I don’t recall the first David Bowie song I ever heard. My dad has been a fan for decades, so I most likely listened to many before I can even remember. To this day he possesses hundreds of records and tapes and CDs that date back to his own youth in the 1970s through the present era of instant downloads. Even with Dad to introduce me to Bowie’s musical repertoire, it wasn’t until years later that I realized for myself the transcendent cultural importance of David Bowie. As I grew older, he became more than a clever musician to me- he became a paragon of the creative spirit my teenage self fervently admired.
David Bowie was simultaneously a pioneer and an emblem of changing cultural attitudes. He defied norms for the sake of defying them, invoking and constructing new musical genres within the same decade. But he also always kept a keen awareness of his own marketability as the Bowie “brand”, successfully reinventing himself with the changing years and sociopolitical climate. He recognized the cult of image as vital to his enduring success as a musician, and thusly became an icon of fashion as well.
People often disregard that, despite its practical and seemingly mundane inclusion into everyday life, fashion functions as living art. It is so much more than the clothes on our backs. Fashion is movement and experimentation; it is an expression of culture and zeitgeist. Bowie realized this connection, and thrived from his involvement in it. From bending gender rules in the 1960s, to glitter-infused dandyism and “plastic soul” in the 70s, towards sporting a futuristic New Wave look that fit right in with the style and values of the 1980s, Bowie was the original image chameleon. And still he managed to market these transitioning looks as part of his brand and achieve astronomical success. By its very nature, fashion involves change- and he reveled in the challenge.
Bowie not only reinvented but fully embodied each new persona he designed. He went from Ziggy Stardust to Aladdin Sane (“Ziggy Goes to America”) to the Thin White Duke in the span of a decade. Each character development possessed a unique style that was intrinsic to its message. Perhaps his most famous look came from the Aladdin Sane album cover. The famous lightning bolt stripe- bold and vibrant- literally split Bowie’s face in an expression of both energy and pain. Nothing was contrived or fake about his image transitions; they were the personification of his music, and flowed seamlessly as Bowie the artist evolved.