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From Ziggy Stardust to the Thin White Duke, Bowie used makeup and style to express complicated ideas about gender and society—and to further his career. To honor the rock icon after his death at the age of 69, we look back at how his striking personas have influenced generations of queer and alternative youth.
David Bowie was an alien. This is common knowledge among his fans, whose demographic spans wildly across age groups, genders, and everything else: The man who fell to Earth has worked for decades but never quite settled into a fragile, aged mortal form. Instead, he transformed into new iterations of himself, overlaying his own history with mythology at every turn. Davie Jones, the boy from Brixton, turned into David Bowie, the mod rocker who shed bands and personalities as quickly as he jumped between beds, turned into Ziggy Stardust, turned into Aladdin Sane, turned into the Thin White Duke, and on and on and on. Every iteration lent itself to a generation of obsessive fans who were (and are still) enthralled by his particular parody of gender and sex in performance.
One of the first rockers to come out as gay—and then, of course, deny it, and then shrug it all off entirely, calling himself a "closet heterosexual"—Bowie was a catalyst of conversations about sexuality in music for longer than most of these boy bands with gay fan fiction have been around. Besides, of course, his musical talent, Bowie's longevity has more than a little to do with his frequent and memorable experimentations with beauty practices and how he used them to manipulate his audience. His death—two days after his 69th birthday and the release of his 25th album, Blackstar—was recent, but his endless experiments in style, beauty, and self will live on.
The first sign of Bowie using beauty as currency to further his career was the 1964 protest coordinated at the London Evening News when he was 17. Still the member of a fledgling band with no hits to speak of, he nevertheless looked the part of a rock star at the time: long hair, just like his idol Mick Jagger, whose star was beginning to rise. He was the founder of a week-long bogus organization called the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Long-Haired Men. When asked to perform on television, he was told to cut his hair—which he used as an opportunity to gain media attention, instead refusing and having his manager coordinate a protest outside the studio on behalf of his fake organization. Not coincidentally, the men who flanked him as he was interviewed about his faux-organization were members of his then-band, the Manish Boys. But even early in his career, Bowie was thinking about how he could use the pursuit and negotiation of beauty to get where he wanted to go. He knew early on that by concocting an image that questioned the boundaries of feminine and masculine, he could draw fans and media like a technicolor Pied Piper.
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Hot on the heels of his first hit song, the "quietly moralistic rock sci-fi" "Space Oddity," in 1969, Bowie's penchant for hair as theater was established by the time he came out with his third album, The Man Who Sold The World, whose cover is an ode to queer performance, the next year. In an interview with Rolling Stone's John Mendelsohn, he made his love of camp explicit: "I want to tart rock up. I don't want to climb out of my fantasies in order to go up on stage—I want to take them on stage with me." He reveled in his genderless, hyper-sexual appearance, styling his hair like Veronica Lake's and wearing a dress on his album cover. According to Wendy Leigh's Bowie: The Biography, the magnetic soon-to-be icon regularly wore dresses at this time, often borrowing them from his then-wife, Angie. The album was so provocative that his record label chose a different cover for the American release, leading Bowie to scream throughout his house that they were fascist censors.
That was just the start. He went through several other looks, most of which, almost paradoxically, became his signature: the pompadour, the bouffant, bleached eyebrows, a temporary mohawk, dresses of all kinds, sequined jumpsuits, and hours of blush before a show. He was a mod for a moment, and then a glitter rock god. He's credited with being a founding father of glam rock by many music writers, but it's not necessarily true: Though he did obviously help popularize the flamboyant performance in the early 70s, Marc Bolan of T. Rex was actually sprinkling glitter on his face before Bowie started wearing it. Since Bolan was one of Bowie's closest friends, and Bowie a self-proclaimed "collector" of ideas, he likely started wearing it on his face after seeing his friend perform.
But Bowie's impact was powerful and cross-continental. In the age of Ziggy Stardust, Lou Reed started wearing glitter and eyeshadow when he came to London to perform. David Bowie had been the producer on Reed's second album, Transformer: the Velvet Underground meets the Velvet Goldmine. And it went both ways: Bowie explained in multiple interviews that he was inspired by the Velvet Underground when creating his now infamous Ziggy Stardust character.
Of course, the amalgamation of references in Ziggy (both album and persona) make it one of the most influential monsters of creation in music history. Most of the costumes were a reference to Stanley Kubrick's 1971 film A Clockwork Orange. In Bowie Style by Steve Pafford, Bowie explains the influence as a revisioning of the violence implicit in the film. "I got most of the look of Ziggy from that [movie]. I liked the malicious, malevolent, violent quality of those guys, although aspects of the violence themselves didn't turn me on particularly. I wanted to put another spin on that, so I... picked out bright, quilted kind of materials, and so that took the edge off the violent look of those suits...It all fitted in perfectly with what I was trying to do, create this fake world, or this world that hadn't happened yet."
Bowie performing live at the final Ziggy Stardust concert in 1973. Photo by Debi Doss via Getty Images
The origins of the now-famous hair are as elusive as an accurate description. The flaming red mullet was a signal of gender anarchy and no-holds-barred showmanship: This was when Bowie was beginning to come into his own both as a musician and a performer. The haircut was the craftswomanship of hairstylist Suzy Fussey in collaboration with Bowie. There are two stories on how they came up with it, both from Bowie himself: It was either a combination of looks from the pages of Vogue or completely ripped from a model in Japanese designer Kansai Yamamoto's first London show says Bowie in The Complete David Bowie by Nicholas Pegg. "The Ziggy hairstyle"—in a "most dynamic" color called "Schwarzkopf red"—"was taken lock, stock and barrel from a Kansai display in Harpers," he says. The unusual, kabuki-influenced cut and color flooded the streets of London and elsewhere, worn frequently by would-be rock stars of all genders. It was an easy way to signal participation in something new, exciting, and strange: queer in all ways, both gender and practice. Bowie's contribution to queer conversations wasn't just visual, of course, but lyrical, too. The lyrics of "Lady Stardust" are all about existing in conversation with femininity and disgrace: "People stared at the makeup on his face / laughed at his long black hair / his animal grace."
Other musicians at the time imitated Bowie's approach to beauty almost immediately: Cherie Currie of The Runaways copped his hairstyle, as did an entire generation of glam rock aficionados. It was a sign of exuberant, unapologetic selfhood. That haircut, and Ziggy himself, meant being alienated from those who didn't understand the movement, and being an alien was finally cool. Bowie's performance as Ziggy was never meant to be Bowie himself—in fact, he has always called it a performance, the antithesis to authenticity. Ziggy was a queer icon not because it was Bowie's "calling" but because he made a farce of what it means to be real; he made having a body and being a body into something fantastical, becoming an avatar for those who needed a story to escape into. The bisexual, androgynous alien was a savior for those who wanted to cross the lines culture had drawn between gender and sex.
When Bowie became Aladdin Sane in 1973, his impact was officially cemented. That character is often what he's most remembered for: the red flash of lightning, the unsmiling, flaming alien creature with skin as pale as snow. It was the handiwork of Pierre La Roche, a makeup artist that history has seemed to have forgotten. La Roche also did the beauty for The Rocky Horror Picture Show and worked closely with Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones, and he worked with Bowie to create both Ziggy Stardust's iconic astral sphere as well as Aladdin Sane's lightning bolt. The rest of his work seems to have disappeared into the abyss, relatively undocumented, but the genius he bestowed on Bowie's face helped transform the rock star into the transcendent creature he became onstage. It has since been replicated countless times, for Halloween costumes and Vogue covers alike. It was a direct translation of Bowie's grappling with his own stardom, something both hard won and elusive at once: a lightning bolt across his face, brilliant, bright, tangible, and a flash.
If Bowie were only remembered for a couple of album covers, it would still be enough to have made him the symbol of a generation. But he's known for so many other versions of himself, each with its own contribution to conversations about music and beauty: the Thin White Duke, Halloween Jack, the Cracked Actor. His latest identity is as uncompromising as all of the others, and not something easily understood. In the ten-minute video released for the single "Blackstar" last November, he appears blindfolded, singing like a creature from Pan's Labyrinth, a prophet or monster or both. He used less glitter to glamorize us into new fantasies and leaves it to the ambiguous rhythms, lyrics, and visuals to do the work.
It was a far cry from his sequined jumpsuits and rainbow'd cheekbones. But that drastic change is, actually, on character, representative of a lifelong pursuit of the new and transformative. As he told Circus Magazine in 1976: "My whole thing, of course, has always been changes. My vehicle has been changes. I think that's what I'm best known for, and that is what I've been trying to say."
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