Back in 1973 I experienced a life changing moment watching Top of the Pops on British TV when David Bowie appeared on the screen.
Not only did he project the image of a rock god, he was wearing an astonishing and provocative outfit, unlike anything I’d seen before.
And then there was the make-up and face paint. The family gulped as this androgyonous figure duetted on his single, Starman, with his gold-clad, blonde Adonis of a guitarist, Mick Ronson.
Bowie was Ziggy Stardust, part man, part alien, a mutant from another planet – aided and abetted by his motley crew, The Spiders from Mars.
This star man thrilled not only because he seemed to speak directly from the telly like an evangelist peddling rock ’n ’roll, but he was just so cool, oozing style from every pore.
I was an instant convert to his intelligent glam rock with its arty leanings and theatrical tendencies. I’ve been in love with rock ‘n’roll ever since!
Forty years later I’m still hooked on rock’s greatest chameleon who is the focus of the London Victoria and Albert Museum’s show, David Bowie Is, which happens to coincide with the artist’s first album in 10 years.
The exhibition brings together 300 costumes, art works and designs from Bowie’s 50 year career – and it’s a show that you really shouldn’t miss.
The shock of the new
Bowie is a style leader and musical innovator but it was his early roots that intrigued me in the London exhibition at the V & A.
How did a boy called David Jones from suburban Bromley in Kent transform himself from a Teddy boy rocker in The Konrads into arty innovator, David Bowie?
His early years are illustrated by some great photos of the young Bowie in his city slicker suit, looking like pop idol Heinz from the Joe Meek school of rock ‘n’ roll in the 1950s.
Then there was Bowie’s hippy phase with Bowie looking distinctly psychedelic and effete in his floppy hats, long hair and ‘Chelsea Girl’ fashions.
The V & A show gives us plenty of clues to Bowie’s early artistic influences which suggest that he saw himself as much as an artist as a musician.
Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry were influences but so were William Burroughs, Gilbert and George, John Cage and Andy Warhol’s Factory.
David Bowie’s passion for art set him along a pathway of innovation and carefully crafted imagery, punctuated by a series of characters each with their own visual style.
There’s a good selection of Bowie’s own paintings and sketches; the oils from his Berlin period are surprisingly good with their German Expressionist style.
This slightly odd-looking self portrait makes Bowie looks like an alchemist, exuding artistic energy and creativity.
Bowie’s love of mime is explored in a fascinating video in which he struts his stuff , influenced by mime master Lindsay Kemp, illustrating his early love of theatricality.
There’s some great examples of Bowie’s automatic poetry and random word play which he used to create his lyrics – they draw heavily on techniques used by the Surrealist poet, Apollinaire.
If anyone was ever in doubt about Bowie’s agenda, art was always at its core. Ziggy played guitar… but he also flirted with fine art, mime, alternative film and literature.
Perhaps Bowie is the ultimate modern Renaissance man? A man of many talents and styles, constantly shifting and evolving through his music and art.
After years of experimentation, Bowie’s explosion onto the British rock scene came with Ziggy Stardust which blew away the musical cobwebs with a spaced-out, futuristic vision for rock music.
The Starman suit worn by Bowie on Top of the Pops in 1972 was a watershed in British rock styling.
It’s amazing to see the costume close-up, framed by a large screen video from Top of the Pops.
It has the power to shock even today with its striking design and androgynous look, aided and abetted by Bowie’s bright orange, spiky hair.
Adding to the video’s inter-galactic ambience is Mick Ronson who had reinvented himself from ‘rough and ready’ northerner into Bowie’s glittering artistic muse.
The Ziggy suit was inspired by Stanley Kubrick’s controversial film, A Clockwork Orange which Bowie described as “ultraviolence in Liberty fabrics”.
Another Ziggy period costume takes Bowie’s androgyny to the limits with its knitted, skin-hugging style which is half man, half beast.
I remember getting my mum to knit me a similar colourful, wool creation but with shorts instead of Bowie’s daring cropped leg look.
Fashion and the Thin White Duke
Bowie didn’t so much flirt with fashion as wholeheartedly embrace it, commissioning top designers to come up with visions of his latest stage personas.
It’s astonishing to look back on the catwalk of Bowie creations from sailor outfits and finely-tailored suits to the striking Pierrot costume from Ashes to Ashes with its curvy, chameleon-like outer skin.
One of the best Bowie periods was his Berlin sojourn with Iggy Pop which resulted in one of my favourite albums, Low, and his flirtation with German Expressionism and Marlene Dietrich style.
Funnily enough, Bowie and Dietrich starred together in the Hollywood film, Just A Gigolo, but never actually met on the set during filming. Bowie must have been gutted…
This striped bodysuit designed for the Aladdin Sane tour by Kansai Yamamoto is one of my favourite costumes in the show with its curvy body armour that looks like an armadillo.
It was a nightmare to wear, but Yamamoto has always remained one of Bowie’s favourite designers – and there are a number of his stunning costumes in the exhibition.
But then, sometimes you have to suffer for your art… this image is as striking as it was 40 years ago.
Sound and vision
One of the most striking aspects of the London V & A exhibition is the sound system which is designed to make you feel like you’re inside Bowie’s world.
Visitors are given a Sennheiser audio guide system which aims to create an immersive 3D sound experience via an interactive head set.
For me, it works best when you stand still in one place but if you wander around between exhibits, you’re in danger of losing the sound and drifting into an audio-free no man’s land.
Its creators used complex algorithms to convert Bowie’s mono and stereo material into a multi-channel music experience.
The overlapping audio works best in the large gig-like space at the centre of the exhibition which tries to recreate the experience of being at a Bowie gig, complete with giant screens and film footage.
It’s a strangely overwhelming and emotional experience – and took me right back to the many ages of Bowie ranging from the 1970s through to Young Americans and Live Aid.
Sadly the only time I’ve seen David Bowie live was on his Glass Spider Tour, which has largely been expunged from the V & A exhibition, probably because of its relative mediocrity.
The poorly received Tin Machine period with its noisy wall of sound and forgettable fashions is also largely missing from the show.
But it’s great to be able to feel like you were at a Bowie gig circa 1973 in Ziggy’s heyday, even for those who weren’t born back then!
The final section of the exhibition is something of an anti-climax after this amazing tour de force but there’s still the later costumes to savour for their inventiveness.
There’s the Union Jack coat, designed by Alexander McQueen and David Bowie for the Earthling tour, which is a far cry from the kimono designs beloved by Bowie in the 1970s.
My personal ‘best in show’ is the beautifully-tailored Life on Mars peppermint suit and striped shirt combo designed by Freddie Burretti.
Apparently Bowie was so thin and the suit so small that model Kate Moss had to have it taken out for a 2003 Vogue photo shoot!
Sometimes you wonder how all these designs and costumes survived the ravages of time. Perhaps contemporary artists like Paloma Faith, Coldplay and Beyonce should start developing their own design collections for future display?
Finally there’s costumes and designs from Bowie’s film and theatre career… from the stage production of The Elephant Man to Bowie’s khaki number from Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence.
As you exit through the last exhibition space, take time to look at the fine collection of Bowie still images captured by photographer Mick Rock.
Change is the essence of Bowie – and experiencing this show is liking being inside Bowie’s creative mind. We feel at one with our rock idol.
Perhaps we can all be heroes just for one day…
About the exhibition
The David Bowie Is exhibition has now closed but it was at the London V & A Museum until 11 August 2013.
The V & A is located on Cromwell Road in Kensington – the nearest Tube station is South Kensington.
Don’t miss out on the excellent exhibition catalogue, a complete coffee table treat if ever there was one.
Images are copyright and courtesy of V & A Images, London, the David Bowie Archive, Studio Canal Films, John Robert Rowlands, Terry O’Neill and Brian Duffy.
Thanks to the Victoria and Albert Museum for permission to use these images.