David Bowie Built a Legacy on Marrying Music with Fashion

And created a formula for the all-in artists that followed.
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Punk, grunge, glam—there has long been a link between fashion and music. And there have long been artists who have linked their looks to their work, supporting their artistic output in ways that are as much an extension of their concept as album art. The Beatles used fashion to transition through their musical eras, as have Elvis, Madonna, and Lady Gaga. But no one changed the game quite like David Bowie. The way he embodied his work—crafting personae that leapt from the album on to the stage—was revolutionary. While he has been praised over the years for his creative fashion sense, and his ability to reinvent himself, his biggest success in both of these areas came from how he evolved his style in tandem with his musical shifts, and never left a detail unaccounted.

There were many characters throughout his career, mentioned within lyrics, or presented in videos, but the ones that stand out the most—the icons, the ones that will be copied every Halloween forevermore—do so because they were the perfect visual support of his creation. For example, though The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars was not his first album, Bowie’s alter-ego Ziggy is without question his most famous invention. An alien rock star, Ziggy was brought to life on stage through the use of avant-garde fashion, most notably with the help of stylist Yacco Takahashi, and designer Kansai Yamamoto. Adding to the otherworldliness was that Takahashi put Bowie in piece that Yamamoto originally designed for women, at a time when blurring gender lines was still considered shocking. This wild way of dressing continued on his next album, Aladdin Sane, the album cover which featured the oft-referenced lightning-bolt makeup. For both Stardust and Sane, he utilized Kabuki theater makeup, thereby creating a head-to-toe look for his creations.

As Bowie’s musical style shifted away from glam rock, so too did his fashion. With Young Americans in 1975 his look featured tailored suits—an important part of his Thin White Duke character that emerged a year later with his 1976 album Station to Station. Though completely different from the notable characters that came before it, the Duke was still perfectly articulated through fashion, even if it seemed simple at first glance. Bowie himself described the character as “a very Aryan, fascist-type; a would-be romantic with absolutely no emotion at all but who spouted a lot of neo-romance.” With bleached blond hair, and white shirt/black trouser combination devoid of any warmth, the Duke’s personality was easily communicated because it was well-developed and intentional.

While there weren’t as many recognizable, fully formed characters as his career continued, Bowie’s style continued to grow and shift alongside his music, a synchronized audio/visual. In the 1980s when his music took on a pop lean, his style followed the chic look of the day. Heading in to the ‘90s when he formed the band Tin Machine and wanted to blend in with the other members, he paired his look down so as not to stand out. He even continued to recreate his album looks in the public eye, as evidenced when the Alexander McQueen-designed Union Jack coat worn on the album cover was also worn on stage during his tour. What he was doing in each era was paralleled in some way with how he looked. The presentation matched the substance, and it was consistent.

David Bowie

In a way, all clothing is a costume. It’s our way of portraying ourselves to the world as we want to be seen. Naturally, those in the public eye take things a step further, not only ensuring that we understand their message, but also entertaining to an audience. But what fans can see through looking at Bowie’s clothes is not only the growth of a musician, of a writer, of an artist, but also that of a regular man, simply portraying his ideas, and his work, as he wanted it to be seen. Of course, he was a musical genius. Of course, he was a fashion icon. That he connected the two is why he will be forever be remembered as a legendary artist.

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