David Bowie Five Years On: The Man Who Sold The World

by Christina Donoghue on 8 January 2021

On Sunday 10 January 2020, it will be five years since the world grieved the loss of David Bowie. Writer Christina Donoghue reflects on the artist’s life-long legacy and how he ch-ch-ch-ch changed the face of fashion and music forever.

On Sunday 10 January 2020, it will be five years since the world grieved the loss of David Bowie. Writer Christina Donoghue reflects on the artist’s life-long legacy and how he ch-ch-ch-ch changed the face of fashion and music forever.

How does one pay tribute to David Bowie? Where do you even start when writing about him? The problem with writing about the musician and his life-long legacy is that it's near impossible to conjure up a 'small piece' on him. His career spanned over five decades and his first of many characters, Ziggy Stardust, embodied 21st-century ideals three decades before the century even began (he once told American radio talk show Fresh Air, 'we were terribly excited, and I think we took it on our shoulders that we were creating the 21st century in 1971.')

Bowie lived a life made up of once-in-a-lifetime defining moments that you'd be lucky enough to experience just the once let alone thousands of times over and over again, spread across two different centuries. We all have our favourite Bowie moment unique to us, that becomes ours. Paul Morley wrote in his 2016 biography of the musician, The Age of Bowie, 'everyone has their favourite Bowie,' and it's true. Even Bowie knew this too; 'I'm really just my own little corporation of characters' he told Told Rolling Stone in 1976. Whether it be Ziggy Stardust, Halloween Jack, Aladdin Sane, Thin White Duke, Major Tom, the Berlin years or the Soul years - each Bowie speaks to a different person. (I could go on to include other characters and movements Bowie embraced but I haven't even started on the 80s yet.) He was so much more than a musician despite telling Esquire in 2004, 'you know, what I do is not terribly intellectual. I'm just a pop singer for Christ's sake.' He left an ineffable stamp on the look, style, sound, and attitude of his time and beyond, experimenting with fashion in a way nobody had done before. The director of the V&A Museum at the time of the David Bowie Is exhibition (2013), Martin Roth, wrote in the preface to V&A's David Bowie Is Inside; 'Bowie is not only one of the great musicians and performers of the last half-century but is also among the great design visionaries. A instigator not just of memorable individual pieces - an album sleeve, a costume, a hairstyle - but of a particular zeitgeist that is uniquely his and yet resonates with enormous numbers of people around the globe.' And that's only the beginning of the story.

He left an ineffable stamp on the look, style, sound, and attitude of his time and beyond, experimenting with fashion in a way nobody had done before.
Twiggy with Bowie on the cover of his 'Pin Ups' album, photograph by Justin de Villeneuve.

My first memory of Bowie was watching an old Top of the Pops episode from 1972 with my mum in her bedroom. David Bowie bent on his knees, plucking what was a perfectly-placed-guitar-near-his-lead-guitar-player's-crotch-area with his teeth (the lead guitar player being the legendary Mick Ronson) - of course, I had no idea of the sexual connotations of this at the time (I was in primary school) nor how truly shocking this action was for the audience at the time as homosexuality had only been legalised five years before in 1967. What I did know is that I was filled with an unquenchable thirst to know absolutely everything about who that space-age-cladded-ginger-haired-freak was. Afterwards, I went on a mass spree desperate to know everything that had ever been written about him. My fascination with Bowie introduced me to so many of his contemporaries including, but not limited to, Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, Andy Warhol (I still think Andy Warhol, track eight on Hunky Dory album, is one of the best songs ever-recorded despite Warhol himself and others thinking otherwise) Brian Eno, Luther Vandross, Kansai Yamamoto, Lindsay Kemp, Mick Jagger, Ava Cherry, Angie Bowie, Iman, Soul Train, Kraftwerk, and so, so many more wonderful creatives all before I'd started secondary school.

Truth be told my research for this piece was somewhat limited if I did any at all. I've been 'researching' (if you want to call it that rather than die-hard fangirling) David Bowie since the tender age of eight or nine (no, seriously I have, I even wrote love letters to his New York apartment when I was nine.) I may even cockily and boldly assume that I potentially have enough knowledge of the late musician (thanks to my archive of him I've built up over the last decade) to write his biography, not that I'd need to because there are hundreds - and yes, I've already read 80% of them.

I was filled with an unquenchable thirst to know absolutely everything about who that space-age-cladded-ginger-haired-freak was.
Kate Moss In a Kansai Yamamoto-designed suit, worn by David Bowie for the Ziggy Stardust tour. Photograph by Nick Knight.

To trace Bowie's 'repulsive need to be something more than human' and my insatiable desire to devote my life to adoring him we'll start with 1970; commonly known as the beginning of the glam-rock era. Flower-power and the hippie-dippie peace signs of the 60s had begun to slow as the platforms got higher, the hair got bigger, and the music got louder. There were two distinct characteristics of the glam-rock era; an explicit array of sexual flamboyance most famously exhibited by David Bowie's most famous character and persona, Ziggy Stardust, and the proto-punk aggression associated with the likes of Iggy Pop (yes, the guy that would often cut himself live on stage and bleed over the audience, topless.) While both were hugely influential, it must be said that the 'sexual side' of glam rock (the Ziggy Stardust kind) received more media attention because it was widely considered to be more of a taboo. It was undeniably more pop-based than its aggressive relations and therefore widened the accessibility to the public domain, meaning poor old Ziggy often received a few criticisms from parents who weren't too happy about their children singing along to the lyrics from Rebel Rebel, 'You've got your mother in a whirl, she's not sure if you're a boy or a girl.'

The glam-rock movement redefined the artist's role in musical culture; it was the idea of creating a stage persona to coincide with the performance element instead of just singing the song. This change caused the focus of the media attention to be mainly on the singer just as much as it was on the song. Glam-rock also provided the backbone into a mass exploration of sexual discovery. Because homosexuality had only become legal very recently, musical references alluding to sexual ambiguity were hushed and generally speaking, wholly prohibited altogether. So, believe it or not, David Bowie caused quite a stir when he announced his bisexuality to the weekly music paper Melody Maker in 1972. It's this statement alone that some critics argue propelled him into the limelight, feasting on the stardom he had so desperately craved since the early 60s, the years he desperately tried his hand at anything in the hope of finding fame (meaning a few questionable nursery rhymes were released by the singer during these years but we won't go into those, we'll pretend they're not part of the story).

Kate Moss in David Bowie's ice blue suit, worn in the 'Life on Mars' video, for the May 2003 issue of British Vogue. Photograph by Nick Knight

Of course, there is the view that the counter-cultural androgyny scene was a reaction against a more dominant culture, one which suppressed innate androgyny in favour of supposedly stable masculine and feminine 'identities.' The gender-bending glam-rock age challenged this idealised stereotype by using fashion as a focal point. Fashion and glamour became an integral part of the movement; helping in the ambiguous role of blurring the lines between genders. Thanks to designers such as the wonderful Kansai Yamamoto (the Japanese designer behind those famous multi-coloured Ziggy suits) or the lesser-known Freddie Burretti, who designed the dress worn by Bowie on the front cover of The Man Who Sold The World, none of this would've been possible for Ziggy. When Playboy interviewed Bowie in 1976, the artist described himself as a 'tasteful thief' going on to say 'the only art I'll ever study is stuff that I can steal from' which rings true for many of his personas, especially the earlier ones. Ziggy Stardust was, in fact, a character based on the talents of so many others. Without the genius of his ex-wife Angie Bowie, the mime lessons of Lindsay Kemp, the outrageous costumes of Kansai Yamamoto the ambiguity and sleekness of Freddie Burreti, the orange mullet courtesy of Suzi Ronson or the fabulously famed blue eyeshadow as part of the Life on Mars make-up look by Pierre La Roche - we may never have had the gender-bending earthling at all. Paying tribute to his influences and inspirations, knowing full well he couldn't have done it on his own, Bowie admitted to BBC Radio One in 1997, 'I pieced together bits and pieces of other artists, and they all became this rather grand, stylish lad, Ziggy.'

Bowie has always been open and honest about his voracious appetite for creativity and consuming culture en masse, referring to it as 'a malevolent curiosity' when speaking to The New York Daily News in 2002. 'That's what drives my need to write and what probably leads me to look at things a little askew.' Soaking up anything and everything around him deemed worthy enough of his attention, he told Russel Harty in 1973 'I find that I am a person who collects, I'm a collector, and I've always just seemed to collect personalities, ideas and all sorts, like a sponge.' As Picasso once famously said, 'it's not what you steal, it's how you use it.' Imitation gets you nowhere, and if anyone understood this, it was David Bowie. His restless energy, unconditional love of life, unique flair and fresh way of looking at things always meant his fans were never left feeling bored, rather instead pinned continuously to the edge of their seat wondering where Bowie was going to take them next. After all, this is the man who once told his fans 'I don't know where I'm going from here, but I promise it won't be boring.' Despite his musical achievements, Bowie appeared in at least 30 films, (albeit, he wasn't the best actor in the world) and even played a physically misshapen part-human-part-monster John Merrick in the Jack Hofsiss directed stage play of The Elephant Man by Bernard Pomerance, making his Broadway debut a triumph. And, like our founder Nick Knight, Bowie had an intense fascination with the internet. He became the first major artist to distribute a new song Telling Lies as an online-only release, successfully selling over 300,000 downloads and this was all before the singer even set up his own internet provider in 1998 Bowienet (two years before SHOWstudio was born.)

His restless energy, unconditional love of life, unique flair and fresh way of looking at things always meant his fans were never left feeling bored, rather instead pinned continuously to the edge of their seat wondering where Bowie was going to take them next.

Great music aside, Bowie not only completely changed the face of queerness; he became the face of what it meant to be queer. Ziggy Stardust standing onstage, wearing platforms higher than a small infant, the most fabulous shade of blue eyeshadow, feather boas galore, glitter everywhere, eyebrows nowhere - completely redesigned the dominant model of what the queer individual might be. Terrifying yet erotic, alienesque yet strangely human, totally rebellious and suspiciously desirable all at once. Five albums into the artist's stratospheric career, and although supernatural, not necessarily a superstar yet, Bowie still had a lot on the line when he told NME, 'I'm gay, I always have been.' Although viewed as nothing more than a publicity stunt for Ziggy, the action still could've very much wiped out Bowie's career even though the intention was undeniably the opposite. To digress, Bowie being 'gay' didn't matter; it was how he presented himself that did. For someone on the threshold of such success to risk it all with such an admission immediately made queerness seem daring and well, to put it bluntly, revolutionary.

Of all my favourite looks, I personally think nothing beats his character, The Thin White Duke, (it's worth noting this was arguably Bowie's most problematic period as he was high as a kite throughout pretty much all of the 70s, you only have to watch the 1975 Grammys when he presented Aretha Franklin with an award to know what I mean) but fashion-wise, The Thin White Duke was just as astounding and equally as dazzling as Ziggy, but better. Self-described as a 'mad aristocrat,' the look was slightly gawkish, and when it came to shoulder pads, the strict dress code of 'the bigger, the better' was diligently adopted. Yves Saint Laurent dressed Bowie during this period and fittingly, the house's ex creative director, Heidi Slimane, openly acknowledged Bowie as one of his greatest influences, a look he has also taken with him to Celine where he is currently at the helm. The Thin White Duke is synonymous with the 'Saint Laurent' type that Heidi Slimane perpetuated while designing for the house and is a look that's still widely referenced on today's catwalks. A top moment for The Thin White Duke's controversial persona was his classic Soul Train TV performance - which perfectly captured Bowie's new take on power dressing. The slightly boxy shoulders and statement collar also paved the way for 80s new wave's love affair with the business casual look - famously embodied by The Talking Heads' David Byrne and his massively oversized suits.

Admittedly, my relationship with my David Bowie obsession has dramatically changed over the past couple of months if not years. After all, I am 23 years old this year and no longer feel the pressing need to have my identity determined by my likes and dislikes, passions and hatreds aside. Before, my obsession felt all-encompassing. I was in constant competition with other obsessives, desperate to win and prove to myself, and them, that I was the true number one David Bowie fan - my emotions for him often teetered on the brink of pure hysteria and even though I still catch myself daydreaming about him more frequently than I'd care to admit, I now revel in the sheer excitement of meeting another crazed fan rather than automatically quizzing them on their knowledge.

Bowie fans are so united in their dedication to the late musician that they couldn't be broken up no matter how much force was implored. His fanbase isn't for the ordinary dip-in-dip out listener, it's for the obsessives, the romantics, the ones that become infatuated-at-first-sight. You only had to take a trip down to Bowie's childhood neighbourhood in Brixton, South London on the evening of 11 January 2016 - the date news broke about his death - to know precisely what I'm talking about. It seemed like the entirety of London had made their way down to Brixton to form a street party, upwards of 5,000 people, all slowly marching the streets singing Starman in unison. I managed to make it down to Brixton the day after on the 12th to visit the mural opposite the station (a tradition I used to commit to once a month that year before life got in the way) and nothing could've prepared me for the number of wreaths, love letters, tea-lights, postcards, flowers and cut-outs from the headlines that day (all pictures of Bowie of course) that were propped up against the mural. Thinking about the sheer magnitude of it all is enough for me to shed a little tear. I couldn't even get close to writing a small message on the hand-painted mural by Jimmy C (now a listed site) due to the sheer amount of flowers there were, rows upon rows, all stacked on top of each other, beautifully laid out as an appreciation of gratitude. I started to read inside some of the cards tacked to the mural written by fans who'd made their way down earlier and was truly dumbstruck by the overriding emotional element that so many of his fanbase and I shared. 'Thank you for being there for me.'

His fanbase isn't for the ordinary dip-in-dip out listener, it's for the obsessives, the romantics, the ones that become infatuated-at-first-sight.
Kate Moss in Bowie's black waistcoat and trousers, designed by Ola Hudson and worn in the film The Man Who Fell to Earth. For the May 2003 issue of British Vogue, photograph by Nick Knight

I genuinely believe my first introduction to real heartbreak and overwhelming sadness was the day I found out he died. I found out around seven in the morning and was just mid-walk across the landing when my mum told me. At first, I refused to believe it but when floods of notifications started jamming my phone from different news sites, informing me of the dreaded news, what I thought had been a bad dream, instantly became a reality. I've always found it silly when people cry at celebrities dying or people they've never met, but somehow, I suppose in my own little way, I felt like I did know him. It's hard to put into words but to simply state the obvious; nobody helped me feel less alone, more alive and totally inspired during my teenage years.

Bowie told the newspaper Orlando Sentinel in 1987 that 'a lot of what I've done is about alienation… about where you fit in society.' The perfect example of this would be Kooks (track 5 on Hunky Dory.) Bowie wrote the song as soon as he found out about his son's birth in 1971 while listening to a Neil Young record at the time and therefore the lyrics provide a perfect rock anthem for parenting. When I listened to Kooks, I felt like he was singing to me, like I was the one he 'believed' in. Ask any David Bowie fan what their favourite song is or the Bowie song their mother played them when they were younger. I can guarantee you nine times out of ten the answer will be Kooks, those few lyrics in the chorus, 'cause we believe in you, soon you'll grow so take a chance, with a couple of kooks, hung up on romancing' speak to outsiders anywhere and everywhere, young and old, longing to fit in until they realise they don't want to fit in.

I honestly think, without the existence of Bowie - the endless interviews and music videos watched into the ungodly hours of the morning - I would be someone else, we all would be, in a way. His effect on fashion and music was so significant, it's hard to imagine the industries today without the presence of Bowie looming over them, no longer taking centre stage but watching, observing from the side-lines. After everything the musician did, after all his achievements he was still one of the most down to earth people in music, turning down a knighthood in 2002 because he 'honestly didn't know what it was for' and when asked by i-D Magazine in 1987 on how he'd like to be remembered, he gave the answer, 'I don't give a fuck. I really don't. It doesn't even occur to me… it's nice to have just got through it all.' Says it all really.



Interview: Twiggy Lawson on David Bowie

20 December 2019
wiggy talks to Nick Knight about working with David Bowie and appearing on the cover of Bowie's 1973 record 'Pin Ups'.
Live Panel Discussion

Panel Discussion: Bowie and Fashion

22 March 2016
Dylan Jones, Tim Blanks, Nick Knight, Victoria Broakes and Lou Stoppard discuss Bowie's relationship with fashion at the V&A.

Essay: Bowie and Fashion

24 March 2016
David Bowie: Ooh Fashion! - Paul Gorman on the impact of Bowie’s image.
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