Saturday, 23 March 2013

David Bowie Is: Living curiosity and fashion legend

Peter Frankopan, a Historian at Oxford University, writing for Huffpost Culture, compares Bowie to a living saint: “I'll be packing off my students to see it - if they can get tickets, that is,” he says, “as it is the perfect example for anyone wanting to understand medieval religion. The record-breaking crowds that will flock to see the show will be like pilgrims visiting a shrine of an important saint: here is the outfit Bowie wore when he sang Starman on Top of the Pops; there are the lyrics, written in his own hand, for Rebel Rebel. There is the printed itinerary of the train journey across the eastern US, with stop-offs to the end of the line before the rest of the trip was by car and van. They are like relics belonging to a holy man, objects to be admired.”

You have to be pretty saintly to stand in a queue for an hour to see an exhibition  - and that was just on the preview day.  But it’s well worth it to see the costumes alone – many of them designed or co-designed by Bowie himself.

The fashion legend and living curiosity that is David Bowie started out as plain old David Jones in London’s Brixton. He passed his 11+ but, instead of going to grammar school, attended Bromley Technical High School, where he specialized in music and art. He says that if he hadn’t become a singer, he would like to have been a writer. The V and A’s Bowie Is exhibition (in partnership with Gucci) is a testament to Bowie’s skill as a multi-disciplinarian - as a lyricist, musician, artist and fashion designer. Above all, it illustrates the extent of Bowie’s impact on style and culture – an influence spanning over five decades.

Many of Bowie’s 1970s costumes were inspired by the space travel that captured the popular imagination of the day – from Willy Brown’s late 1970s jumpsuit with le Corbusier-inspired line drawings that Bowie wore as Major Tom to the quilted two piece suit he performed Starman in (above), and set designer Mark Ravitz’s avant garde outfit for the Man Who Sold the World.

But the inspiration for Bowie’s dress came from a multitude of other sources too – including the film A Clockwork Orange, the glam rock genre, edgy Weimar Republic cabaret, Japanese kabuki, German expressionist films and Hindu style bindis (like the colourful third eye on the cover of Aladdin Sane).  

Standout items include a replica of the Ziggy Stardust bodysuit designed by Bowie and Freddie Burretti, and an appliqued satin cloak and platform boots by Kansai Yamamoto – not forgetting Yamamoto’s extraordinary Tokyo bodysuit at the show's entrance (above top). Yamamoto famously declared that his clothing suited Bowie because his designs could be worn by either sex. Curiously, the Japanese words on Yamomoto’s cloak spell out David Bowie, but translate as, ‘one who spits out his words in a fiery manner.’

Other famous costumiers include Thierry Mugler, and Natasha Korniloff - responsible for Bowie’s curious 1973 cobweb costume with fake hands. The cobweb costume originally had a third hand, which grasped at the crotch, but this was censored for an appearance on television - and gold leggings were added to preserve decency. Korniloff also created Bowie’s naval look (1978) and his famous Pierrot style costume (1980).

The late Ola Hudson, mother of Guns N Roses' Slash, was another regular contributor to what is now Bowie’s fashion archive (and reputedly his lover too). Alison Chitty’s design for Screaming Lord Byron (1984), Freddie Buretti’s Ice Blue Suit (below) for Life on Mars (1972) and Ravitz’s ‘skirt suit and poodle’ for an appearance by Bowie on Saturday Night Live are among the unique outfits. There’s a fab black suit with a frilled shirt by Georgio Armani from the 1990 Sound and Vision tour, a blue silk suit by Hedi Slimane – and accessories include a single dangly earring by Vivienne Westwood.

A wardrobe mood board (from 2003?) list Bowie’s school-boyishly svelte measurements: chest 34.5 inches, waist 26.5 inches and neck size 14. Being so trim may well have contributed to Bowie’s longevity as a performer and fashion icon.

From the mid ‘90s, Alexander McQueen was a significant contributor to the Bowie wardrobe too. It’s a shame you can’t see some of the fabrics more clearly, as parts of the exhibition space are presented like a dimly lit music venue, but McQueen’s designs include a number of frock coats, brocade jackets, a tyre-print suit and a Bowie’s famous Union Jack coat for the Earthling album cover (co-designed with Bowie in 1997).

Finally, ShopCurious has some tips for visiting the show: Leave longer than you anticipate for a visit to this exhibition – especially if your car is parked on a meter. The headphones supplied to all visitors take a little getting used to – if you find yourself stuck with Gilbert and George, just press the magnifying glass symbol (seemed to work for me, anyway). Oh, and be prepared to queue.

1 comment:

worm said...

my word, his measurements are tiny!! my waist and chest are over a foot wider than his... feel fat now. This is an exhibition I'd really like to see - and also the pompeii one too, might have to see if I could fit in both in a proper one day cultureblitzkrieg