Before Bieber’s bangs, Kurt’s plaid or Madonna’s bra, music’s greatest style statement was Michael Jackson’s single, sparkling glove. On this day in 1983, Jackson introduced his one-glove look (and a little dance move called the Moonwalk) while performing on “Motown 25,” a television special airing on NBC. Jackson had only agreed to take part in a Jackson 5 reunion for the program if he could also perform a solo of “Billie Jean,” the second single from his Thriller album that was currently enjoying its seventh week at number one on the pop charts. Jackson performed a medley with the Jackson 5 and, after his brothers exited the stage, added a black fedora to his soon-to-be-famous short-pants-with-sparkly-socks ensemble. He tossed the hat early in the song, but the image of him with it tipped into his gloved hand became a MJ trademark as much as the gravity-defying backward glide did.
In Moonwalk, his 1988 autobiography, Jackson recalls he was sure of two things that day: He was going to do the Moonwalk he’d been practicing and he wanted to wear a “spy hat.” He wrote, “I called my management office and said, ‘Please order me a…cool fedora—something that a secret agent would wear.’ I wanted something sinister and special, a real slouchy kind of hat.” According to designer Keith Holman, who worked as an assistant to Jackson’s lead designer, the late Bill Whitten, the singer completed the look with a sequin jacket previously owned by the senior Mrs. Jackson, as well as high-water black pants, bejeweled white socks and glove. Even the King of Pop was surprised when copycats turned out in the look. “Not too long ago it was considered extremely square to wear white socks,” Jackson wrote. “It was cool in the 1950’s, but in the ‘60s and ‘70s you wouldn’t be caught dead in white socks. After Thriller came out, it even became okay to wear your pants high around your ankles again.”
But the glove was the unique standout. It continued to appear as part of Jackson’s outfits—moving from his left hand to his right—and became more sophisticated in its design. Holman confirms that the rudimentary glove Jackson wore for “Motown 25” was fashioned from a store-bought golf glove covered in a remnant of rhinestone mesh. After the “Billie Jean” performance, Jackson asked Whitten—who also dressed Elton John, Neil Diamond and Stevie Wonder—to design more gloves like the golf glove. Whitten designed the unique military jackets Jackson wore while promoting Thriller and the embellished socks and gloves. Each glove was covered in 1,200 hand-sewn Austrian crystals that took specialty artistic beaders at Artistic Hand Beading (which also worked with designers John Galanos, Bob Mackie and Jean Louis) in Los Angeles about 10 days to create. “Bill and Michael were the creators of that look,” Holman, who also worked at the shop, recalls, “They had a vision and Stella [Ruata, the accomplished beader and co-founder of Artistic Hand Beading] made it come to life.”
The glove garnered even more fame after Jackson’s hair caught on fire while filming a Pepsi commercial eight months later. In the photos that surfaced afterwards, a heavily bandaged Jackson is loaded into an ambulance waving at reporters with his gloved hand. For the Grammy Awards a month later, CBS Records notified guests of a party to be thrown in the singer’s honor with 1,500 invitations printed on white gloves. At the Grammy ceremony, the singer trekked up to the podium for a record eight wins clad in Whitten’s black bugle-beaded military jacket and now-iconic glove. The designer went on to create several versions of what became known as “Fantasy Gloves” in various colors that featured prominently in The Jacksons’ Victory Tour in 1984.
After Jackson’s death in 2009, rumors surfaced that Whitten designed the glove to disguise vitiligo—a skin condition that leads to pigment loss. But this contradicts Whitten’s claim that Jackson’s showmanship inspired adding rhinestones to the glove and socks. “It was very simple,” Whitten told the Los Angeles Times in 1990, “The audience was missing his hand and feet movements. They couldn’t see the quick gestures.” And in Moonwalk, Jackson admits he understood the power of having a distinctive performance look. “I had been wearing the single glove for years before Thriller,” he said. “I felt that one glove was cool. Wearing two gloves seemed so ordinary, but a single glove was different.” —Rachel Chambers