Body of Art: On David Bowie, Gender, and Fashion

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Since the early 1970s, David Bowie’s name and identity have been synonymous with experiments in gender and sexuality – whether the more conventional aesthete of the Hunky Dory period (1971) or the more outlandish gender-smashing deconstruction of the sexuality performance that would be inaugurated with Ziggy Stardust in 1972. While Bowie’s period in glam music is often taken to be a touchstone for a change in the attitude towards masculinity and male sexuality in rock music, little recent work has been done on just what the Ziggy phenomenon meant in terms of alternative genders and sexualities. This selection from the end of the first chapter of my book Future Nostalgia: Performing David Bowie attempts to think through some of the sartorial meanings that Bowie ignites and to make sense of them using the theoretical tools that have come about since that time. I hope to show that most of the vocabulary that we have for discussing Bowie’s representation of sex and gender are inadequate for describing what he was up to and that we may only recently have found accurate ways to discuss his performance, especially Bowie’s continued experimentation with alternative gender and sexuality coding beyond the Ziggy phase, most especially in his contributions to Goth. I bring my discussion of Bowie’s interests into dialogue with other music critics writing on Bowie and Goth, such as Kimberley Jackson, and with theorists of fashion, such as Anne Hollander and John Carl Flügel. Bowie’s contributions to the work of rock music cannot be understood without a necessary updating on his attempts to recode the body to create a pastiche of gender that ushers in not only the decade of the ‘70s but our thinking about gender and sexuality in the present as well.