The radical influence of the gender-bending chameleon on androgyny in fashion
When Hedi Slimane took the design reigns at Dior Homme, he stripped the studio’s walls bare save for one photo: of David Bowie presenting Aretha Franklin with a Grammy in 1975, dressed in a black suit so dapper it would put Oscar Wilde to shame. As Bowie introduced the award, he greeted the audience with a sly grin: "Ladies, gentlemen... Others." It’s a definitive moment in the costume history of a superstar who has had such a profound impact on the way we see gender within a fashion context. For at the height of his eccentricity Bowie always sidelined sexual identity from his appearance, no matter how classic the shell.
Slimane’s design code has always aligned with this side of the star. His SS14 Saint Laurent man was youthful at heart, a boy that gets away with the dirt and smirks as he wipes his lipstick from your cheek. Yes, models donned red lips in tandem with sequinned jackets while necklines were accessorised with thin bow ties. It was all about Glam Rock – the era Bowie reigned supreme over – and a ‘who cares?’ attitude towards men as ‘men’. And just when the ambiguity was reaching boiling point, a slew of other designers took a card from Bowie’s genderless deck. Astrid Anderson brought the spandex. JUUN.J revealed twiggy legs with dangerously short shorts. JW Anderson continued what last season’s dresses and skirts started with skinny trousers and shoulder-baring tops.
It was all about Glam Rock – the era Bowie reigned supreme over – and a ‘who cares?’ attitude towards men as ‘men’.
There’s no question that 2013 is Bowie’s year. It was kicked off with the release of ‘The Next Day’ and studded with his recent retrospective at London’s V&A. Fashion has gleefully welcomed the opportunity to revisit Bowie’s fashscapades, from Jean Paul Gaultier’s SS13 Ziggy replicas to the modern dandy look that started with Miu Miu and is now powering down the high street ladder. It was Raf Simons’ turn for AW13: though his established silhouette owes heavily to the slender suits of the Diamond Dogs tour days, this time the designer paid homage to the ‘Let’s Dance era’ with fuller-cut suit jackets and pants. The reference was tipped with the featuring of ‘Modern Love’ as the finale to the show soundtrack.
This year even saw Bowie highlighting his own influence in the androgynous movement, featuring Tilda Swinton, Andrej Pejic and Saskia de Brauw in the bizarre clip for 'The Stars (Are Out Tonight)'. Bowie’s lyrics cry out to ‘the stars’ – ‘Here they are upon the stairs / Sexless and not aware’ – referencing them as the genderless shadows of his limelit past.
The oldest shadow pre-curses even Ziggy, when Bowie was already identifying with something neither male nor female. He famously jaunted 1970’s ‘The Man Who Sold The World’ media trail in a dress, Rolling Stone’s John Mendelsohn describing him as “ravishing, almost disconcertingly reminiscent of Lauren Bacall”. From there, a feminine dandyism evolved, encapsulated by the iconic blue suit, slim to the point that it had to be let out two inches when Kate Moss gave it a whirl in British Vogue’s 2003 Bowie tribute. Neckerchiefs and silk blouses began to frame the Ziggy Stardust era, while scantily cut bodysuits, crotch-gripping pants and theatrical make-up took the character beyond human.
Kansai Yamamoto’s custom-made costumes captured the blurred transition between Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane, the Japanese designer presenting nine outlandish pieces to the star on his arrival in Tokyo in 1973. While on tour, Bowie upped his stage antics to include performing nude bar a diamante-encrusted jockstrap. Such antics weren’t new; his on-stage mischief with Mick Ronson was already making headlines, once simulating oral sex with his guitar. Sexuality and fashion were intrinsically linked for Bowie and it’s a leaning designers like Walter Van Beirendonck continue to take cues from today.
There are also the suits; those sleek forms adopted by Bowie for his Diamond Dogs tour, falling far short of the traditionally masculine cut. From those tailored shadows emerged the Thin White Duke, the ghostly persona characterised by Bowie’s slim frame, withering at the time due to a peaking cocaine addiction. That fluid figure has influenced myriad designers since; from Hedi Slimane’s fair-haired boys to Phoebe Philo’s clean take on women’s suiting.
As Frida Giannini said earlier this year, “Bowie’s shameless androgyny helped women express their masculine strength without losing their feminine glamour and sensuality.” But you could also view him as a flag-bearer for fashion that simply transcends categories. The unisex collections currently smattering fashion’s parameters do signal a subtle shift. Could a lucrative market for asexual fashion be around the corner? When the time comes, we’ll thank Bowie.