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Bowie, fashion and the art of reinvention

David Bowie was the ultimate master of disguise, but he started experimenting with his image and identity long before he became famous, his biographer Dylan Jones writes.

David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust persona became a hit in the spring of 1972, kickstarted by his single, Starman. Looking back on the extraordinary career of the man, this is the moment – it is often assumed – that he came to fruition as a creative entity.

Here is David Bowie, we thought, a man who three years previously had been a one-hit-wonder with his song Space Oddity, and now was all over the radio and television masquerading as some kind of sexually-enlightened fancy-dress alien with orange hair, bad teeth and good tunes. But in fact, by 1972, Bowie already had a decade of missed musical cues and fashion disasters behind him.

What is often forgotten is that Bowie had been trying to be successful for nearly 10 years before having a hit with Ziggy Stardust, pretty much for the entire ‘60s. Ever since his first single Liza Jane, credited to Davie Jones and the King Bees and released in 1964, Bowie had been pushing repeatedly at the door called fame, with almost no success. During that time he tried R&B, soul, pop, music hall, folk, electronic music, anything that might get some traction.

When Bowie dressed up as a soul star, a dandy, a moody long-haired singer-songwriter, nobody took much notice

During the 1960s he was always slightly behind the curve, always slightly after the event, which meant that whenever he tried something new, it had already been done before. So when he dressed up as a soul star, a dandy, a moody long-haired singer-songwriter, nobody took much notice. As his seemingly innate musical talents didn't really reveal themselves until the 1970s, his various ‘60s personas went largely unnoticed.

That would all change with Ziggy Stardust.

With Ziggy, and all the personas that came in its wake – Aladdin Sane, the Diamond Dog, the Gouster (the original basis of his Young Americans album) and the Thin White Duke – Bowie was adapting an idea that he owned completely. It was something that he had created with his then wife Angie, an idea, a character in which he had complete confidence.

For four years after the amazing success of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, Bowie would tinker with this character, happy to adapt at will, safe in the knowledge his newly found supporters would follow him. Which they did, in huge numbers. But in 1976, having had a drug-induced mental breakdown in Los Angeles, he moved to Berlin, and went undercover, only surfacing again in response to the emergence of punk, with his albums Low and Heroes.

Star man

From here on in, Bowie would reinvent himself every 18 months or so, often by reimagining himself completely (like he did with his Let's Dance and Tonight albums in the1980s), while at other times appearing to be quite slapdash in what he attempted to do stylistically. He had an ability to come across as though he didn't care. However, as he had by then become someone who the public considered to be an arch manipulator, even these casual reinventions were thought to be well-considered master strokes.

There are two things that are interesting here. Firstly, considering the fact that it took Bowie a decade to have anything resembling a hit, one may have thought that he'd milk Ziggy Stardust for all it was worth, creating a parallel career for his flame-topped creation. After all, when you consider all of Bowie's costume changes in the 1960s, they were not necessarily done because he loved reinventing himself, they were done in order to try and find something that was successful. So when he ditched Ziggy Stardust it actually said a tremendous amount about Bowie's ambitions. Having had success, he now needed to fully explore his creative impulses, which is why he adopted so many different guises throughout the rest of his career. How easy it would have been for him to pump the market full of Ziggy 2, Ziggy 3, Ziggy Redux; but no, Bowie needed to flex his creative muscles as well as his commercial ones.

The whole idea of being fashionable freaked him out

The other thing that it is important to know about David Bowie is that he really didn't care a fig for fashion. Not really. Of course, he was interested in what fashion could do for him, and for his career. Look, for instance, at the way in which he completely co-opted the New Romantic movement for his Ashes To Ashes look in 1980, rounding up all of the Blitz Kids to appear in the accompanying pop promo. But, in reality, he had no use for it.

I knew Bowie for over 30 years, and although we were never really friends, I knew him enough to know that he was obsessive about knowing what was going on in the world, but also that he was never that interested in being known as someone who was fashionable. The whole idea of being fashionable freaked him out. I suppose having spent a decade being unfashionable, he knew how easy it was to suddenly be on the other side – the wrong side – of the fence. In fact, the last few times I saw him, I can't even remember what he was wearing. He tended to wear casual clothes, a lot of black, jeans, and things that made it possible for him to wander around and not be noticed. He once said that the easiest way to walk around New York or London and not be recognised was to wear a hat and carry a Greek newspaper.

Master of disguise

That, in effect, is what he did his whole career: disguise himself. Elizabeth Taylor once said that the problem with Los Angeles was that there wasn't anything really there, and that when you looked hard enough, the city didn't really exist. It's become cliché to look at various stars of the entertainment world and say that when you peel the layers off there is nothing underneath. With David Bowie there was plenty underneath, he just wasn't that bothered about displaying it. Everything in his life was about doing things on his own terms, and that included what he chose to use from his dressing-up box, a box that people are still plundering today.

"Fashion is something I have always been fascinated with," he told me once, sitting in a recording studio in New York. "But I've never felt the need to be fashionable myself. I enjoyed it when I was young, and of course I used fashion when it was necessary in my work, but I have never considered myself to be a fashionable person. Not at all."

Having just spent a whole year writing a book on Bowie, interviewing over 150 people for an oral biography, I think I have a handle on what made the man tick. He has often been accused of being expedient in the way in which he used people, whether they were great musicians, great fashion designers, stylists, choreographers, make-up artists. But in this respect he was only acting like a great conductor, finding the right instrumentalists for his vision, finding the right people for his team. Think of him as a great football manager, newspaper editor or film director, someone who knew what he wanted, and knew it when he saw it. There was nothing he found more fascinating than some new trend, some new quirk or some new bend in the culture; he had little interest in joining in, but he had a huge interest in finding something he could use for his own devices. Even if it simply involved a hat and a Greek newspaper.

Dylan Jones is the Editor-In-Chief of British GQ and the author of David Bowie: A Life.

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