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Little Richard: A Conflicting Relationship with Sexuality as Seen Through Fashion

Updated: Nov 15, 2023

Written by Shi Bradley

The CNN original documentary, “I Am Everything” is a film that features a new side of iconic singer Little Richard. I had the opportunity to see it on the second day of the Phoenix Film Festival. Hailed as the “Architect of Rock and Roll,” it was incredible to witness the journey of Richard Penniman as a kid in rural, conservative Mason, Georgia to the icon of rock & roll he is today. The film follows his journey from humble beginnings to the powerhouse that people remember him as today.

Not only is he known for his incredibly dynamic music that changed the landscape of rock and roll as we know it, but he is also known for his ever-changing fashion sense, filled with moments of boldness and drama as well as moments of conservative, subdued fashion, all dependent on Richard’s confidence in his sexuality at the time.

Little Richard had a tumultuous relationship with his sexuality throughout his career. He experienced moments where he openly accepted his queerness and served as a champion of gay rights, and other moments where he renounced his sexuality openly in front of crowds of churches. Sometimes, these conflicting personalities would even happen at the same time.

We can see this through Richard’s fashion choices throughout the years. For example, the start of his career saw the early branding of his iconic, out-there looks. As a black man performing in the 1950s, it was important for Little Richard to emphasize femininity in his appearance so he appeared less threatening to white female audiences. However, by doing so, he was a brilliant inspiration to many LGBTQ+ people on the idea of dressing androgynously. In his early days of performance, Richard even performed in drag under the name “Princess LaVonne”, an act that was illegal in general but was allowed on the stage. He also drew inspiration from other openly gay artists such as Billy Wright. By the time his music career took off with hits like “Tutti Frutti” and “Good Golly Miss Molly,” Richard had become known for his iconic thin mustache and pompadour hair and had become an icon of loud, in-your-face, flamboyant fashion.

The later half of the 1950s, however, saw Richard in a place of internal conflict. Little Richard decided that he needed to turn to a life of Christ and he decided to work as a pastor. During this era, there was a complete 360 in fashion: simple suits, a short cut hairstyle, and absolutely no makeup. Richard was seeking to look like a “man of Christ.” He wanted nothing to do with the looks that made him recognizable as an icon in the gay community.

In the 1960s, though, Little Richard decided to make a move back to secular music and with secular music came the bold, daring fashion fans had come to love and that other queer people had decided to look up to. Richard’s outfits with sparkles and sequins, crop-tops, and elaborate tunic had returned and his days of wild partying, drugs, and sexual escapades would continue.

In the years following, Richard often went back-and-forth, on his music, his fashion, and his identity. There were times when he would make separate appearances, some with bouffant hairstyles and feminine wardrobes and other times with tailored suits and short-cut, masculine presenting hairstyles. Sometimes, within the same year, he would give contrasting messages, with one appearance emphasizing his queer identity and the next appearance condemning it. It was something that gave many of his fans, especially within the gay community, a bit of a shock to witness.

Though Little Richard would objectively always be an icon, his indecisive and contradictory behavior makes his legacy as a person one that is wrought with controversy. While I’d agree that his wavering loyalty to the LGBTQ+ community would often be confusing, I think he had such an undeniable impact on music and fashion that no matter what, he was objectively an icon and pioneer of the music and fashion scene and he propelled the movement of gay rights and pride further in many ways.

In my opinion, the thing that makes Little Richard such an icon in fashion is that he was one of the first men, specifically, black queer men, that encouraged others that it’s okay to dress in a way that allows you to express yourself. In a world where both black men and young gay men, and especially black gay men, were being persecuted, physically abused by society, and murdered for their true identities, Richard’s loud and flamboyant appearance was an act of bravery that was needed to pave the way for the society that we are allowed to live in today.

Though it was sad to witness Richard renounce his gay identity I can completely understand the debilitating fear that must’ve come with being a black gay man in America during the 1950s. Seeing the shift from the bright fun, sparkly wardrobe to the subdued, conservative, looks of his past days, I see nothing but a man who is afraid to be himself due to the hatefulness of society and it’s something that fills me with a great sadness rather than anger. To me, that shift in appearance demonstrates Richard’s journey as a gay man just as much as the campy bright looks of Little Richard the rock and roll star. It showcases the internalized homophobia, guilt, and stress many LGBT+ people experience and the turmoil it can bring to one’s life.

All in all, Little Richards’s impact is undeniable. As a musician, a fashion icon, and an LGBTQ+ trailblazer. It was an honor to see his journey through fashion, his sexuality, and all the trials and triumphs of his life on the big screen at the Phoenix Film Festival.

Here is the full film schedule of the Phoenix Film Festival.  You can also watch the trailer of the Little Richard documentary I Am Everything here.

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