by Erin Moonyeen Haley
The cover was iconic. And so were the fashions.
Twenty-five years ago, Janet Jackson’s The Velvet Rope debuted, and with it an aesthetic that merged the vintage professional with the ballsy sex kitten; the sophisticate with the poet. In celebration, the album has been re-released as a deluxe edition, complete with ten bonus tracks and B-side remixes of the rarely-heard gems, “Accept Me” and “God’s Stepchild”.
The album’s cover - photographed by Ellen von Unwert - is still coy but deeply meditative. Janet’s head is tilted down, her hair a cinnamon sunburst; her amber eyes are averted. The image remains an invitation to enter an entirely new world of liberation, of venting sexual appetites and excavating the self to the point that even the unconscious is somehow laid gossamer and bare.
Many ‘best of’ lists have hailed the album as exquisite genius. Rich in pathos, explorative of both depression and angst, Janet balances frailty with the testimonials of a survivor, vocalizing raw honesty with an unquenchable, unapologetic thirst for intimacy that forges an electric connection with fans. The fashions that juxtaposed the sounds remain just as potent as the music, scaffolding the entire experience with a visceral level of disclosure.
In the opening of The Velvet Rope tour, Janet wore the uniform of a circus ringleader who moonlights as a raver. The look featured a cropped, lipstick-red jacket (David Cardona) with oversized lapels and cuffs, and a Dolce & Gabbana zebra-striped shirt. The hair was pure punk with tiger stripes dyed Hawaiian punch-pink, creating a mohawk plumage that later fell loose into mermaid corkscrews.
Directed by Mark Romanek, the video for "Got Til It's Gone" took the acoustics of the Joni Mitchell hippie ode to nostalgia and revved it up just enough to create a bump-and-grind sonic sweet spot.
With Q-Tip chanting 'Joni Mitchell Never Lies' over Joni's soprano trill, the sepia setting was post-colonial Africa, circa the 1960s and 1970s. The costumes were relaxed but chic in their own vintage way. There were halter tops, suits with wide lapels, bell bottoms and disco shirts, all meant to evoke the photography of Malick Sidibé, a Malian artist whose photos captured scenes of celebration and boisterous nightlife. Janet is in synch with that groove in a halter top that was casually paired with a Santa Fe Leather Co. coat, a wrap-around army-green skirt and fortune-teller hoops.
In her bittersweet lamentation to friends lost to AIDS, "Together Again" was a reminder of one-day-someday reunions. Her ensemble included a transparent, green mesh tank worn beneath a mesh burnt orange top and over blousy grey trousers. Her braids are artful architecture as she sits amid a Sahara, while her dancers wear idiosyncratic prints and styles that attest to Janet's love of people embracing individuality.
"I Get Lonely" sharply deviated from its album predecessors. With a cognac-smooth tempo, the outfits played with gender expectations. There were cinching waist-biting corsets over white button-up shirts and fedoras that channeled both a gentlemen's touch and a gangster vibe.
Videos aside, the Velvet Rope tour carried a raucous element of burlesque, especially with a pole dancing routine where Miss Janet wore a long-sleeved black mesh top that cropped right at her toned abdomen, and that was set on proverbial fire with scarlet feathers at the wrists and the neck. A gold rope with bronze tassels completed the theatrical look with vaudevillian audacity.
A hallmark of Janet's concerts is that backup dancers received as much fashion love and care as its star. Costume sketches available on Julien's Auctions website reveal lavish designs by David Cardona full of a carnival of colors and models. Other designs feature the hallmark sleekness and oversized outrageous jackets that undercut the tour and the videos.
Offstage, her look stayed edgy, with her magenta-colored hair styled in pompoms and her hoop earrings as big as bracelets as she promoted her album and tour.
In the end, it is safe to say that The Velvet Rope eclipsed all other albums and tours in a way that is hard to explain yet easy to feel. While the lyrics tread into deeper waters than her previous eponymous album, the stylized looks were deliberate and precise, leaving no question that - on this anniversary of anniversaries - Janet doesn't simply perform, she reigns in any venue; a singer of bluesy dance halls and bombastic stadiums, summoning the spotlight even when artfully working with the shadows.
Images courtesy of Julien's Auctions and Vogue