cloud-like so it had to go. Once painted, I sewed the cloud layer down to the umbrella along its perimeter with fishing line and tried to hide the line in between the two layers of material.
I decided to use ribbon for the “rain” because it was readily available and inexpensive. The umbrella is about 32 inches in diameter. I used purple ribbon that is 1/8 inch wide. I believe it was satin ribbon (see photo above), which has a bit of shininess that reflects light and photographs well. The strands are relatively thin so the reflectivity helps them not to get lost in the surroundings.
I attached the ribbon at random intervals along the metal umbrella frame, along the perimeter of the umbrella to the fishing line (taking care to hide the knots between the two layers), and also ran some ribbon between the metal frame parts to be able to tie ribbon off between the metal pieces. A double knot was sufficient to secure the ribbon. The ribbon pieces did move around a little along the metal and fishing line, but it was not much trouble to re-adjust the placement as needed.
Finally, I painted the umbrella shaft black. The silver metal was highly reflective, really noticeable, and detracted from the look because it had to be held right up against my face. A quick layer of black paint made the hardware disappear in photos. It will surely come off if I close the umbrella, though. I bet you could find an umbrella with hardware that is already black. That would be ideal.
Other ideas and lessons learned
You will see in later photos that the cloud shape has a strong horizontal line along the bottom. I wanted to add more plastic domes along the perimeter of the umbrella so that they hang down a bit below the umbrella edge by differing amounts to break up that line, but ran out of plastic sheeting (I used a good amount experimenting) and didn’t want to invest in another roll. Maybe I will make this improvement in the future.
There are so many great DIY clouds online that inspired me. I saw three dimensional clouds made by gluing polyester batting on to paper lanterns, and even cloud balloons. I also saw an umbrella with whimsical water droplet shaped cutouts strung together and hung around the perimeter of the umbrella as rain on Pinterest.
LED technology has advanced quite a bit and you can now get firefly type string lights of purple LEDs that are battery powered, not to mention there is EL wire that looks like it can be shaped into just about anything. I thought about lighting the cloud with white LED lights and then hanging purple ones down from inside the umbrella, and considered hanging purple EL wire down and blanking out sections to make it look like rain.
Hair and make-up
For hair, I found a cheap afro wig online and tried my best to fluff it out a bit. I should have sprayed it with dry shampoo to lessen the shininess, but forgot. Next time… For make-up, I was in a rush so I just thickened my eyebrows with brow powder, applied black eyeliner, and used the brow powder to draw in some Prince-like facial hair, which I probably should have made darker so people could see it from further away. If you have any tips for making brow hair and faux facial hair look more realistic, I would love to hear them! I haven’t quite figured that out yet. (There’s a sentence I never thought I’d say!)
Here are some photos of the finished costume.
What’s your favorite Prince song or outfit? Do you have any other ideas on how to use plastic sheeting? It’s a very interesting material and easy to work with. I bet you could do some cool things with it.