Essay: Bowie and Fashion

by Paul Gorman on 24 March 2016

Cultural commentator Paul Gorman examines the impact and influence of David Bowie’s image.

Cultural commentator Paul Gorman examines the impact and influence of David Bowie’s image.

Kate Moss, British Vogue, May 2003, photo by Nick Knight

Andy Warhol’s milieu, the first wave of Japanese avant-garde fashion design, East End tailoring, a dash of sixties Mod, androgynous hair-styling and avant cosmetics, London’s gay and New York’s Latino disco subcultures, lashings of A Clockwork Orange’s visual ultra-violence, and even the fashion design work of Slash’s mother and Sir Paul Smith’s future menswear maestro; all of these elements were compacted by David Bowie in the sartorial innovations and stylistic experimentations he pursued through the first half of the seventies.

It’s arguable that the notions of transgression and gender display foregrounded in contemporary menswear in the past couple of years owe much to this crucial period of Bowie’s career, from space alien rocker Ziggy Stardust, cracked actor Aladdin Sane and his Diamond Dogs-era barrio style to the Young Americans plastic soul moves and the cocaine-chilled, motorik-propelled incarnation as the Thin White Duke.

From the off – which we may date to a party to celebrate Bowie’s 25th birthday at his home to the south of London in Haddon Hall, Beckenham, on 8 January 1972 – the rock & roll chameleon, egged on by his whip-smart and visually acute American wife Angie, was out to dazzle and provoke. In doing so he drove the development not just of street-style but ultimately high fashion.

The role played by Angie in Bowie’s stylistic ambitions at the time cannot be underestimated; on the road to Ziggymania it was Angie who pressed him into falling under the spell of the decadent, glittering cast of Andy Warhol’s Pork when they were in residency at London’s The Roundhouse, and she who appeared in fashion spreads in national papers such as the Daily Express.

‘I really think a lot of it was down to Angie,’ says Boy George. ‘She was like something from another planet: American, sexually ambiguous and very savvy, very stylistically conscious, so it's no coincidence that within the space of a few months of them being together he switched from being a bit of a hippy into a gorgeous space creature.’

As Bowie archivist Kevin Cann has recorded, on the night of the birthday shebang – attended by such pals as Lou Reed and Lionel Bart - the singer made his entrance down the main staircase of the baronial Haddon Hall in the patterned Ziggy cover suit. Gone were the flowing garments of The Man Who Sold The World and its follow up Hunky Dory: no more Mr Fish man-dresses, Dietrich-style locks, Oxford bags, floppy hats or poet-sleeved chemises.

In their stead, Bowie displayed a tough, ambiguous two-piece of his own design, realised with trained tailor friend Freddie Burretti (ne Fred Burrett) and local seamstress Sue Frost. The matching bomber jacket and cuffed straight-legged trousers were produced in the geometric pattern of a thirties furniture fabric and set off with a fresh haircut (replicating a spiky post-Mod coiffure sported by a model for Kansai Yamamoto spotted in a recent issue of Honey magazine) and knee-high, lace-up, zip-sided boots like those worn by Alex and his droogs in Stanley Kubrick’s movie version of Anthony Burgess’s dystopian novel.

Bowie gathered the various strands of this presentation by drawing on a tight-knit circle of recently formed friendships, particularly those established during his and Angie’s residence in Beckenham: Bowie’s hair was cut by another local, hairdresser Suzi Fussey (who would sculpt and dye it flame-red a couple of months later) and the boots – like the quilted suits, also sported by his backing band the Spiders – were bespoke, designed by one Stan ‘Dusty’ Miller, who worked for a branch of retailer/manufacturer Russell & Bromley (these were in the days before it was a nationwide chain).

The party adjourned to Bowie’s favourite London nightspot, The Sombrero, Kensington’s tiny gay boîte cheekily called Yours Or Mine? but forever known by the name of the adjacent Mexican restaurant. It was here he had met Burretti less than a year before.

‘Fred Of The East End’, as Buretti’s letterhead proclaimed, was a prodigiously talented pretty boy, and, in partnership with his closest friend Daniella Parmar, wielded a strong influence over Bowie’s style choices.

By the time of the Ziggy tour dates at London’s Rainbow Theatre in the late summer of 1972, Bowie was also introducing the extraordinary creations of Kansai Yamamoto as stage-wear, having taken on board not only the haircut from the magazine shoot but also the Japanese designer’s instructions to his models to shave off their eyebrows.

Yamamoto rose to the fore in British fashion circles the previous year, after staging an extraordinarily theatrical show of his outrageous designs at large King’s Road space The Great Gear Trading Co, attended by Chelsea boutique owners such as Trevor Myles, of Mr Freedom and Paradise Garage, and his designer friend Diana Crawshaw.

Neither David nor Angie Bowie were at that Yamamoto show (on the day it was presented they were in south London celebrating the wedding of his childhood friend George Underwood), but picked up on the Japanese designer after he was featured in national media such as The Sunday Times Magazine, Harpers & Queen and Nova.

Several of the designs shown at Great Gear Trading Co were worn by Bowie during his Ziggy phase; in rare footage of the May 1971 Yamamoto show, one model can be seen tripping along in vinyl knee high boots in black vinyl with red platform soles.

A pair in the reverse option – in red with black soles – were acquired by Bowie when he and Angie paid a visit in the autumn of 1972 to Boston 151, the shop in west London’s Fulham Road which represented Yamamoto in the UK. Those boots became one of the integral elements of the stage look as promotion for follow-up album Aladdin Sane kicked in.

Kansai Yamamoto, Harpers & Queen, July 1971
Kansai Yamamoto, Harpers & Queen, July 1971

It is fair to say that Yamamoto’s show took London’s fashionistas by storm. Describing the presentation as ‘spectacular coup de theater’, Harpers & Queen gushed: ‘Kansai’s models leapt, ran, whirled like dervishes, danced, flung out their arms so that the brilliant colours meshed and merged into a kaleidoscopic cartoon of colour. Kansai himself, black-clothed and masked, moved across the stage like a Samurai warrior, tearing off layers and layers of clothes, stripping down the beautiful, pyramidal outer garments, right down to the vests and body paint.’

So the magpie Bowie also drew on this performative flamboyance and daring when presenting Ziggy onstage, adopting from Yamamoto’s show the sleight-of-hand layered costume reveals, the emphatic postures and even the flame-red hair colouring as seen on the huge wig shaken around folk-devil style by one model.

Yamamoto appeared unfazed by this appropriation, saying of Bowie: ‘He's neither man nor woman, if you see what I mean. That suited me as a designer because most of my clothes are for either sex.’

In April 1973, Bowie played Tokyo, met Yamamoto and took delivery of several costumes influenced by Japan's traditional Noh theatre, including the multi-coloured knitted body suit with one leg exposed worn during Ziggy's ‘farewell’ British tour of June/July 1973.

There were other unusual designs which had been previewed at Great Gear Trading Co, including a red sequin-ed jockstrap (inspired by those worn by Sumo wrestlers), a white satin short kimono with white hot pants, knee high boots and a cape, and the so-called ‘Rites of Spring’ bodysuit.

Over that was worn another Kabuki-style cape made of two giant white and red printed squares of silk held together with studs so that it could be ‘torn’ apart during performances.

By this time Bowie's look was completed by his personal make-up artist, the late Pierre LaRoche, who had arrived into the inner circle fresh from five years at The House of Arden and went on to work with Mick Jagger and produced the make-up for the film of The Rocky Horror Show. It was the exotic LaRoche – born Jean-Luis du Cerisier in Algiers - who created the sunburst circle on Bowie’s forehead and also painted the lightning bolt across the Starman’s face on the Aladdin Sane cover.

Burretti’s glam daywear for both David and Angie Bowie consisted of androgynous tightly cut suits with high-collared shirts, fat ties, nipped-in waistcoats, teetering platforms and, in particular, a dazzling jacket for Bowie with black and white stripes in velvet and crepe and the exquisitely tailored flared trouser suit in ice-blue satin worn by Bowie in Rock’s bleached-out Life On Mars promo and by Kate Moss in Nick Knight’s 2003 British Vogue celebration of Bowie style.

It is little known that Bowie and Buretti took their cue for this and the rest of the tailored menswear from design entrepreneur Tommy Roberts’ startling and proto-goth Covent Garden boutique City Lights Studio, where David and Angie were avid customers.

The man responsible for City Lights’ tailoring was Derek Morton, a recent Royal College Of Art graduate soon to work with Paul Smith and become the fashion knight’s head of menswear Japan. Once Rock’s photograph of Bowie in one of Morton’s suits appeared on the back cover of the Pin Ups LP, it proved popular among the soul-boys who would later feed into the New Romantic scene of the eighties.

‘Bowie just wore and wore that suit,’ the late Roberts told me in 2011. ‘We had teams of ‘Bowie Boys’ coming in demanding it ever afterwards.’

According to Derek Morton, City Lights’ design direction was informed by, but not restricted to, the menswear silhouettes from the twenties to the fifties. ‘You could say that it took from the wide-shouldered ‘V’ shape of the past but the detailing was more about fantasy, which felt right for the time,’ he explains. Thus, the Bowie suit jacket was tightened across the chest to hug the torso, while the breast pocket was slash-slanted to the side.

Jeff Pine, who designed the interiors of City Lights with his Electric Colour Company partner Andrew Greaves, identifies the suit’s sharpness, particularly the short jacket and the wide chest, as ‘a throwback to the Mod era.’ This chimes with Bowie selection for the Pin Ups cover as a response to the album’s futuristic treatment of covers from Soho Mod mecca The Marquee at the height of the movement’s power in the mid-sixties.

The impact of Bowie's image was such that US fanzine Rock Scene was soon running features on ‘how to make a Ziggy Stardust leotard’ and British women's magazines included patterns for the ‘Do It Yourself David Bowie Look.’

Bowie’s fashion connections were driven home when Justin de Villeneuve was commissioned by British Vogue editor Bea Miller to shoot his partner the supermodel Twiggy with Bowie for the cover of the magazine. Bowie would have been the first man to appear on the front of the British edition, but he twisted de Villeneuve's arm into giving the image up for the front of Pin Ups.

‘I said to him ‘I’ve just flown to Paris for Vogue especially to do their cover,’’ recalls de Villeneuve . ‘Then I asked David, ‘How many albums do you sell?’ He said, ‘About a million, hopefully.’ Vogue would sell about 80,000 copies in the UK. I owned the picture, so I let him have it. I was a little arrogant then! Vogue wouldn't speak to me for ages.’

The impact of Bowie's image was such that US fanzine Rock Scene was soon running features on ‘how to make a Ziggy Stardust leotard’ and British women's magazines included patterns for the ‘Do It Yourself David Bowie Look.’

The 1973 world tour culminated amid hysterical scenes at Hammersmith Odeon on the night of July 3 when Bowie broke the news that he was retiring Ziggy and the Spiders.

As Bowie uttered the words ‘Not only is the last show of the tour but it’s the last show we’ll ever do’, pandemonium broke out among weeping fans.

This was also the last time that the Yamamoto costumes were worn onstage, though Bowie revived the red platform-soled boots and paired them with ice-blue jeans and a Versace shirt of opulent design (which was stripped off during the set to reveal an Iggy-style tanned bare chest) for a homecoming gig by his early nineties collective Tin Machine at the Brixton Academy, the south London venue 100 or so yards from David Jones’ birthplace at 40 Stansfield Road.

When Bowie left England – never to reside here again – in the spring of 1974, he headed to New York to prepare for the US tour to promote the newly released Diamond Dogs album. This time Burretti provided the stage-wear which progressed Morton’s box-jacketed City Lights look by incorporating the latest Manhattan street fashions.

Spending downtime hanging out in New York’s Puerto Rican and African-American clubs, Bowie absorbed the visual style of the emerging disco scene, in particular the short hair, forties zoot peg pants, braces and long key-chains, and these were all elements of Bowie’s onstage transformation when the Diamond Dogs tour kicked off that summer and was followed by the so-called ‘Philly Dogs’ set of dates which showcased his plastic soul interpretations of the sounds of black Philadelphia which were fed into the next studio album, Young Americans.

Bowie’s appearance on the cover of Young Americans and in a Burretti suit on the sleeve of the 1974 album of that tour, David Live, inspired legions of soul-boys and punks-to-be, including myself, while Saint Laurent’s Hedi Slimane has singled out the David Live look as life-changing.

‘Bored in my room listening to Changes I must have stared at the cover of him in that light blue suit with braces at least five million times,’ Slimane told me in 2006 when I interviewed him for my book The Look.

By the time of the release of Station To Station in 1976, Bowie had relocated to Los Angeles and starred in Nic Roeg’s The Man Who Fell To Earth. The clothing designs for the alien lead character Thomas Jerome Newton were produced by his lover, the late British costume designer Ola Hudson, mother of guitarist Slash.

Hudson’s clothes for the film are formal yet otherworldly, so suitable not just for Newton but also for the Thin White Duke, Bowie’s new persona appearing centre stage on the world-beating Station To Station tour in black palazzo pants and waistcoat matched with white dress shirt and black flat-soled dancer’s shoes.

Bowie’s hair was slicked back and the smallest presentational detail – the top of a Gitanes Blue packet peaking from the waistcoat pocket – was planned; apparently Bowie had liked the way his friend Faces/Rolling Stones guitarist Ron Wood once insouciantly displayed a pack of ‘Gypsy Woman’ fags onstage in this way.

As a teenager and rabid Bowie fan among the spellbound audience of one of the Station To Station tour performances at north London’s Wembley Empire Pool in 1976, I had prepared for my attendance by having a fresh haircut at Pasquale & Jack in Soho, ready to be greased back in the style of my hero. I also acquired a pair of flat black brogues and black Strawberry Studio pegs with braces worn over a jumble sale spear-point collar white shirt.

But the Gitanes had evaded my attention when scanning photographs of the Thin White Duke in the music press in the preceding weeks. Within a day of my experience of Station To Station live, however, these incredibly strong un-tipped gaspers became my cigarette of choice.

A minor detail, perhaps, but as Hedi Slimane told me: ‘The sense of transformation you get with Bowie is amazing.’

City Lights Studio interior Nov 1972, photo by Jeff Pine
Kansai Yamamoto, Harpers & Queen, July 1971
Kansai Yamamoto, The Sunday Times, 26 November 1971


Live Panel Discussion

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