Remember when — 33 years ago, to the day — Freddie Mercury wore his iconic yellow jacket on stage at Wembley Stadium?
The year was 1986, one year after Live Aid had cemented Queen as rock royalty, and frontman Mercury was back on stage for what would be his final tour. Having spent most of the ’70s in a dazzling array of wild, low-cut leotards, he cut a more straight-laced figure in a military-style jacket, albeit one with multiple gold buckles and in a bright yellow hue.
The jacket made its debut during Queen’s “Magic” tour, a two-month trip through Europe that saw the band play 26 concerts, from the Swedish capital, Stockholm, to the sleepy British town of Stevenage. It was Queen’s biggest tour ever, and the last for Mercury who was diagnosed with AIDS and died five years later at the age of 45.
His famous yellow jacket was one of three military-style cropped coats created by his friend and costume designer, Diana Moseley. The design was reportedly inspired by Spanish opera costumes and featured gold buckles, eyelets and trim. Mercury paired it with white trousers that had a red stripe down either leg, embellished with gold. The color scheme was said to be a nod to the Spanish flag, though yellow was also known as one of the singer’s favorite colors.
At the time, the European Union was growing in power and adding new members, including Spain and Portugal, but it would be years before the collapse of communism in East Germany and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. The USSR was nonetheless in its final throes, and economic pressure exerted by the United States contributed to a catastrophic accident that destroyed a Soviet reactor at Chernobyl in Ukraine, sending radioactive material through the atmosphere above Europe.
Against the backdrop of one of the world’s worst nuclear disasters, fear was also growing on the streets about a deadly new disease called AIDS. By the end of 1986, the World Health Organization would receive reports of more than 38,000 cases across 85 countries. At the time, it was automatic death sentence — one that lead to Mercury’s passing in 1991.
The singer’s embrace of a more regimented look reflected a broader trend for uniformity, mostly of the denim variety, in the mid-1980s. The London club scene may have unleashed a burst of creativity, but many people were still wedded to their Levis denim jackets. In fact, the blue coats were so ubiquitous in 1986, that the creative minds behind Blitz magazine asked 22 leading designers to reimagine the garment for an exhibition at London’s V&A Museum, and later the Louvre in Paris.
In catalogs of Mercury’s greatest costumes, the military jacket stands out as a nod to a more commanding Freddie, a man firmly in control of his extraordinary talent and fame. He demonstrated this on stage at Wembley, too, directing tens of thousands of fans to follow his lead as he showed off his vast vocal range.
The last public record of the yellow jacket is its sale by auctioneers Bonhams for just over £26,000 (then about $49,000) in 2004. The closest you can get to seeing it is a bronze sculpture of Mercury in the city of Montreux, Switzerland, where the band recorded some of its most successful albums. Fans often leave yellow flowers at the site as they look up to the 10-foot statue of a man who injected the music industry with the style, charisma and flamboyance of someone who knew he was born to stardom.
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