David Bowie: Fashion Chameleon

A selection of David Bowie's stage costumes at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. "Installation Shot of David Bowie is at the V&A" is courtesy David Bowie Archive (c) Victoria and Albert Museum.

By Alexandra Whittaker

In spring 2013, fashion designer Jean Paul Gaultier created a collection inspired by rock stars of the 60s, 70s, and 80s. Unlike a traditional runway show, Gaultier’s show was set to blaring rock music, and dark silhouettes of dancers moved behind a fog machine in the background.

In a collection full of wow moments, the only look that received audible gasps from the audience was Gaultier’s tribute to Ziggy Stardust. The Ziggy model walked down the catwalk with a bright orange wig, jewel-toned star cutouts on her neck and a star-spangled fishnet cat suit with one leg missing.

If anyone wondered how David Bowie impacted fashion, they didn’t need to look further than the Gaultier show.

David Bowie, who died on January 10 after an 18-month battle with liver cancer, inspired many fashion houses and fashion icons alike. He made a lasting impact on the fashion industry as a whole, particularly during a resurgence of the “glam rock” trend in the early 2010s.

Riccardo Tisci’s ready-to-wear collection for Givenchy in spring 2010 paid homage to Bowie’s glam rock character Aladdin Sane with geometric striped jackets. Christophe Decarnin’s 2011 collection for Balmain followed suit, with Aladdin Sane-style crystal encrusted jumpsuits, and 70s silhouettes. Bowie’s music video for the song “Life on Mars” inspired Miu Miu’s fall 2012 show, whose models wore lapelled suits and bright lightning bolts across their eyes, and Bowie inspired Jonathan Saunders to model his 2013 menswear show after Bowie’s “plastic soul” years.

Bowie inspired these designs in both obvious and subtle ways. Saunders took inspiration from the large lapelled powder blue suits that Bowie wore in his glossy post-Ziggy Stardust era and created a formal menswear collection with similar silhouettes.

Gaultier’s “Rock Stars” show was a more obvious homage to Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust. It was not surprising that Bowie was included so explicitly in the collection because Gaultier believed Bowie was an “absolute rockstar.”

“[Bowie] inspired me by his creativity, extravagance, allure, elegance, androgyny and sense of fashion” Gaultier said in a tweet after Bowie’s death.

Bowie’s fashion legacy isn’t limited to the designers he inspired. His own fashion choices were also unusual. Conrad Hamather, a School of the Art Institute of Chicago fashion design professor, said Bowie’s outfits were influential partly because they had nothing to do with trends.

“As with any great in-control innovator, it was about feeling the skin, wearing what you felt from within,” Hamather said. “It didn’t matter who the designer was, it was about the commitment to the moment.”

Unlike other rock stars, Bowie often wore outfits from lesser-known and up-and-coming designers.

Thin White Duke
Wardrobe for Bowie’s Thin White Duke at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. “Installation Shot of David Bowie is at the V&A” is courtesy David Bowie Archive (c) Victoria and Albert Museum.

One of these designers was Alexander McQueen, the late British fashion designer and couturier. McQueen designed the Union Jack coat on the Earthling (1997) album and created the wardrobe for Bowie’s 1996-1997 tour, in the same period in which McQueen became the head designer at Givenchy.

Bowie’s album covers were unique, but his real fashion tour-de-force was his stage wear. It was unusual, gender-bending and regularly raised eyebrows while simultaneously starting trends. Bowie played with color, asymmetry, heavy makeup, partial nudity and androgyny, constantly reinventing himself while on stage.

His influence prompted the Victoria and Albert Museum in London to create an exhibit called David Bowie is in 2013 that traced Bowie’s influence across music, fashion, photography, graphics, film, theatre and art. The travelling exhibit broke records at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art when it arrived in the city in 2014.

In an interview this week, Victoria Broackes, the London-based co-curator of David Bowie is, said Bowie’s stage costumes were original.

“Bowie’s exceptional stage costumes, including Ziggy Stardust bodysuits, 1972, designed by Freddie Burretti, Kansai Yamamoto’s flamboyant creations for the Aladdin Sane tour, 1973, and the Ashes to Ashes Pierrot costume by Natasha Korniloff, 1980, all demonstrate some of his radical innovations in fashion and his theatrical displays of androgyny, and illustrate his shifting style and sustained reinvention,” Broackes said.

One of Bowie’s favorite stage costume designers was Japanese designer Kansai Yamamoto. Yamamoto, who created Bowie’s zigzag-stitched Tokyo Pop jumpsuit that tore away into a tight bodysuit, collaborated with Bowie frequently.

“He was someone who knew how to express himself both with music and with fashion,” Yamamoto said in an interview with the BBC. “Someone like that may not be so rare these days, but he was one of the pioneers to do both.”

Bowie used Japanese influences in his stage wear, with kimono-inspired capes and space samurai outfits. Kabuki theater inspired his tear away costumes and Ziggy Stardust’s bold highlighted features and whitened skin. Bowie used these Japanese influences to push against accepted norms.

“Bowie continually unsettled the status quo and led by example,” said Broackes, “pushing the boundaries of fashion, gender and popular culture.”

Bowie’s fashion choices also influenced people off the runway, especially other musicians. Lady Gaga donned Bowie’s familiar Aladdin Sane lightning bolt in her debut single “Just Dance,” and Prince wore quilted two-piece suits years after Bowie did.

Quilted Outfit
One of David Bowie’s quilted suit stage costumes at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. “Installation Shot of David Bowie is at the V&A” is courtesy David Bowie Archive (c) Victoria and Albert Museum.

“Bowie’s radical individualism inspired people to be whoever they want to be,” Broackes said. “By dressing in unexpected and subversive ways, Bowie expressed himself through clothes, and inspired others to do the same.”

Bowie was innovative, both in fashion and in life. His fashion choices were influential because they reflected his distinctive personality. According to Hamather, this kind of individuality could be a dying art among fashion students today.

“Bowie was about transcending trends and being ahead of the curve, staying out of the fashion trend gutter,” Hamather said. “These days I don’t believe students have the patience or ability to feel that calmness within their own work to aspire to build ahead of trend. They are too worried about making it and being published.”

Not only was Bowie not worried about trends, he also wasn’t particularly worried his impact on fashion,, famously saying he only wanted “to look how [the music] sounds.”

“Bowie said himself that he was not particularly interested in fashion per se,” said Broackes, “but the evidence of his impact on fashion is everywhere.”

This fashion impact spreads across generations and industries and spans from Bowie’s early performances in the mid-60s with a fitted suit and mop top hair to his last music video for “Lazarus,” where he portrayed a dead spaceman.

“Bowie is a complex intellect,” Hamather said. “It will be years of critics and aesthetes trying to crack the code that Bowie created “Lazarus,” that is the perfect Bowie gift.”

“In a great way, his legacy has passed with him,” he added. “As much as people try to follow in his oeuvre, it is done, time has passed. It was a moment.”

Photo at top: A selection of David Bowie’s stage costumes at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. (Installation Shot of David Bowie is at the V&A is courtesy David Bowie Archive (c) Victoria and Albert Museum.)