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David Bowie Exhibit: 'You Can Be a Boy … a Girl … Anything'

The Victoria and Albert Museum presents "David Bowie Is," a look at how the 66-year-old glam-rock icon influenced everything from gender politics to the general state of fashion.
Kansai Yamamoto designed this striped bodysuit for David Bowie's 1973 Aladdin Sane tour.
Courtesy of David Bowie Archive

This story first appeared in the March 29 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

David Bowie, arguably the most fully realized rock star who ever lived, spent the 1970s and ’80s blithely creating and shedding musical personas, from glam avatar Ziggy Stardust to The Thin White Duke -- always one step ahead of the zeitgeist and often informing it.

Now, as the 66-year-old Brit releases The Next Day, his first album in 10 years, Bowie’s stamp on popular culture has been assembled lovingly by London’s Victoria and Albert Museum in David Bowie Is, an exhibition of 300-plus Bowie artifacts, from diary entries to handwritten lyrics. Many are culled from the singer’s personal archive and convey the staggering scope of his influence on fashion, gender identity and contemporary aesthetics.

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On display will be the alienlike Ziggy Stardust bodysuits designed by Freddie Burretti in 1972, the outrageously androgynous Kansai Yamamoto creations for 1973’s Aladdin Sane and Alexander McQueen’s Union Jack cutaway for the cover of 1997’s Earthling. Pioneering videos for “Life on Mars” and “The Jean Genie” prove that Bowie, who formed his first band at age 15, anticipated the MTV era.

“It was a projection of the future,” says photographer Mick Rock, Bowie’s official chronicler during the early years. “Nothing was ever the same after Bowie.”

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The exhibit, set to open March 23, also curates the obsessions that drove Bowie to wild stylistic and musical transformations, from the German Expressionism that steeped so much of his work in spooky Teutonic aesthetics to the postmodern J.G. Ballard-inspired nightmares that informed his unsettling visions of the near future, as seen in Guy Peellaert’s dystopian cover art for 1974’s Diamond Dogs.

“I suppose his most sizable impact is that he seemed to be saying that you can be whatever you want to be,” says curator Victoria Broackes. “It’s about the freedom of the individual. You can be a boy, you can be a girl and do anything.”

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