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Bowie’s magical wardrobe led his fans into strange new musical landscapes

Reuters/Neil Hall

Bowie’s magical wardrobe led his fans into strange new musical landscapes

There is no real need to reiterate that Bowie was a fashion icon. That, if this week’s posthumous tributes are anything to go by, is a given. Nor is there any further call for a detailed account of his greatest looks; his talent for reinvention; his impact upon the aesthetics of his culture; or the influence he continues to exert upon contemporary designers. All of this has been amply covered elsewhere.

Fashion within the context of music and performance is often characterised as superficial and ephemeral, as if what a performer wears is nothing more than a pleasing veneer. But clothing does not exist in isolation from a performer, nor is it a passive but pretty tool. As Simon Frith and Howard Horne state in their book, Art into Pop:

Fashion can’t be disentangled from pop music. The history of rock, in Britain at least, is a history of image as well as sound, a history of cults and cultures defined by clothes as well as songs. Whether in pursuit of authenticity or artifice, romantic truth or postmodern paradox and pastiche, musicians use the language of fashion.

This statement applies particularly to David Bowie. He had an acute understanding of the role that clothing and image played in the construction of a performer’s identity, as well as their relationship to an audience. He approached every stylistic shift, both in music and image, with complete and utter conviction and appeared to mean every style that he ever wore.

His fans aped him and he changed the way that people looked – but he was also an active participant in the creation of other cultures and subcultures, giving individuals inspiration and license to experiment with clothing, lifestyle and ambitions.

Straight suits

An interview conducted with Bowie in 1975 by Russell Harty touches upon these themes. The exchange takes place “live by satellite from beautiful downtown Burbank in Los Angeles” in advance of the release of Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth. In it they discuss Bowie’s plans to return to the UK after an extended period in the US, his stage persona and style, as well as the changes that have taken place in British popular culture since Bowie last lived in England.

Following a short discussion within which Bowie announces that he has missed England and plans to return to play some shows in May 1976, Harty muses that, “you’re not presumably coming back with the glamoury, glittery Ziggy Stardust thing, are you?” Bowie says that he hasn’t thought about it yet, but Harty is warming to his theme and continues with this line of questioning.

RH: You haven’t planned your wardrobe? You haven’t planned a figure? You haven’t planned an image, whatever that may mean?“

DB: I think the image I may well adopt may well be me …”

RH: You really have no simple idea about what you’re going to wear? Are you going to wear a little suit? A straight suit? Or you going to be flamboyant?“

Bowie, once again, demurs to comment on his proposed wardrobe, preferring instead to discuss his musical plans. Harty turns to the related topic of audience and questions if Bowie realises that, "the pop world has changed somewhat since you left … have you heard of the Bay City Rollers?” Bowie, looking nonplussed, confirms that he has indeed heard of the Bay City Rollers. This prompts Harty to reflect upon “what kind of audience you’re going to come back to face?” and goes on to boldly state: “I’m thinking in a kind of way you may have to create a whole new scene for yourself.”

Bowie is quite rightly irked by Harty’s line of questioning but the exchange does raise an important point about the role that artists play in producing, or creating, their audience.

Making his Marx

Frith and Horne note that Marx, in his Introduction to a Critique of Political Economy (1857-59), already made the point about art and artists as a formative force, not just a reflective one, when he said: “An objet d’art creates a public that has artistic taste and is able to enjoy beauty – and the same can be said of any other product. Production accordingly produces not only an object for the subject, but also a subject for the object.”

Or, to put it more prosaically, this idea that consumers are produced “is one of the operational rules of pop music … and the biggest and most influential stars are precisely the ones who design their own fans.”

Not for one moment am I suggesting that Harty was giving consideration to Marxist theories of production in his interview with Bowie (that would be absurd). But Harty’s questions about Bowie’s image and his potential need to “create a whole new scene” for himself were, unwittingly, insightful.

Bowie’s contribution to fashion was profound but that cannot simply be attributed to well-chosen outfits. The pop chameleon appeared to understand that fashion is more than just a passive object and he skilfully used it, over and over again, to construct and communicate his identity as a performer – and in turn he created a scene for himself.