Part of: Transformer

Essay: Not Sure If You're A Boy Or A Girl

published on 19 September 2002

Theorist Shaun Cole explores the glam rock influences on gender bending culture and its experiments with the cultural construction of gender - a key theme of SHOWstudio's Transformer project.

Theorist Shaun Cole explores the glam rock influences on gender bending culture and its experiments with the cultural construction of gender - a key theme of SHOWstudio's Transformer project.

In January 1972 David Bowie announced to Melody Maker’s Michael Watts that he was bisexual. His announcement, coming at the beginning of the glam rock craze in Britain and just six months after the first gay pride march in London, was groundbreaking. It was a statement that he was later to retract. But whether it was true or not, it fitted entirely with his Glam rock alter ego, the androgynous self-destructive fictional rock star, Ziggy Stardust. The very style of this stage persona challenged the categories of masculine and feminine by pointing to the cultural construction of gender.

Glam, which had first come to the public eye when Marc Bolan appeared on Top of the Pops in March 1971 wearing glitter below his eyes, ranged from the arty posturing of Roxy Music to the ‘bricklayer in drag’ styles of Slade and the Sweet. Although Glam rock artists were predominantly male, they wore make-up and sequins and many played on notions of gender ambiguity. They treated traditional gender distinctions with irony and a notion of camp.

Bowie especially, had inherited his notions of camp from exposure to a burgeoning gay culture. He had worked for some time with mime artist and dancer Lindsay Kemp, whose shows drew on gay writing and theatrical traditions of cross dressing and gender blurring. At this time Bowie also became aware of and was influenced by Andy Warhol and his factory crowd of rent boys, transvestites and ‘superstars’. The 1971 Album Hunky Dory featured the song, Andy Warhol.

Glam rock’s mass appeal stemmed from its apparent rejection of reality. It encouraged escape from immediate concerns and obvious commitment. But it also had an effect on the way teenagers viewed their appearance. In his autobiography, Holly Johnson wrote that ‘[Ziggy Stardust] had a huge effect on kids of my generation, not just the homosexual ones. Bisexuality became a fashionable pose, along with the idea of androgyny in fashion. Small pockets of girls and boys (especially of the apprentice hairdresser variety) all over the country started to experiment with their appearance as a direct result of the current fashions in Pop music. Bowie, Roxy Music, Alice Cooper et al.’ [1] The glitter, gold and silver of the clothes, the adoption of space-age personas and even the use of new technical equipment (picture Brian Eno of Roxy Music behind his bank of mixers and keyboards) drew upon science fiction but also reflected the relatively recent moon landing.

David Bowie and Mick Ronson on stage

At the same time that the ‘bisexual’ Bowie was appearing on television singing Starman with his armed draped around his guitarist Mick Ronson, and going down on Mick Ronson’s guitar during live concerts, small groups of gay men in London (and in New York and San Francisco) were challenging notions of gender and sexuality through their clothing. ‘We began to realise that there were ways of using drag,’ recalled Michael James. ‘It’s a way of giving up the power of the male role. We were holding the mirror up to man, showing that we rejected what maleness stood for.’ [2] The radical drag queens caused confusion through their use of conventional gender indicators, combining the extreme stereotypes of both male (workmen's boots, beards and moustaches) and female (dresses and full make-up) dress. Michael Brown, an active member of the Gay Liberation Front and advocate of genderfuck style as a political tool, attributes much of glam rock’s flaunting of bisexuality and androgynous images to the influence of the GLF’ s radical dress ideas.

Genderfuck ideas were utilised in ‘street theatre’ political demonstrations. Performance groups like Bloolips and the Cockettes (whose productions beat poet Alan Ginsburg described as ‘transvestite-glitter-fairie-theatric-masques’) altered the face of drag performance with their politicized genderfuck performances, different from the old school lip-synching glamour drag of the sixties. In 1974, influenced by science fiction, b-movies, cross dressing and glam, Richard O’ Brian turned actor Tim Curry into a genderfuck icon when he put him onto the stage and screen as a ‘sweet transvestite from transsexual Transylvania’ in the soon to become cult production The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

If the theories proposed by Judith Butler were invoked and are to be followed, then the very notion of gender is performative, gender is an effect of a regulatory regime that requires the ritualised repetition of particular forms of behaviour. This, then casts doubt on the gender appropriateness of items of dress and causes us to question notions of transvestism and cross dressing and drag. As so many gay men have realised all clothing is ‘drag’.

While Bowie had drawn on gay styles and culture for his influences he also exercised influence on generation of gay men. For many growing up in the seventies Bowie provided a focus. The autobiographies of gay and bisexual pop stars who had grown up in the seventies (Boy George, Marc Almond, Holly Johnson and Steve Strange) cite Bowie as a major influence. Joe Pop believes that 'Basically [gay men] all suffer the curse of Bowie. Mine was being an alien, an asexual alien. That's all we wanted to be, really, an asexual space alien.' [3]

It was this very generation that were involved in introducing androgyny and cross dressing to the London club scene of the early 1980s. Alienated by the masculinisation and commercialisation of punk, many looked for something new. Influenced by the new electronic music of bands such as Kraftwerk (as well as Bowie and glam rock), Steve Strange and Rusty Egan opened a series of one-night clubs, which encouraged a dressed-up escapist fantasy. Plundering fashion history (and future), these New Romantics (or Futurists or Blitz Kids) created a whole host of styles and played with notions of gender and (homo- and bi-) sexuality in a nightly theatre of self expression.

Within the ethos of escapism and individuality a cross dressing aesthetic was identifiable, as the men as well as the women incorporated silk, satin, lace and frills and make-up into their costumes. Many of these costumes harked back to historical styles where men were ‘peacocks’. For the extreme, transvestism reared its head. Rather than incorporate signifiers of femininity as a ‘gender bending’ tool, men such as Marilyn adopted the look and behaviour of women as a transgressive tool.

While in many instances New Romantic women incorporated the same range of imagery and fabrics into their costumes, one post-New Romantic image adopted signifiers of masculinity. The besuited female androgen was epitomised by Grace Jones, Annie Lennox and Steve Strange protégé, Ronnie. Rather than challenge notions of gender construction and cross dressing it followed a tradition of butch and femme lesbian dress identity and a theatrical tradition set in motion by cross dressing lesbian performers like Vesta Tilley and continued by Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo and even Julie Andrews in Victor/Victoria.

Ever on the look out for new personae and images, David Bowie was drawn to the glamorous excesses of the New Romantics. In 1980 he recreated himself as a sparkling pierrot and featured three of the New Romantic clubbers in the video for his single, Ashes to Ashes. Bowie was thus a product of the gender bending subculture that he had spawned.


  1. Johnson, Holly, A Bone in My Flute, Century, London. 1994
  2. Quoted in Kris Kirk and Ed Heath, Men in Frocks, GMP, London, 1984, p. 104
  3. Quoted in Shaun Cole, Don We Now Our Gay Apparel: Gay Men’s Dress in the Twentieth Century, Berg, Oxford, 2000, p.146

Select Bibliography

Birch, Ian (ed), The Book With No Name, Omnibus, London, c.1981
Butler, Judith, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, Routledge, London, 1990
Cole, Shaun, Don We Now Our Gay Apparel: Gay Men’s Dress in the Twentieth Century, Berg, Oxford, 2000
Evans, Caroline and Thornton, Minna, Women and Fashion: A New Look, Quartet, London, 1989
Power, Lisa, No Bath But Plenty of Bubbles: An Oral History of the Gay Liberation Front, 1970-1973, Cassell, London, 1995.
Ramsden, Anne et al, Stardust and Glitter: Style with Substance – The Glam Rock Era, University of Essex, Colchester, 1996
Thomson, Elizabeth and Gutman, David (eds), The Bowie Companion. Pan Macmillan, London, 1993
Gilman, Peter and Leni, Alias David Bowie: A Biography. Hodder & Stoughton, London, 1986




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