David Bowie had tremendous style, but unlike a lot of rock stars, he wasn’t known for a singular look.
He didn’t wear a signature sparkly glove. He didn’t send a generation of fashion lovers running to Goodwill for plaid flannel shirts and moth-eaten cardigans. He didn’t launch a line of sneakers or put his name on a fragrance. But Bowie’s influence on fashion ran deep because it spoke to the broader idea that fashion is a cultural force, a reflection of social shifts, a creative laboratory and a personal pleasure.
As a performer, Bowie used fashion as a tool for storytelling, for furthering the narratives of his music and turning a concert into a spectacle and himself into an icon. As he explored different corners of the musical world, his discoveries were evident in his costumes.
From “Ziggy Stardust” to the “Thin White Duke,” fashion delineated each new chapter in his creative life. He could be an alien-like creature with spiked red hair and no eyebrows, a fey dandy with a mop of blonde locks, a rock god in a battered Union Jack frock coat by Alexander McQueen or a dapper gentleman in a beautifully tailored suit. His shape-shifting was impressive, but so was his questioning of assumptions and norms.
He challenged definitions of gender not by wearing feminine attire, but by positioning the character he was inhabiting somewhere in the middle of the spectrum between male and female. His style was confounding and mesmerizing, and it made folks think.
Later, he highlighted the elegance of rock, its roots in African-American cool. He borrowed from punk and disco, rhythm and blues and soul. And his fashion reflected that smorgasbord of influences.
If he has had any lasting impact on fashion, it was his enthusiastic and thoughtful embrace of creative daring. His choices came across as provocative, but considered. The costumes were part of a full character sketch, not just momentary titillation. He wasn’t just playing dress-up. He was exploring identity.
In his wake, there have been performers who defy gender definitions, who use their sexuality as a marketing tool, who leave audiences perplexed by the sheer strangeness of their stage costumes. Surely Bowie has influenced them.
But whether it is Miley Cyrus in her R-rated circus finery created by Jeremy Scott or Justin Timberlake in his Tom Ford suit and tie, there is always the sense that the clothes are just a thin wash. With Bowie, the clothes and the music seemed inexorably connected. Each was elevated by the other. The emotion of the music ran straight through the clothes.
Sometimes, however, the clothes were quietly, confidently gracious. He wore a business suit beautifully. He wore a classic tuxedo with aplomb, especially when he accompanied his wife, Iman, to fashion extravaganzas. She was the star, the evening’s focus, and he was the dapper escort.
He was not decked out as a distraction. He was not performing. Or preening. He was a rock star who was attuned to something more than just the applause.