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The Invention of David Bowie

David Bowie Is

an exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, March 23–August 11, 2013
Catalog edited by Victoria Broackes and Geoffrey Marsh, with contributions by Camille Paglia, Jon Savage, and others
London: V&A Publishing, 320 pp., $55.00 (distributed in the US by Abrams)

The Next Day

an album by David Bowie
Masayoshi Sukita/David Bowie Archive
David Bowie in the ‘Tokyo Pop’ vinyl bodysuit that Yamamoto Kansai designed for his Aladdin Sane tour, 1973


Every time I thought I’d got it made
It seemed the taste was not so sweet
So I turned myself to face me
But I’ve never caught a glimpse
Of how the others must see the faker
I’m much too fast to take that test

—David Bowie, “Changes,” Hunky Dory, 1971

David Bowie: “My trousers changed the world.” A fashionable man in dark glasses: “I think it was more the shoes.” Bowie: “It was the shoes.”* He laughed. It was a joke. Up to a point.

There is no question that Bowie changed the way many people looked, in the 1970s, 1980s, even 1990s. He set styles. Fashion designers—Alexander McQueen, Yamamoto Kansai, Dries van Noten, Jean Paul Gaultier, et al.—were inspired by him. Bowie’s extraordinary stage costumes, from Kabuki-like bodysuits to Weimar-era drag, are legendary. Young people all over the world tried to dress like him, look like him, move like him—alas, with rather variable results.

So it is entirely fitting that the Victoria and Albert Museum should stage a huge exhibition of Bowie’s stage clothes, as well as music videos, handwritten song lyrics, film clips, artworks, scripts, storyboards, and other Bowieana from his personal archive. Apart from everything else, Bowie’s art is about style, high and low, and style is a serious business for a museum of art and design.

One of the characteristics of rock music is that so much of it involves posing, or “role-playing,” as they say in the sex manuals. Rock is above all a theatrical form. English rockers have been particularly good at this, partly because many of them, including Bowie himself, have drawn inspiration from the rich tradition of music hall theater. If Chuck Berry was a godfather of British rock, so was the vaudevillian Max Miller, the “cheeky chappie,” in his daisy-patterned suits. But there is another reason: rock and roll being American in origin, English musicians often started off mimicking Americans. More than that, in the 1960s especially, white English boys imitated black Americans. Then there was the matter of class: working-class English kids posing as aristocratic fops, and solidly middle-class young men affecting Cockney accents. And the gender-bending: Mick Jagger wriggling his hips like Tina Turner, Ray Davies of the Kinks camping it up like a pantomime dame, David Bowie dressing like Marlene Dietrich and shrieking like Little Richard. And none of them was gay, at least not most of the time. Rock, English rock especially, has often seemed like a huge, anarchic dressing-up party.

No one took this further, with more imagination and daring, than David Bowie. At a time when American groups would often dress down—affluent suburban kids disguised as Appalachian farmers or Canadian lumberjacks—Bowie quite deliberately dressed up. In his words: “I can’t stand the premise of going out [on stage] in jeans…and looking as real as you can in front of 18,000 people. I mean, it’s not normal!” Also in his words: “My whole professional life is an act…I slip from one guise to another very easily.”

The costumes of Bowie’s rock theater are all on display at the V&A. And many are outrageously beautiful. The red-and-blue quilted suit and red plastic boots designed by Freddie Burretti for Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust character in 1972. Yamamoto Kansai’s kimono-like cape splashed with Bowie’s name in Chinese characters for Aladdin Sane in 1973. Natasha Korniloff’s surrealistic cobweb bodysuit with false black-nail-polished hands tickling the nipples for the 1980 Floor Show. Ola Hudson’s black pants and waistcoat for Bowie’s incarnation as the Thin White Duke in 1976, which look as though they were designed for a male impersonator. And Alexander McQueen’s exquisitely “distressed” Union Jack frock coat from 1997 (also exhibited in the 2006 “Anglomania” show at the Metropolitan Museum). Then there is the perverse nautical gear, and the “Tokyo pop” black vinyl bodysuit, the matador cape, the blue turquoise boots, and so on and on.

Bowie’s image was as carefully contrived for album covers as for the actual musical performances: Sukita Masayoshi’s black-and-white photograph of Bowie posing like a mannequin doll on the cover of “Heroes” (1977), or Bowie stretched out on a blue velvet sofa like a Pre-Raphaelite pinup in a long satin dress designed by Mr. Fish for The Man Who Sold the World (1971), or Guy Peellaert’s lurid drawing of Bowie as a 1920s carnival freak for Diamond Dogs (1974).

All these images were created by Bowie himself, in collaboration with other artists. He drew his inspiration from anything that happened to catch his fancy: Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin of the 1930s, Hollywood divas of the 1940s, Kabuki theater, William Burroughs, English mummers, Jean Cocteau, Andy Warhol, French chansons, Buñuel’s surrealism, and Stanley Kubrick’s movies, especially A Clockwork Orange, whose mixture of high culture, science fiction, and lurking menace suited Bowie to the ground. Artists and filmmakers have often created interesting results by refining popular culture into high art. Bowie did the opposite: he would, as he once explained in an interview, plunder high art and take it down to the street; that was his brand of rock-and-roll theater.

What has been truly unusual about Bowie, in comparison to other rock acts, is the lightning speed of his costume changes, as it were. His musical changes reflected this, from the throbbing rhythm of the early Velvet Underground to the harsh dissonances of Kurt Weill, to the disco beat of 1970s Philadelphia. The range of his singing voice, aching in some songs, full of bravura in others, but always haunted by a sense of danger, helped him straddle many genres. To get the excitement of Bowie’s best live performances, one would have had to be there, but the artful videos, made by Bowie with various talented filmmakers, some of which are displayed to great effect at the V&A show, still give a flavor of his theatrical appeal.

Two of the most famous videos are “Ashes to Ashes” (1980) and “Boys Keep Swinging” (1979), both directed by David Mallet. Bowie plays three roles in “Ashes to Ashes”: an astronaut, a man curled up in a padded cell, and a tragic Pierrot tormented by his mother. In “Boys Keep Swinging,” Bowie appears as a late 1950s rock and roller, and plays all three backup singers in Hollywood diva drag: two end up whipping their wigs off in a kind of fury; one turns into a rather menacing maternal figure. A common feature in Bowie’s videos, as well as his stage shows, is an obsession with masks and mirrors, sometimes several mirrors at the same time: his characters watch themselves being watched. In his earlier interviews, Bowie spoke often about schizophrenia. Stage roles would spill out into his personal life. As he put it: “I couldn’t decide whether I was writing characters or whether the characters were writing me.”


So who is David Bowie? He was born in 1947 as David Jones in Brixton, South London, but grew up mostly in Bromley, a relatively genteel and deeply dreary suburb. Many rockers, including Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, grew up in such places, which the novelist J.G. Ballard, who lived for most of his adult life in Twickenham, described as

far more sinister places than most city dwellers imagine. Their very blandness forces the imagination into new areas. I mean, one’s got to get up in the morning thinking of a deviant act, merely to make certain of one’s freedom.

Like Jagger and Richards, the young David Jones was roused from suburban torpor by the sounds of American rock and roll. He recalled that he “wanted to be a white Little Richard at eight or at least his sax player.”

David’s family background was not strictly conventional. His father, “John” Jones, was a failed music impresario and piano bar operator (the Boop-a-Doop in Charlotte Street, Soho) who lost his money promoting the career of his first wife, Chérie, “the Viennese Nightingale.” David’s mother, “Peggy” Burns, was a cinema usherette. Still, Bromley was Bromley. The bright lights beckoned.

For much of the 1960s, Bowie’s pop career, varied but unsuccessful, did not yet point to the theatrical sensation he was to become. He always looked sharp, but not yet extraordinary. There were false starts: an ice-cream commercial, a jokey song entitled “The Laughing Gnome.” He changed his name to Bowie, after the Bowie knife, because another Davy Jones had becomes famous as one of the Monkees. Then, in the late 1960s, he met two people who would change his life: the English dancer and mime artist Lindsay Kemp, with whom Bowie had an affair, and Angela Barnett, an American model whom he soon married. I saw Lindsay Kemp dance once in London, around about 1971, in a solo piece based on Jean Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers, I believe. He was an extraordinary presence on stage, in whiteface, wide-eyed, delicate, flitting about, a little like Vivien Leigh in A Streetcar Named Desire.

Kemp taught Bowie how to use his body, how to dance, pose, mime. And it was Kemp who introduced Bowie to Kabuki. Kemp was fascinated by the onnagata tradition of male actors playing female roles. Kabuki is oddly fitting to Bowie, a theater of extravagant, stylized gestures. At climactic moments the actors freeze, as though in a photograph, while striking a particularly dramatic pose. Bowie never became a great actor, but he did become a great poseur, in the best sense of the word; he always moves with peculiar grace. Without the influence of Kemp, he might not have made the next step in his career, merging rock music with theater, film, and dance. They put on a show together called Pierrot in Turquoise. Bowie learned how to use costumes and lighting to the best effect. Sets would become ever more elaborate, featuring images from Buñuel movies or Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.

But the main thing he got from Kemp was his taste for turning life itself into a performance, another Kabuki-like influence. In the old days onnagata actors were encouraged to dress up as women in real life too. Bowie said about Kemp: “His day-to-day life was the most theatrical thing I’d ever seen, ever. Everything I thought Bohemia probably was, he was living.”

While living the Bohemian life, he and Angela had a son, whom they named Zowie (in the rock-star fashion for giving their children bizarre names), now thankfully called Duncan Jones, a well-regarded film director. It was an adventurous marriage, a kind of polymorphous perverse performance in its own right, open to all sexes. Both were keen promoters of the young rock star’s image. Angela encouraged her spouse’s dandyism. They must have been quite a pair when they turned up in 1971 at Andy Warhol’s studio in New York, the husband in shoulder-length blond hair, Mary Jane shoes, a floppy hat, and absurdly wide Oxford bags, and the shorter-cropped wife looking tougher, more boyish, in comparison. Bowie sang his tribute song to Andy Warhol: “Andy Warhol looks a scream/Hang him on my wall/Andy Warhol, Silver Screen/Can’t tell them apart at all…a-all…a-all.” Warhol was apparently polite to his guest, but not entirely pleased by the wording of the tribute. Later he became a Bowie fan, and some of his actors joined the pop star’s entourage.

Androgyny was central to Bowie’s rising appeal—neither quite straight nor really gay, but something in between that cannot even be adequately described as bisexual (although in real life Bowie was apparently sexually active in every which way). Yamamoto, the Japanese designer, said he liked to make clothes for Bowie because he was “neither man nor woman.” The image cultivated by Bowie, as he became more famous, was as a complete oddity, an isolated alien, a pop deity, utterly enigmatic, freakish, alienated, but dangerously alluring. Japanese culture, he once said, attracted him as “the alien culture because I couldn’t conceive a Martian culture.” Bowie’s first big hit was “Space Oddity” (1969), about a fictional astronaut: “This is Major Tom to ground control/I’m stepping through the door/And I’m floating in a most peculiar way…”

Filmmakers used Bowie’s alien androgynous quality for their own purposes and enhanced his reputation for strangeness. Bowie’s best-known film is Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976). In this science-fiction story, Bowie plays a man from another planet who lands in the United States to become first very rich and then an alienated alcoholic obsessed by television and imprisoned by government agents in a luxury apartment. What Roeg exploits is not Bowie’s acting ability, which is ordinary at best, but his image and his body language, his genius for posing.

Oshima Nagisa did something similar in his movie Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence (1983), based on a Laurens van der Post novella about the experience of a British army officer in a Japanese POW camp during the Pacific war. One way—the banal way—of doing this would have been to make it into a manly story of rugged endurance. Oshima’s idea was to cast Bowie as the officer and the Japanese pop/rock musician Sakamoto Ryuichi as the cruel camp commandant. Both pop icons are equally androgynous in their own ways—Sakamoto wears makeup. In the climactic scene of the film the British officer tries to disarm his enemy by planting a kiss on his lips, an act for which the blond hero then has to undergo some ghastly tortures. Again the acting is only so-so, but the posing, the “look,” is brilliant.

Ken Regan/David Bowie Archive
David Bowie on stage during his Diamond Dogs tour, 1974
  1. *

    From the documentary The Story of David Bowie, 2002. 

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