Starman: David Bowie's Style Odyssey
Starman: David Bowie's Style Odyssey
- Words Brenden Gallagher
- Date September 17, 2018
While many cultural figures have a lasting impact on fashion, David Bowie’s legacy remains unrivaled. With cult designers—Jean Paul Gaultier, Hedi Slimane, amongst other—regularly citing him as a recurring influence, and pop icons like Madonna and Lady Gaga still emulating him, his aesthetic is arguably one of the most influential of the latter half of the 20th century. While his style is often boiled down to simply “androgynous” or “gender bending,” such simple terms are a disservice to a man whose ever-evolving look was so nuanced and complex that he not only changed how we viewed pop-stars, but how we categorized celebrity style altogether.
Bowie’s style was beyond gender. In various ways throughout his career, he tore down boundaries of masculinity and femininity—challenging both—as he created an individual style as dynamic as himself. Bowie’s on-going style evolution reflected aspects of himself as an artist and as a person, a constantly evolving, genre-bending and boundary pushing phenomenon up to his death in 2016.
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At the beginning of Bowie’s career, he dressed ostensibly normal. From the early to mid-’60s, he wore fairly standard suits, even in high profile performances. Despite the apparent conventionality, at that time in England, the suit was itself as fashion statement.
Mod style began to emerage in Britain during the late ‘60s, and explored many of the same themes as Bowie. Suits were suddenly cut more slim, with splashes of color once considered garish appearing regularly. An early adopter of the style, Bowie was a trendmaker as early as 16, when he began tailoring his trousers slim, dying his own hair and influencing his schoolmates in the process.
Coinciding with a nationwide reinterpretation of masculine identity, a barely 20-year-old Bowie found himself a central figure in London’s Mod scene. Bowie’s mid-’60s style was considered “absolutely immaculate—one of the finest examples of the 1960s Mod look.” Regularly donning three-button suits, white button-down shirts and inch-wide ties, his look “was minimal, simple and as cool as an ice cube.”
In this period, Bowie also worked as a mime. Following his studies under a protege of noted mime Marcel Macreau’s, some of Bowie’s earliest performances were as a mime, not a musician. Developing that studied sense of theatricality played a crucial role in bringing later Bowie persona’s to life, from channeling kabuki with Ziggy Stardust to German Expressionism for The Thin White Duke. No doubt also a result of his stint in improvisational performance was a newfound penchant for intense makeup, which began playing a central role in Bowie’s stage presence and overall aesthetic.
1969’s Space Oddity would offer a preview of things to come. An even split between his Mod roots and an embryonic version of Ziggy Stardust, his look for this album would combined slick tailoring with a metallic otherworldliness. Arguably marking the end of Mod rock, the release single-handedly ushered in the decade of glam rock, over which Bowie presided.
Bowie made another splash with 1971’s Hunky Dory. In the promotional shoot around this album, he wore feminine clothes and grew out his hair. Though the looks weren’t particularly styled, at 23 years old Bowie already laid a foundation for gender fluidity, which played a prominent theme throughout his career. The songs on this album, and the looks he wore while promoting it, were also greatly influenced by folk and Americana.
With the release of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars—commonly referred to as Ziggy Stardust—in 1972, Bowie truly became a style pioneer. While creating the Ziggy Stardust persona, Bowie relied heavily on the work of Kansai Yamamoto, the visionary Japanese designer that was deacdes ahead of his time. Bowie used Yamamoto’s bold, colorful designs—heavily influenced by Kabuki theater— as a tool to deconstruct pre-conceived notions of masculinity and animate his stage presence.
Ziggy Stardust—both album and persona—was a massive hit for Bowie. From the summer of 1971 to Ziggy’s “last night on Earth” on July 3, 1973, Bowie established himself as an icon. Even following Stardust’s “death,” the character remains a pivotal figure in pop culture.
Following Stardust, in the mid-’70s Bowie debuted a new persona, “The Thin White Duke.” This slick and self-consciously callous character wasn’t as well received as Ziggy, but played with conceptions of masculinity in equal measure. Moving away from Stardust’s sequin jumpsuits, The Duke preferred white dress shirts, tailored vests and trousers, slicked back hair, and subdued make-up.
The Thin White Duke, with his suave looks and cavalier attitude, was a parody of Don Juan, who to Bowie represented a masculine-ideal. Some even asserted the Duke was a fascist, an argument Bowie never disputed. With The Duke, Bowie asked what value a feminized look had when used alongside typical male chauvinism. Implicit in this exploration was the question of what happens to Bowie’s image as it was commodified and sanitized.
Bowie would develop a more subdued, but no less original style throughout the late ‘70s and ‘80s. Scarves, billowing shirts, and even robes and kimonos were hallmarks in the post-Ziggy and White Duke era. Prone to headline-making, one-off fashion statements rather than lasting personas, Bowie famous shaved off his eyebrows in late 1973.
Less appreciated yet no less influential was Bowie’s style during the 1983 Serious Moonlight tour. During this period, he graced the stage in oversized pastel suits ranging ranging from salmon to powder blue. More than a year before Miami Vice made oversized salmon blazers socially acceptable, Bowie was already sporting them in front of thousands of eager fans. Designed to compliment the stage set, which featured columns surrounding a giant moon, the classic costumes served as contrast to the modern stage. The subdued tone of this tour also led to fewer costume changes, which made each individual suit more prominent. The suits remain iconic Bowie items.
In the ‘90s and 2000s, Bowie rarely made any sort of coherent fashion statements surrounding a particular album. Instead, he nurtured a varied, eclectic style fitting of a modern fashion icon. At the Phoenix Festival in 1997, he arrived in an Indian influenced ceremonial outfit. At Glastonburry in 2000, he wore a long, embroidered Victorian style coat that looked straight out of Penny Dreadful, a look he returned to numerous times. As often as Bowie wore garish period pieces he similarly could be caught in a subdued suit or prevailing trends of the moment. He even attempted his own version of grunge from time to time.
With his legacy elevated to icon status by the late ‘80s, designers who grew up worshiping Bowie began rising to prominence in the ‘90s, some of whom even worked with him. In 1997, Bowie famously wore a Union Jack coat he designed in collaboration with Alexander McQueen. Jean Paul Gaultier has said repeatedly that Bowie was an inspiration, with his Spring/Summer 2013 “Rock Stars” Ready-to-Wear collection, featuring a star-spangled net catsuit, a very direct homage. “It was unique; no one did things like that then. At the beginning of the show, [Bowie] appeared as a kind of Marlene Dietrich, but with a white captain’s jacket and a cap—it was obvious that it was not Bowie playing a captain, but Bowie playing Marlene Dietrich playing a man,” Gautier said to Out.
Hedi Slimane is equally influenced by Bowie. Famously saying he “was literally born with a David Bowie album in [his] hand,” many of Slimane’s collections are clear homages to Bowie. Apart from his Spring/Summer 2014 Saint Laurent menswear collection, that clearly references the White Duke directly, Bowie’s fingerprints are all over Slimane’s body of work.
Trying to determine the scope of Bowie’s fashion influence in a 2016 retrospective, *The New York Times posed, “What designers didn’t he influence?” Adding Haider Ackermann’s sharp shouldered button-down shirts and Gucci’s men’s floral suits as just two of many potential examples, the piece noted the late artist’s omnipresence in the fashion sphere. From Dries Van Noten’s references to the Thin White Duke to Takahiro Miyashita’s entire Spring/Summer 2017 collection, Bowie will forever be a fashion mainstay.
Yes, Bowie pioneered androgynous clothing in the mainstream pop culture. Yes, he introduced a level of theatricality into rock music that has never been matched. Yes, fashion designers and celebrity stylists across the world are indebted to him. But, at the root, Bowie understood fashion as something deeply personal. While what Bowie wore could change radically from era to era or even day to day, his style always reflected what he wanted to present to the world at a particular time.