When Nijinsky met Woolworths

Posted by in March's Magazine

Over 40 years ago there was a revolution in pop culture when radical chic met old-fashioned showmanship, welcome to the wonderful world of Glam rock. One of the most inventive pioneers of the look was David Bowie, whose experiments with gender bending, costume and, of course, musical style, are now legendary.

Bowie’s glory years are being celebrated in a blockbuster exhibition at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum and there is an equally blockbusting book to go with it. The exhibition showcases the star’s style – from costumes and album cover art, to scribbled lyrics and much more. Storyboards, sketches of stage sets, hand-written musical scores and diary entries reveal the evolution of his creative ideas. There is a concurrent exhibition on the glam phenomena at Tate Liverpool.



Bowie’s outfits, hairstyle, and face make-up, defied fashion. In the mid-1960s as a Mod who transmogrified into a hippy, he was in danger of becoming just another pop singer on the slide, until inspiration hit him.

The turning point was his creation of Ziggy Stardust. He designed his alter ego’s otherworldly look – the shaved eyebrows, the changeling’s pallor, the satin hot pants, the woolly all-in-ones, the combat boots, and the kimonos – a look as startling now as it was four decades ago, though it is generally acknowledged that his more outré guises were the work of his missus Angie. In 1976 he memorably called his look “a cross between Nijinsky and Woolworths”.

Ziggy’s heart-stopping image – which drew inspiration from the Droogs of Stanley Kubrick’s ultra-violent movie A Clockwork Orange, to fashion shots in Vogue, surrealism, German Expressionism and Japanese Kabuki make-up – adorned a scant four album covers before it was laid to rest.

By the early 1970s Bowie was a star, a household name and teenybopper idol (helped, no doubt, by the BBC sound tracking their coverage of the first moon landing with his Space Oddity). What he did, other pop stars copied, albeit in diluted form.

Bowie’s persona for Ziggy Stardust – alien/fallen angel hybrid, or as Bowie put it, ‘a leper Messiah’ – was polysexual and self-destructive. Both male and female he seemed to defy any pat definitions. It was difficult to see where Ziggy stopped and Bowie began.

His pale androgyny, his reticence, his strangeness was a saviour to who knows how many mixed-up teenagers troubled by adolescent angst, the outsiders, the sexually diverse; to anyone who has ever dared to defy convention Bowie/Ziggy said, it’s okay to be different.

David Bowie’s mentor was Lindsay Kemp, an avant-garde fringe figure, mime artist and linchpin of what would now be called performance art. (Kate Bush was another of Kemp’s students.) Beat writer William Burroughs and the radical Japanese fashion designer Yohji Yamamoto were other major influences.

His art-school sensibility and outrageousness was playful and deadly serious at the same time. Appearing on Top of the Pops in 1972, he created a genuine ‘water-cooler moment’, before the era of the water-cooler. Who was this weirdo? Asked a million parents; worried he’d corrupt their children.

In Bowie’s music there was a nihilistic undertow quite at odds with glam rock’s bubblegum sensibilities, indeed the Ziggy period has been described as an apocalyptic song cycle and much has been made of how the singer’s ever changing mental equilibrium influenced the music and the look.

Madonna, Boy George, Michael Jackson, Elton John, Annie Lennox, Lady Gaga reinvented themselves and rummaged around in the dressing-up box with different degrees of success and originality. But magpie Bowie was the original oddity with that strange mix of hardness and vulnerability, no more so than on the single Where Are We Now, described in the music press as a lament, which was released earlier this year. At 66, while shunning the limelight, he is still making music.

“Whether designing album covers, staging a concert or making a video, Bowie’s dynamic approach has resulted in an exceptional portfolio,” says Victoria Broackes, Director of the V&A Theatre and Performance Collections and co-curator of the London show. “He has constantly exhibited an uncanny ability to anticipate the next pop cultural movement: glam rock, electronic music, music videos or internet distribution.”

Bowie’s trajectory is well known to almost anyone over the age of 35. Ziggy was followed by other, alternative Bowie incarnations on film and vinyl. To today’s downloaders he is no doubt just as enigmatic, having, in his career, covered almost every genre of pop music from rock to dance music and soul to neurotic funk – not to mention his work as an actor, writer, producer, collaborator.

According to writer Jon Savage, Bowie is: “the kind of performer that comes along just once in a generation and pulls the whole culture along in his (or her) wake.” There will, to be sure, never be anyone quite like him again.

Info: The David Bowie exhibition at the V&A in London runs from 23 March to 28 July 2013. The Bowie book by Victoria Broackes and Geoffrey Marsh is published by the V&A at £25. Glam! The Performance of Style is at Tate Liverpool until 12 May

Photo Credit: The Archer Station to Station tour 1976 © John Robert Rowlands



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