The Magnificent One: how Little Richard's style shaped David Bowie, Prince and Elton John

By Lauren Cochrane

‘Little Richard scared my grandmother in 1957,” wrote John Waters in 2010. While his grandmother’s fear was largely about the singer’s sound – that trademark shriek at the start of his hit Lucille – his look had a formative impact on the 11-year-old Waters. It is thanks to Little Richard that the film director has the deliciously fake pencil-thin moustache that his fans know and love today.

Waters’ moustache is just one example of Little Richard’s influence on fashion and style. Images of Little Richard, born Richard Penniman, in his 5os heyday show a proud, decade-appropriate quiff – forget Chuck Berry and Elvis, this was the best in the business – plus a mascara-ed moustache, panstick makeup and the look of kohl around his eyes. James Brown, who was a Little Richard impersonator, learned the power of good hair from him. The Godfather of Soul began his career in the late 50s with a quiff worthy of Little Richard.

Little Richard in 1952
Ahead of the curve ... Little Richard in 1952. Photograph: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

The kohl and panstick makeup gave clues to Little Richard’s journey. He was thrown out of home at the age of 13; some writers – and even sometimes Little Richard – argued this was down to homophobia, with his father taking offence at his son’s queerness (he later said he was “omnisexual”, before denouncing this term). The teenager then spent time as a drag queen, taking the stage name Princess Lavonne. “I used to call myself at the time the Magnificent One,” Little Richard says to Waters of his early career. “I was wearing makeup and eyelashes when no men were wearing that.” He called himself “the king and queen of rock’n’roll”.

An early Little Richard look
Suits you ... an early Little Richard look. Photograph: Charlie Gillett Collection/Redferns

Little Richard was light years ahead of his contemporaries when it came to experimenting with fashion as part of his image – to celebrate flamboyance, to be a complete rock star. His first outfits were smart, boxy suits but not the kind for work. These came with wide-legged trousers that allowed movement, such as slamming a brogue on to the piano. He later wore wigs – to make that tonsorial statement even more impressive – along with sparkles, crop tops, jumpsuits and headbands. He was the blueprint for the anything-goes permissiveness that developed on stage over the coming decades.

Little Richard in the 70s
The complete rock star ... Little Richard in the 70s. Photograph: Andre Csillag/Rex/Shutterstock

While his career was suspended when Little Richard retired from showbusiness for religion in 1957, a return to live performance in the 60s coincided with the emergence of a new generation of musicians. This is when Little Richard’s showman style began to develop. He toured Europe in the first half of the 60s, with the Rolling Stones and the Beatles supporting him. They learned from Little Richard how to own the pomp of rock stardom. “Mick Jagger used to watch my act,” he once said. “Where do you think he got that walk?”

Elton John, meanwhile, supported him as part of the band Bluesology in 1967 and no doubt took note of the winning combination of wild outfit and wild piano playing. And Jimi Hendrix, a man destined for many “rock star style” Pinterest boards? He played guitar in Little Richard’s band.

Little Richard, 1975
‘Flamboyant androgyny’ ... Little Richard in 1975. Photograph: Jorgen Angel/Redferns

By the 70s, Little Richard was wearing Rudi Gernreich-style onesies at airports, sequinned kaftans on TV and tie-up blouses on stage. The guitarist Steve Van Zandt, in his tribute to Little Richard, said that part of his legacy was a “flamboyant androgyny which would become an essential part of rock’n’roll”.

Little Richard at Heathrow in 1972
Great innovator ... Little Richard at Heathrow in 1972. Photograph: Bill Howard/ANL/Rex/Shutterstock

David Bowie and Prince are often – rightly – cited as music’s great fashion innovators, playing with gender in fashion and pushing the boundaries when it comes to the optics of male sexuality. Both owe debts to Little Richard – and acknowledge them.

“Little Richard was just unreal,” Bowie told Rolling Stone. “Unreal. Man, we’d never seen anything like that.” Prince, meanwhile, paid tribute in looks. On the cover of his 1986 album Parade, he is photographed in a crop top, with quiff, mascara and pencil moustache. Little Richard took the compliment, and added a bit of shade. “Prince is the Little Richard of his generation,” he told Joan Rivers in 1989, turning to the camera to address Prince himself: “I was wearing purple before you was wearing it!”

With more modern performers, such as Bruno Mars and Janelle Monáe, still referencing Little Richard, his status as a style pioneer is in no doubt – more than 60 years after he scared Waters’ grandmother.