In 2013, I had the honour of being interviewed by the Guardian‘s Miranda Sawyer at Latitude Festival about the peerless visual culture of David Bowie (1947 – 2016). He was my absolute musical hero and has influenced my lifelong passion for men who subvert masculine norms to promote femininity as positive and powerful. Thank you to the wonderful Tom Wilcox and the Institute of Contemporary Arts for allowing me the privilege of this incredible platform. Below are my conversational notes to prompt me during the discussion. Apologies for any typos – they are raw as are my emotions on this very sad day, and I will tidy in due course:
Notes on Bowie’s style circa 1973 – final
One of the things that got me into studying pop fashion was trying to understand why weird and wonderful stars like David Bowie and, latterly Prince, look so right when everything about them should be wrong. Only Bowie alone could pull off a red mullet, wonky teeth, odd coloured eyes and – lest we forget – some outrageous outfits. It really worked.
Of course David Bowie holds incredible aura as an artist with an imposing presence. But it was more than just luck and flair- Ziggy’s success was the result of really intelligent and carefully researched work on style and image.
This all happened at quite an early stage in Bowie’s career and made him massive. The album Ziggy Stardust was Bowie’s first commercially successful album since his 1969 eponymous album and reached the number 5 spot in the UK charts for 174 weeks.
The album was the first to solidify glam rock style into the mainstream and Bowie was the unquestionable leader of this early alternative trend which, as we now know, was copied but never bettered by subsequent artists.
So over the course of a series of key images, I wish to take you on a journey – maybe a space ride Miranda – through androgyny, aliens, japan, mythmaking, and of course camp, all of which underlay his incredible visual persona.
In academic work we call this the ‘extra-musical’ experience– the visual or other elements that make up the whole consumption of rock/pop. These are the things other than the music that we associate with the star and maybe keep or cherish. This means things like record covers and pop videos.
But somewhat less academically, in a recent interview, Bowie said “My trousers changed the world”- so let’s see how….
The idea that gender was performative was pretty radical back then. It wasn’t until later that decade that sociologists such as Erving Goffmann started to posit that gender behaviour might not be natural but acquired through our lives. Bowie and other stars like Prince or Madonna made visible how we can make active choices about how to just be.
Definition of glam
One of the best definitions I have come across was from Todd Haynes who directed the film Velvet Goldmine. He said that glam was ‘ the result of a unique blending of underground American rock with a distinctly English brand of camp theatricality and gender-bending. And for a brief time, pop culture would proclaim that identities and sexualities were not stable things but quivery and costumed…” (1998)
Rock, English rock especially, has often seemed like a huge, anarchic dressing up box. And we have to remember that at the time groups were often dressing down.
Mick Rock became David Bowie’s official photographer in the early ’70s, capturing Bowie’s performance persona Ziggy Stardust, as well as his band members, the Spiders from Mars.
By way of background:
Bowie, born in 1947 as David Jones in Brixton, grew up in Bromley in Kent. It’s the same place all the punks and new romantics like Siouxie from nearby Chislehurst piled out of in the late ‘70s. Likewise, Pete Burns grew up in a quiet model village called Port Sunlight next to the Mersey on the Wirral. It was JG Ballard who described these nice unassuming places as “far more sinister than most city dwellers imagine. Their very blandness forces the imagination into new areas…one’s got to get up in the morning thinking of a deviant act merely to make sense of one’s freedom.”
Bowie had already spent the best part of a decade trying on a cast of characters with little success. Mod, beatnik vaudevillian, mime artist, post-hippy Dylan folkie, metal-head in drag. Lest we forget he played a bit of a fail by releasing his first album on the same day as Sgt Pepper! It served as a kind of apprenticeship, every move a stepping stone towards Ziggy. From then on I think he realised he needed to take full control….so by creating the extravagantly dressed Ziggy, the fledgling artiste Bowie presenting himself as an established rock star, one of rock’s first completely pre-packaged personas. In Ziggy Stardust& the other alter-egos Bowie constructed in the ‘70s, he found a safe playground to indulge all his anxieties and those of the world around him. “The only way to exorcise pain is to turn it into a theatrical experience,” the singer noted.
So this picture is from October 1972 in San Francisco- and from the Jean Genie promo video shoot directed by Rock. It features Bowie in rolled up denim jeans and a tiny wetlook leather bomber jacket, clearly referencing the young 1950s biker rebels of whom he sought to evoke the spirit in the song. Ziggy’s peacock strut is also the powerhouse bravura of American rock & roll, equal parts Little Richard and Iggy Pop. Bowie followed in the wake of English musicians emulating black Americans just as the Beatles and Stones did.
Class rebellion was important to rock in the early 70s as it had been in the 1960s. Working class English kids like to pose as aristocratic fops – Here he deliberately creates the contrast with Ronson dressed in knickerbockers like an 18th century dandy.
Solidly middle class young men affected Cockey accents like Jagger. Bowie had observed how Jagger copied Tina Turner’s gyrations, how Ray Davies of the Kinks camped it up like a pantomime dame. Bowie channeled Marlene Dietrich and screamed like Little Richard. And none of them was gay, at least not most of the time.
What made Bowie so radical at the time was that he was a rock star, and rock culture has always been sexed as male – so you had female and I’m sure gay fans but the onstage star was always coded as hypermasculine. Look at Suzie Quatro – she does ‘cock rock’ like Lemmie from Motorhead.
Bowie discovered mime work from Lindsay Kemp, the flamboyant performance artist, he saw that rock was also above all a theatrical form rather than some god-given megalith.
But things had become rather dowdy in Britain. Bowie himself has said that “rock seemed to have wandered into some kind of denim hell. Street life was long hair, beards, leftover beads from the ‘sixties and, god forbid, flares were still evident”
Bowie consciously reacted – he eschewed sneakers for red platform boots, beads for feather boas, denim flares for catsuits. He chopped and dyed his flowing blond locks. God forfend he ever had so much as a five o’clock shadow or chest hair. Even the eyebrows were Immac-ed off. I once saw a film of him drinking milk. I think that was his only nourishing intake for two years. The lack of any apparent exposure to sunlight alone must have made his bones creak.
Vital to the formation of Ziggy was the controversial A Clockwork Orange (1971) – partly filmed at my university – so it’s entirely fitting a Brunel academic should be analyzing Ziggy. Not only does ‘Suffragette City’ reference the ‘droogs’ but the Spiders’ sartorial aesthetic was a dandified twist on the uniforms of Alex’s mob, right down to the diamond-encrusted crotch of Bowie’s jumpsuit. Dystopian ultra-violence fused with post-Warhol ultra-glamour. Bowie employed the designer Freddie Burretti in 1972 to make Ziggy and Spiders’ outfits in the vein of the Droogs, but he undercut the violent associations of the white jumpsuits by making them from colourful and exotic materials
With Mick Ronson in 1972
Bowie says of Ronson, “Mick was the perfect foil for the Ziggy character. He was very much a salt-of-the-earth type, the blunt northerner with a defiantly masculine personality, so that what you got was the old-fashioned Yin and Yang thing.”
I want to say something briefly about Page and Plant – I don’t know whether Led Zep fans would be comfortable with the idea that they had a sexually charged stage relationship. But whereas they held back from openly ‘queering’ their performance, Bowie went right for it.
An infamous part of Ziggy’s stage repertoire was Bowie’s ‘fellating’ of Ronson’s guitar; a boon for photographers and an audacious new argot for mainstream rock’s vocabulary.
Bowie’s bisexual persona, whether it be cultural construction or biographical reality, has been analyzed by two polarised camps. The gay press who largely wanted to hold him aloft as a “gay Elvis” , and felt betrayed when he rejected the mantle. Or a largely heterocentric male music journalist perspective who were dismissive that it was anything other than media-manipulation. Rock music is, more than any other medium, a tribal concern, and critics may have simply been more comfortable with dismissing the notion that their hero was anything other than a hetero dude playing panto with sexuality.
I think we may have gone a bit sexually repressed since then. Bowie, a married man with a child, outing himself was deemed credible in 1972 and yet Brett Anderson’s actually more transparent remarks (“I’m a bisexual man who’s never had a homosexual experience”) were endlessly lampooned 20 years later.
Starman: Bowie in concert at Earls Court, London, during one of the last performances he made in the guise of his character Ziggy Stardust in 1973
Bowie – as a be-glittered, androgynous alien offered a safe site for fans to project their fantasies, explore their identities and negotiate the ambiguities of their gender and sexuality against a backdrop of conservatism, uncertainty and a hell of a lot of denim in the UK. There was a feeling for fans that he encouraged you to become yourself. Although he looked really strange and risqué anyone could identify with him because the only think that was certain about him was that he was a star – he was neither alien or human, straight or gay, male or female.
Unemployment was over a million, we had a seven week miners strike and a dockers strike going on nigh on simultaneously. These were unsettling times especially for masculinity and traditional roles became unseated.
It’s not too much of an interpretive leap to see how this maelstrom informed the concept Bowie sketched of Ziggy. A messianic rock star spreads extraterrestrial messages, for which he is a cipher, across a world on the brink of apocalypse. His message of redemption is soaked up by an adoring audience but in the process he is sapped of his life force.
Science fiction as a genre was particularly resonant in an age of moon landings. The singer spent many a late 60s evening contemplating the existence of UFOs with friends like George Underwood. Stanley Kubrick’s 2001:A Space Odyssey (1969), a film that chimed with the space travel zeitgeist, informed Space Oddity. Hunky Dory‘s ‘Oh! You Pretty Things!’ had quoted Bulwer-Lytton’s The Coming Race (1871), widely regarded as the first sci-fi novel.
I was interested to read the work of a gender researcher called Gossinger who claims flying saucer addicts often suffer from gender confusion that manifests itself in their descriptions of encounters with aliens. That is, the alien becomes an androgynous, transsexual reflection of the individual who perceives it. – and he says that Bowie is a bit like that transsexual spaceman by reflecting fans’ latent desires to cross gender boundaries.
Another perhaps more palatable theory is that celebrities come into being when the needs of a given community to discuss social attitudes and behaviour are not being met – so Ziggy was merely a symptom, a reflection of what was needed by the public at that time. This might explain why the eccentricities just seemed to, well.. rock!
The make-up here is important coming as it did in the later Ziggy period. The silver lipstick, dark black eyeliner and the circle in the middle of his forehead – he explained it himself as “a futuristic third eye thing.”
Which links into Bowie’s fascination with Japan….
Knitted cat suit Hammersmith Odeon 1973
Onesies before they were ‘ream’
In the early 70s, Japan was still an alien nation to the UK so Bowie said it was as close to Martian as he could muster.
As Glam generally became bequeathed in increasingly dull fabrics, Ziggy went down a rabbit hole and things got more and more curious. The image grew more extreme, accentuating the kabuki theatre aspects of this ‘cat from Japan’, courtesy of the designs of Kansai Yamamoto.
Yamamoto was the first Japanese designer to present a fashion show overseas. The show was in 1971 at the Great Gear Trading Company on the King’s Road in London. Bowie reached out to the designer and he worked on the costumes for his 1973 UK tour and subsequently the US tour costuming for the Aladdin Sane shows. The fashion show featured models doing kabuki style moves.
Kabuki is a Japanese theatrical movement – and it is oddly fitting to Ziggy. It’s a theatre of extravagant stylized gestures. At climactic moments the actors freeze, as though in a photograph, while striking a particularly dramatic pose.
Bowie has never become a great actor so far, but he is a magnificent poser in the very best sense of the word! He was also fascinated by the onnagata tradition, of male actors playing female roles, and the performers were encouraged to do that in real life.
Yamamoto sought to create a complete oddity, an isolated alien, a pop deity, utterly enigmatic, freakish, but simultaneously dangerously alluring.
Why androgynous stars are attractive?
But here’s the needle scratching off the record revelation……You could actually get the knitting pattern for this in French Elle!
Tamasaburo Banda 5 – the famed onnagata, taught Bowie how to apply his kabuki make-up.
His mullet was created by Yamamoto. It went from orange to electric red in 1973 and was meant to imitate the look of a flaming red lion dance wig of kabuki theatre.
As Bowie’s lyrics to the song ‘Ziggy Stardust’ describe it, the alien rocker was “like some cat from Japan”.
By Bill Orchard for Rex Features in 1973
Now despite the overt Japanese references. there remained something quintessentially English about Bowie’s strategy as he, like say Chuck Berry, drew on his predecessors in music hall theatre. So think Max Miller in his cheekie chappie garishly patterned suits in the 30s, and you see Bowie’s granddad!
With Ziggy he forged a vari-coloured hybrid, sculpted from sources high and low (“Nijinsky meets Woolworths”), English and American, rock and non-rock. Ziggy’s glitter rock tendrils extended their reach across a fractured post-Beatles music scene. It cast a net over the hordes of singles fans and the more cerebral album markets; a nexus figure for a pluralized musical climate.
Whereas artists and film makers liked to create interesting results by refining popular culture into high art, Bowie did the opposite – he plundered high art and took it down to the street as a form of rock and roll theatre.
He drew his inspiration from anything that happened to catch his fancy. Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin of the 1930s as you can see here with the lack of eyebrows, Hollywood divas of the 1940s, Kabuki theatre, William Burroughs, Warhol, and Kubrick movies. The mix of high culture, science fiction, and lurking menace suited Bowie down to the ground.
His feminization came from his fascination with enduring Hollywood legends like Judy Garland and Marilyn Monroe, two silver screen icons referenced directly by Bowie during the Ziggy period. Both had died under sudden tragic circumstances in their prime in the previous decade too.
Bowie had a passion for mythmaking and I think he looked to America very much as the epitome of self-representation. You had calm on the surface – the American dream – but not far beneath was huge unease. In America, disunity over the Vietnam War continued. Protesting students were killed and the civil rights movement lost some of its most potent forces, including Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. The hippy dream had turned into an atomized nightmare, the counterculture splintered into factions, some of them violent. In England, the conflict with Ireland raged on, punctuated by outbreaks of attacks from the IRA. This very much influenced Bowie’s oeuvre, the disrupting nature of his identity.
There is a lot of camp in Bowie’s style. Camp is a sensibility of style and taste that uses exaggeration, artifice and parody. It’s been associated with gay culture but it actually has little to do with sexuality. It’s about androgyny and challenging norms and conventions, sending them up a little. Effeminacy is one way to create a sense of camp so you could say that strutting about in your pants with your hand on your hip is effeminate. But Bowie also displays a pretty in your face groin.
Bowie was embracing the spirit of camp here according to its truest definition, which is not just about sex but about the elevation of the aesthetic above the purely practical. Here is an aloof male, showing the dual binary opposites of extreme femininity and other worldliness while also showing earthly masculine sexual organs. Masculine feminine juxtaposition are the most characteristic kind of camp. So while he looked well endowed – it may have been exaggerated to render him as some kind of Eastern drag queen masquerading as a high priest or priestess. So it’s not so much raw and animalistic as aesthetic.
Again this is very different from the look of, say, Led Zep which was of course slightly overblown but wasn’t meant to be ironic
It is parodic because everyone knew at this time that he had a wife and a baby at home. The mundane reality of Bowie’s life was nappies, and trudging from Derby to Huddersfield and the like on a tour bus with burly roadies.
Bowies’ image was a triumph of artifice, theatricality, irony over truth.
High heels/wedge sandals
This is from Bowie’s 1973 live version of “White Light/White Heat.” which I think you’ll see in the final Ziggy Stardust show next.
Ziggy’s impact was due to Bowie’s provocative use of androgyny and bisexuality as viable marketing tools. He set the scene much earlier with The Man Who Sold the World‘s album cover (1970) where he reclines on a chaise-longue wearing what he assured people was a “man’s dress”.
I want to finish on this favourite picture of mine. So please indulge me! This photograph of Bowie and Mick Ronson is so much tamer than Rock’s risqué performance shots of the two. Rock says of the image, “Shot in a British Rail dining car, between London and Aberdeen. I travelled up and down the UK during the final Ziggy Tour, but until my book Moonage Daydream, this photo was never published. It’s now one of the most popular things in my exhibitions—something to do with the mundanity of the meal and the ridiculously exotic look of the diners!”
Initial gigs for Ziggy took place at such glamorous epicentres as The Toby Jug in Tolworth & The Friars in Aylesbury. Pretty soon the show was upgraded to the plush environs of The Rainbow Theatre in Finsbury Park! I love the way they look like gangsters.
Now these suits are hugely important and Bowie’s gone on to sport bright zoot suits throughout his career. Bright zoot suits are the ultimate in subversive and ambiguous fashion because they directly replicate clothing worn by dandies since the 1700s – the macaronis in England, and the young black zazous in France. Subcultures using style to challenge the status quo. And hasn’t he done that ever since.
But when Ziggy was killed off at Hammersmith Odeon in 1973 – as you’ll see next in the glorious film of the gig -Bowie has reached a turning point. This was a seismic moment in Bowie’s personal and creative life and you get a glimpse of it here (IN PIC) I think. Whereas before he was writing the characters, by then they were writing him. It was interesting that even after that date, Ziggy and Aladdin still lurked in his work as the Young American. But now he was to become a dandy in a fedora, dressing exactly to look like the Black youth who used fashion as a weapon of subversion against their oppression by white conservatism across the globe.
Bowie said in interview on the BBC that he could help people find characters within themselves no matter who they had been conditioned to think they are. Just as Ziggy was from his own universe, Bowie was saying we all are if only we are willing to take a space ride into our own psyches. I think it is so fascinating to watch his latest videos as for once he does not use make up. He still uses mirrors a lot but the reflection now is of a very well-preserved and handsome man in his 60s with a few wrinkles and a bit of sag. But no maskery. Back in 73 he wore a mask of his own face.
Now he seems to have found himself.
Psychology of androgyny
Back in the 1970s, psychologist Sandra Bern observed that society tends to discourage the development of both male and female characteristics within the same individual. – but that psychological androgyny can expand the range of behaviours available to everyone. And it’s especially associated with creativity.
Freud identified cross-sex identification in Leonardo Da Vinci. Other famous British androgynes include Keats, Coleridge – even Shakespeare. Virginia Woolf was fascinated by androgyny in men but she said Tolstoy was too male and Proust too female.
The renowned giftedness researcher Ellis Paul Torrance published a paper in 1963 showing that creative boys possess more feminine characteristics than their peers. The psychologist Abraham Maslow – the guy with the dogs! – remarked how creative people tend to often display a healthy balance of what appears to be opposites: selfishness and unselfishness; thinking and feeling; work and play; maturity and childishness. In reality, these so called opposites, like stereotypically masculine and feminine traits, can be viewed as two points on a single dimension and can be experienced by the same person at different stages of the creative process.
In the last decade, there’s been some fascinating research into graffiti artists – apparently they tend to show androgynous traits! It’s all about crossing boundaries.
Androgyny is ideal for male pop stars as we’ve seen with the likes of Prince who is undoubtedly heterosexually charged but simultaneously sensuous and non-threatening.. And if we think about it, the ambiguity of pop stars’ sexuality – are they straight or gay – enhances their charisma and star quality because they seem rather inaccessible from mere mortals. This inaccessibility may in turn heighten our longing for them, if only we could be the one to break the spell.