A major way in which Bowie’s fashion is so recognizable is through his use of different colors and designs in order to emulate theatrical trends and an extraterrestrial, outer space theme. This was prominently featured both on the iconic cover of his 1973 album Aladdin Sane and through one of his most popular characters, Ziggy Stardust. Ziggy Stardust, the protagonist of the album Ziggy Stardust and his Spiders from Mars, was notable for not only his androgyny, but the fact that he was always in brightly colored clothing and makeup and was also supposed to be an alien.
Bowie’s performances as Ziggy ere deeply memorable for their theatricality and flashiness, and people who saw Ziggy Stardust-era David Bowie concerts claimed that the “shows were as close to theatre as they were rock” (Buckley 141). Aladdin Sane was released the year after the Ziggy Stardust character was retired, making the Aladdin Sane character a continuation of the theatrics portrayed by Ziggy. Bowie’s face on the cover of Aladdin Sane was covered in a coral and blue lightning bolt that later became synonymous SO with David Bowie himself.
His extraterrestrial theme was also featured prominently in his song “Space Oddity” and his acting ole in the film The Man Who Fell to Earth. The former was a ballad about a fictional astronaut named Major Tom, who experiences many difficulties after he is sent into outer space. “Space Oddity” was one of Bowie’s first commercially successful songs and remains one of his most popular, thus creating a deep impact on the legacy of his work.
The Man Who Fell to Earth, which features Bowie as the alien Thomas Jerome Newton, also follows the pattern of displaying the more otherworldly aspects of Bowie’s personality and fashion, further setting him apart from other musicians and pop culture figures. Another trait that made David Bowie so notable was his ability to change his personas throughout his career, serving as a way to not only keep his music and fashion fresh over multiple decades, but also reflecting the cultural issues of the times.
As mentioned before, arguably his most popular persona was Ziggy Stardust, a gender-bending alien who sought to shock audiences with his unconventional dress and behavior. The timing of Ziggy’s appearances aligned with the sexual and gender revolutions of the early 1970’s and displayed Bowie’s own revolutionary stance on the issues at the time. After Ziggy’s ublic “demise”, Bowie then moved onto the also very popular character of Aladdin Sane, who was also very bold and unconventional for his time.
His name was a personal reflection on Bowie’s emotional state and helped cement his reputation as a “mad genius”. Other characters of Bowie’s were less stylistically bold, but were still very important parts of his impact on culture. The Thin White Duke wore monochromatic clothing and slicked back red hair, but was notable because of the commentary he provided on fascism and the fact that he was a caricature of Neo-Nazis.
He was also a reflection of Bowie’s ersonal state at the time, and though Bowie himself disavowed the political and social views of the character, he claimed that the Thin White Duke acted so erratically due to his own poor mental health and cocaine addiction. Another, less polarizing example of Bowie’s famous characters comes from his role in the Jim Henson film Labyrinth. In this film, Bowie played the antagonistic Jareth the Goblin King, who was designed specifically with female audience members in mind.
As Jareth, Bowie represented the embodiment of the typical female desires of the time and made himself a household name, eading others to discover his music and multitude of changing personalities. The recurring theme of eschewing traditional gender roles and heteronormative societal standards shows up throughout the majority of Bowie’s incarnations in both his music and his fashion and is perhaps what he is most known for.
Bowie himself was aware of the power this had on his audience, and made a point to emphasize his sexuality and gender fluidity. From the beginning of his musical career, Bowie kept his hair long and used makeup, which were both considered to be feminine, and therefore frowned upon when applied to men in he public eye. Bowie saw how his fashion set him apart from others and made him a sort of rebel in the highly heteronormative and gender-binary society he found himself in and used it to build up interest in his career and personal life.
He even references this idea of rebelling in the successful, aptly named song “Rebel Rebel”, in which he sings, “You’ve got your mother in a whirl/She’s not sure if you’re a boy or a girl” (Citation). He also saw an opportunity to publicly use his identity to make an impact on his reputation and popularity, and came out as gay to the media in 1972, when his home ountry was just getting over the recent decriminalization of homosexuality, making his decision to come out especially risky.
It was also risky of him to come out and claim his bisexuality just a few years later, before finally telling the world that he was actually a heterosexual years after that. The changes in the way that David Bowie publicly identified his sexual orientation and expressed his gender not only made him flashier and more interesting to pop culture consumers, but provided audiences with the idea that neither gender nor sexuality are completely inary or static and that both can be fluid and expressed in a multitude of different ways.
This idea was pretty much revolutionary at the time, and Bowie’s representation of issues of gender and sexual expression and fluidity paved the way for a widespread discussion that continues to be debated to this day. All of David Bowie’s quirks and eccentricities gave him a status as a legendary trailblazer not only in the music community, but in pop culture as a whole. Throughout his decades-long career, his reputation as being strange and rebellious gave audiences someone to identify with and idolize.
More recent examples of is cultural impact are prevalent in not only music, but also in other, more visually focused mediums, such as television. In the HBO television show Flight of the Conchords, there was an episode aptly titled “Bowie”, which revolved around one of the main character Bret’s self-esteem issues. While trying to combat these issues, he has multiple dreams where he is approached by David Bowie in multiple incarnations and given humorous but misguided advice. Bret follows this advice because he considers Bowie to be his role model and holds him in very high regard, despite, and possibly because of, his weirdness.
The episode ends with Bret and his bandmate Jemaine performing their song “Bowie” (also called “Bowie’s in Space”) in a music video that is highly reminiscent of the music video for “Space Oddity”, further suggesting that his work deeply impacted some of their own creative endeavors. Another instance of Bowie’s presence in modern television occurred in American Horror Story: Freak Show, in multiple episodes. The very first episode of the anthology installment introduced the members of an early 1950s “freak show”, and specifically featured Jessica Lange as Elsa Mars, the ringleader of said show.