How Michael Jackson's 'Thriller' Jacket Came To Be

Costume designer Deborah Landis explains how the setting for "Thriller" and Jackson's physique influenced the iconic red leather jacket design.
Posted at 10:18 AM, Feb 07, 2018

Michael Jackson's night at the 1984 Grammys was pretty unforgettable. Shades: check. Sequined jacket with epaulets: check. An armful of awards: check. 

Jackson won a record-breaking eight Grammys for his 1982 album "Thriller," the best-selling album of all time.

The music video for the title track is iconic for one big reason. No, it's not the "Walking Dead" version of Jackson — it's that badass leather jacket.

"There are moments when I say to someone, 'Oh yeah, I designed Michael Jackson's "Thriller,"' and I don't believe it," costume designer Deborah Nadoolman Landis said. "I feel like I'm lying!"

Landis is a film and TV costume designer with credits that include "Raiders of the Lost Ark," "Coming to America," "The Blues Brothers" and "Animal House," to name a few. 

She attributes the look of Jackson's red leather jacket to reductive design.

"It's not, 'What is reductive design?' The right question is, 'What do you mean by reductive?'" Landis said. "Where the word reductive comes in is, what cannot the costume be?

"He was in a movie theater; he was on a date. Then he left the movie theater. He danced in a dark alley. What was a color that really captured that moment, that captured the spirit of a horror film? Surrounded by zombies, what would really, really make sense. And that's the — making sense is the criteria we use the most narratively and visually," she explained. "That's reductive design. ... I came up with that red, and that red look, I think it just works on every level.

"It was the '80s, and I really felt like I wanted to build out his body," she said. "He was not a very big person. I like to say he was 99 pounds ringing wet. He had a 27-28 inch waist; his shoulders were extremely narrow; he weighed practically nothing.

"There was some deliberate bodybuilding on my part," Landis said.

She added: "When they've first left the theater and he's flirting with her and dancing around her and she's dancing forward and they're by that chain link fence, I love that part of the video. He's so appealing and attractive. The silhouette and the mass, especially up top, really work in the dance. He's the tip of the arrowhead, that triangle pushing forward on that street in the back alley by the cemetery with all the ghouls. The fact that he has that V, the fact that his body is a V from his navel out to the edge of his shoulders, it's graphic! It's active! There's a tension there! That combined with the color just pulls him forward. Even the camera movements in that moment in the dance. When it goes BOOP BOOP BOOP BOOP. Everything combined. The look, the style, the shape, the silhouette and the music, and the talent were combined, and the choreography is bringing Michael absolutely right at the tip of your nose." 

Landis admits she doesn't feel that enthused about all of her creations.

"I cringe when I see a lot of my work. Oh my goodness! There were times during 'Raiders of the Lost Ark' where I had my eyes closed where I was like, 'Ooh, I would've done that differently,'" she said.

But when it comes to the "Thriller" jacket, she wouldn't change a thing. 

"I made those choices intuitively. I made those choices instinctively. ... Through the fullness of time, I've been able to see what I did and why," she said.

"When something's not right, the designer can't sleep. ... I've slept well for these past many years," Landis said.