London: V&A Publishing, 320 pp., $55.00 (distributed in the US by Abrams)
The Next Day
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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only – subscribe at this low introductory rate for immediate access!
Unlock this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, by subscribing at the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue – that’s 10 issues online plus six months of full archive access for just $10.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.