Personalities | David Bowie | Style

In March 2013 it was announced that ‘David Bowie is’ – an exhibition at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum – had become the fastest-selling in the institution’s history. The traditionally minded V&A had clearly cottoned on to the fact that Bowie, more than any music icon, enabled them to fulfil their remit of exploring art and design in the culture.

Chameleon Cliché

The fact that the description of Bowie as style chameleon is a groan-inducing cliché does not make it untrue. Everyone from Madonna to Boy George to Lady Gaga has copied his propensity to use his own body as a canvas and to make that propensity – for better or worse – almost as important as the music.

Bowie was a dandy way back. Footage exists of him as a seventeen-year-old mod speaking up for the rights of long-haired males. Although he has a twinkle in his eye, his immaculately coiffured, sharp-suited look communicates that this is someone who takes his appearance very seriously.

By the time of Hunky Dory (1971), Bowie was a long-haired hippie. However, an interplanetary gender-bending rocker could not step from his gleaming starship with locks tucked carelessly behind ears framing a pimpled face. For the next couple of years, Bowie sported short, dazzlingly red hair, make-up-cum-cosmic war paint, stack heels and sometimes an eyepatch. Although he outgrew that image, he would never go back to laid-back scruffiness.

Cover Jobs

Album cover artwork was intrinsic to his now ever-changing appearance. On Aladdin Sane (1973) he had a red-and-blue lightning flash across his face and a weird droplet – of what you tried to convince yourself wasn’t semen – residing over a clavicle. On the wraparound cover of Diamond Dogs (1974), he seemed to be trying to prove that he was the veritable dog’s bollocks; the Guy Peellaert painting that gave him a man’s upper body and a canine lower half originally had a penis and testicles, although that was quickly amended.

In order to purvey the soul of Young Americans (1975), he remained stylish but more grown-up, striding around in baggy trousers and waistcoats – a masculinity offset by the fact that his now side-parted hair was fluffily arranged in a way that was not yet common with men. The Thin White Duke figure associated with Station To Station (1976) boasted slicked-back hair, a formal waistcoat but casual open collar and a cigarette dangling from the lips. Thankfully less easy for Bowie’s admirers to imitate was the cokehead’s telltale vacant manner and chalk-white skin tone.

Bowie kept appearances up even as his art was in the pits. Promoting and touring Let’s Dance (1983), he looked a million dollars with his slick blonde quiff and natty suits. Nor did he and his black-suited Tin Machine colleagues exactly dress shabbily.

Old But Gold

Although Bowie never ran to fat or went bald, using his body as a canvas became more difficult with age as a natural function of the fact that the world’s attention...

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