Since he first fell to earth in the early 1970s, David Bowie has fashioned a career out of making an exhibition of himself. With his obsessive motifs of fame, glamour, polymorphous perversity and personality-as-performance, Bowie has reshaped the art of contemporary celebrity. As “David Bowie is,” a sweeping exhibition opening at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London on March 23, attests, Bowie is not only a musical innovator but also an enduring icon of men’s style—an alabaster-skinned rock ’n’ roll magus who has cast his spell over the culture for five decades.
Curated by Victoria Broackes and Geoffrey Marsh of the V&A’s theater and performance department, the show comprises more than 300 objects, including more than 60 original costumes (among them the Ziggy Stardust costume from 1972 and a Union Jack coat Bowie codesigned with Alexander McQueen for the Earthling album cover in 1997) as well as photography by Terry O’Neill and Brian Duffy, album-sleeve artwork, fan material, set designs for the groundbreaking Diamond Dogs tour in 1974 and Bowie’s own handwritten lyrics for songs such as “Blackout” and “Ashes to Ashes.”
At a time when Bowie continues to be referenced like a Wikipedia for idea-starved creatives, “David Bowie is” presents a nonchronological examination of the themes that appear throughout his work in his tireless pas de deux with the culture at large.
So legion are Bowie’s artistic innovations and adventures in style that one wonders why it has taken so long to put together this retrospective.
For such a prolific artist—on average he performed a concert every 11 days for 32 years—Bowie’s aesthetic missteps (his duet of “The Little Drummer Boy” with Bing Crosby springs to mind) have been few and far between. His taste in everything from friends to art has been unerring, and his talent as a cultural curator effortlessly taking the temperature of the times is virtually unsurpassed.
Certainly few other contemporary performers have understood the power of the visual and successfully controlled their own image as Bowie has: producing storyboards for his innovative set designs and music videos (an art form of which he was a crucial pioneer) and sketches for his album covers and clothes. And with the possible exception of Marlene Dietrich, his costar in Just a Gigolo, who also knew a thing or two about playing with gender, no other celebrity has so artfully managed the creation and distribution of the photographic representations of self as Bowie, resulting in four decades of iconic imagery.
What is incontestable is Bowie’s peerless pursuit (in the pre-Internet era, mind you) of anything that was cool, cerebral or transgressive to bolster his pop, rock and avant-garde ambitions. It’s not for nothing that Bowie, a genre bender if ever there were one, sings on his 1975 single “Fame”: “What you need you have to borrow.”
Over the years, Bowie, who was born in suburban Brixton in 1947, cherry-picked from various artistic worlds, including mime, German expressionism, Surrealism and even West End musicals.
He took from Andy Warhol the belief that even the freakiest kid could be repackaged and sold as a superstar. His boundless aesthetic reach tapped into the most unexpected sources, like Samantha from Bewitched, whom he credited as the inspiration for the anchor tattoo he sports on his face in the video for “John, I’m Only Dancing.”
Bowie also plundered exotic locales with the zeal of a latter-day Marco Polo, and what he took from international bohemians he later served up on mainstream outlets like Top of the Pops. He embraced Japanese exotica, for example, four decades before Gwen Stefani co-opted the street style of Tokyo’s Harajuku Girls. He introduced to the West talents like designer Kansai Yamamoto (who famously made Bowie’s one-shouldered, one-legged jumpsuits in the early ’70s) and the photographer Masayoshi Sukita (who was responsible for some of the most well-known images of Bowie, including the black-and-white cover of the Heroes album).
Bowie is clearly indebted to Marc Bolan, who with his band, T. Rex, arguably invented the glittery bisexual tropes of glam rock. In fact, the two lived together for a period, sharing a flat filled with Lalique glass and Kate Greenaway prints. Bowie, however, pushed his gender-bending into orbit, and in so doing became a touchstone of 1970s sexual liberation. The lightning-bolt makeup, created by Pierre La Roche for the cover of the 1973 album Aladdin Sane, inspired countless suburban boys to experiment with their mother’s makeup—with mixed results—in imitation of this strange and compelling new androgyne.
But this parade of constantly evolving, otherworldly incarnations was more than just an expression of restless artistry: Bowie’s first job was working at an advertising agency, and he has always been the shrewdest and most brilliant marketer of his own image.
He reflexively did what performers today try to achieve with an army of stylists, publicists and social-media strategists.
Fueled by his shady then-manager Tony Defries (dubbed “Tony the Sleaze”), Bowie acted like the biggest artist in the world—consistently photographed in front of a Rolls-Royce, always seen with a huge entourage, etc.—until people bought the pose. He even took a page from the most famous paparazzi bait of the time: In the early 1970s, Bowie and his wife, Angie, were an ambisexual, amphetamine-buzzed, glam-rock version of Liz and Dick.
It’s a model of media manipulation that 40 years later would be aped, practically play by play, by Lady Gaga.
As the V&A exhibition’s open-ended title suggests, David Bowie is many things. But perhaps above all, Bowie is the embodiment of constantly ch-ch-ch-changing menswear.
While today’s stars are merely walking sandwich boards for seasonal trends, Bowie remains the lodestar of masculine style, and his career of aesthetic experimentation became nothing less than the foundation for the archetypical vernacular of modern men’s fashion.
His myriad showbiz guises over the years—teen mod, Tommy Steele manqué, corkscrew-curled folkie, Pre-Raphaelite he-ductress, American soul boy, drug-addled rake in trilby hat and matching black pants and vest (and French-cuff shirt) borrowed from William S. Burroughs—have been catnip for retro-obsessed designers ever since. His recontextualizing of the suit made possible similar experimentations by everyone from Giorgio Armani to David Byrne of the Talking Heads to current media darlings Raf Simons and Hedi Slimane. And this season’s lauded Lanvin men’s collection bears more than a passing resemblance to the costumes designed by Bowie’s longtime collaborator Natasha Korniloff for the 1978 Stage tour.
Such is David Bowie’s sway over the culture that even with the release of his disappointing new single, “Where Are We Now?” (his first in ten years), few would claim that the emperor has no clothes.
“David Bowie is” runs March 23 to July 28 at the Victoria and Albert Museum. For details, go to vam.ac.uk.