Androgyny and psychedelic make-up

Posted by donna on January 12th, 2016

Even before he discovered his vivid alter egos, David Jones was a snappy dresser – a dedicated follower of fashion with a taste for flamboyant lapels and statement hair. His manner, in the early days, may have been confined to the not-so-wild borders of Bromley, but he was never one to dress down or dilute his message. Clothes, as he quickly established, were a strategic means of self-expression. Once he began studying mime and dance, fashion, together with an on-point haircut and psychedelic make-up, would play a huge part in his transformation into an artist.

Really, it was through his clothes that in, 1973, I along with thousands of other teenagers, came to know David Bowie. His music was all pervasive by then – catchy and memorable, but to an eleven year old, not strikingly avant-garde. (Not that most eleven year olds, in 1973, knew avant-garde from Carry on Up the Khyber.) However when the songs came together with that blazing red mullet (courtesy of Schwarzkopf) and the Aladdin Sane lightning flash, you knew you were in the presence of something thrillingly odd.

More thrillingly, the oddness was going mainstream. Aladdin Sane was everywhere in 1973, so ubiquitous, he had even infiltrated my school - Dorchester Grammar, a rural establishment hitherto impervious to fashion and, so it seemed to me, anything colourful. Like a West Country kabuki tribe, the girls in the fifth and sixth form marched arm-in-arm (forbidden) down the corridors with their spiky orange hair-cuts (not forbidden, but only because the rules had yet to catch up), alabaster faces and tweezered-to-the-brink-of-extinction eyebrows in tribute to their hero, terrifying my fellow first years and me. Fresh from worshipping David Cassidy, we had never seen anything like this red army with their Marlene Dietrich meets Martian style tics - not the cavalier shearing of the hair, the jolie-laide pallor or the remnants of glittery make-up (wearing make-up to school was also forbidden).

The fan-girls were unsettling and mesmerizing in equal parts - much like their hero. It was one of those rare moments when the zeitgeist, politics and exploding social mores manifest themselves in a singular, decorative image. It’s that cultural white heat that allows Aladdin Sane to resonate even now, inspiring two Kate Moss-as-David-Bowie Vogue covers alone, long after the shock factor has subsided.

Sane and Ziggy were fertile grounds for fantasy dressing up. For Aladdin Sane’s 1973 tour, Bowie collaborated with designer Kansai Yamamoto on a jumpsuit with vast, semi orbular legs - another is-it-a-bird, is-it-a-human moment that pre-empted the following decade’s obsession with post-apocalyptic Japanese design.

The one sleeve patterned stretch knit unitard he wore as Ziggy Stardust was another eye-popping Top of the Pops moment. Watching Bowie smash elegantly through another social taboo often seemed like watching history in the making – not an experience often associated with TOTP, but a compelling reason for switching on when he was scheduled to appear.

The unitard, which surely inspired Body Map’s collections a decade later, ignited one of London’s many fashion revivals, even though Bowie himself soon moved on to Berlin and then the USA. Not that leaving London stymied his style. Bowie fashion influences include arresting nail colours (still a huge trend in 2016), swooping blue eye-shadow (ditto), wedge-blonde hair dos and razor sharp tailoring, on both men and women. The ice-blue trouser suit Freddie Burretti designed for the 1972 Life on Mars? video was the catalyst for a recent Jonathan Saunders’ collection.

And the list of beneficiaries of Bowie inspiration goes on. The New Romantics, New Order, Madonna, Kate Bush, Kate Moss, Gaga, Florence, Jean Paul Gaultier, Balmain and many more, have openly paid homage to his influence on their style and careers

Did I say the legs on that Yamamoto jumpsuit were vast? One of the most striking if unregistered aspects of the 2013 blockbuster V&A Bowie retrospective was how teeny his clothes were. When Moss collected the Best Male Solo Artist award at the Brits the following year on his behalf, she wore one of his romper-suits: the man who confessed that at one point in his life, he had survived on "red peppers, cocaine, and milk" often resembled nothing so much as an etiolated electrified streak.

If Bowie unwittingly helped ignite a mania in fashion for extreme skinniness, he also tilted it in positive directions. His own cultural vampirism – he cherrypicked from pop art, with Dada-ism, Brechtian and Japanese theatre, Lindsay Kemp mime, language and sci-fi and breathed fresh life into them - helped join the dots between fashion and art, placing the former at the centre of popular culture.

Without doubt however, it’s Bowie’s androgyny that has had the most lasting footprint. Unlike other agents of glam rock, Bowie’s gender fluidity managed to shock because it wasn’t mere posturing. While the members of Slade and Sweet went out of their way to demonstrate their machismo, Bowie, with breath-taking insouciance, flouted his bisexuality.

Somehow he escaped getting beaten to a pulp, possibly because, as an early school report noted, along with being “vividly artistic” he was a gifted brawler. Besides, for all the chauvinistic swagger of the 1970s, there was also a blossoming of sexual and artistic experimentation, much of which Bowie communicated through his costumes.As the shock impact of Ziggy and Aladdin waned, Bowie skillfully manipulated the ostensibly conventional. Two decades after Ziggy, he sang at the Brits, a picture of establishment elegance in one of those impeccable dark, slim suits that had become a signature of his, until your eye snagged on those kitten heels - a cheekily subversive gender bending flourish that suggested he hadn’t lost his taste for mischief.

He began wearing those sharp-edged suits in the late 1970s. With their 1940s gangster angles they were simultaneously polite and menacing - and they set the sartorial course for millions of yuppies in the loadsamoney decade that followed. That may not have been Bowie’s intention. His aim, in the early days at least, was to depict a solitary, alienated figure in a dystopian world. His genius meant he reached out to millions.

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