You’ve probably never heard of Bill Whitten. He was the costume designer who gave Michael Jackson his white glove. “It was very simple,” Whitten once said. “The audience was missing his hand and feet movements. They couldn’t see the quick gestures he was making.”
But his influence doesn’t stop there. He put Elton John in extravagant capes and Stevie Wonder in African print caftans and took Neil Diamond out of flower embroidered shirts and into bugle beads. “When I came into the business the only man in a beaded jacket was Liberace. Nobody had tasty beading for men. Nobody.”
Neil Diamond was the first performer to find Whitten, back in 1974 at his custom shirt firm Workroom 27 which had been open a matter of months with little success. But when word spread among the most elaborate elite, Whitten and his brand became a sensation.
He soon had 50 staff making stage clothes for 20 groups including the Commodores, the Jacksons, Edgar Winter and Steppenwolf. Diamond and Jackson were long-term customers.
“They (lead singers) didn’t have one place they could go that could outfit them and the band. I was the one source for all that,” he once said.
It is difficult to say whether Whitten was reclusive or just unsung. He died in 2006 but otherwise there is remarkably little information about him besides his high-profile clients – something that seems symptomatic of the costume profession.
Nevertheless what remains of Whitten’s legacy is his work. This 1973-4 denim suit was made for Elton John is on sale at Bonhams auctioneers with an estimate of up to £1500 – a relatively moderate amount compared to the bids fetched by Jackson’s iconic pieces.
The suit encapsulates much of the glam we associate with the early ’70s with wide flared trousers patched sporadically with decorative prints. On the back an 18th Century tapestry image has been added in a flurry of details and embellishments.