David Bowie died two years ago today. He left behind a vacuum in music, fashion, and art that none can fill.
When you hear or read about Bowie’s style, one phrase is omnipresent: gender-bending. The rock icon was exploring the gender binary as early as 1970, when the cover of The Man Who Sold the World featured a long-haired Bowie reclining on a chaise longue in a satin dress and knee-high leather boots. (Bowie’s American record label, askance in the age of Nixon, ran an alternate cover featuring a cartoon of John Wayne.) A year later, for Hunky Dory, Bowie handed his photographer a picture of Marlene Dietrich for inspiration.
In 1972, the glitz of the glam-rock era that Bowie pioneered with his friend Marc Bolan brought bright orange hair and metallic makeup into the star’s orbit, along with many of his more memorable fashion choices. There was the eyepatch. Those shoulder pads. The stripy, balloonish number and the one-sleeved, one-legged knit bodysuit.
But to focus solely on that sliver of Bowie’s career is reductive and more than a little lazy—like the people who paint a lightning bolt on their faces for Halloween and call themselves Ziggy Stardust (never mind that they’re actually dressed as Aladdin Sane, another Bowie persona altogether). Before Bowie the space spider, there was Bowie-the-curly-haired-hippie. After Aladdin Sane retired in 1974, countless other styles came into bloom.
By the time the rest of the music world caught up to the glam scene (looking at you, Adam and the Ants), Bowie had already moved on. Now you could see him performing as the Thin White Duke, who dressed like a prohibition-era gangster in baggy slacks and a vest. After that came Pierrot, the sad-faced clown of 1980’s hit “Ashes to Ashes.” Then there was the gold lamé jacket and red suit of the Glass Spider tour in 1987. And that’s without counting the parade of kimonos, space suits, capes, and coats that led and followed, designed by the likes of Natasha Korniloff, Alexander McQueen, and countless others. There was much more to David Bowie’s style than cakey makeup and bright red go-go boots.
Bowie first entered my consciousness when I was 7 years old. I was flipping through one of my parents’ black nylon CD binders some summer afternoon, looking for something to play on the new boom box. Changesbowie, a greatest hits compilation released in 1990, was waiting for me a page or two in. The album artwork is considered pretty hokey today—it’s a cut-and-paste collage featuring snippets of Bowie’s other album covers—but something about it resonated. All of those people were David Bowie? That, I thought, was pretty cool. I decided to listen to Boston that day, which had a spaceship on the cover and was therefore even cooler. But something about the Bowie cover stuck.
As I grew up, Bowie’s breathtaking mutability—with his music, his style, his image—spoke to my own carousel of interests and personas. Bowie was playing somewhere in the background when I decided to grow my hair out past my shoulders. He was there when I left home for a college some 4,000 miles away, and he was there when I dropped out to work on a farm for a spell two years later. He even visited this Christmas, when I couldn’t find anything festive to wear and my wife painted a glossy coat of cherry-red polish on my thumbnail.
David Bowie was born into a conservative post-war England where homosexuality wasn’t decriminalized until 1967. He soaked in movies and rock 'n' roll and theater, voraciously accumulating interests and influences before condensing them into something uniquely his own. He challenged the public to accept his increasingly bold and daring looks, pioneered half a dozen styles of rock 'n' roll, and, through his music and his style, broadened minds and helped foster tolerance. His legacy is timely, even today.
It’s difficult to distill the tenets of a career that was so colorful and varied. But the common thread underpinning all of Bowie’s many styles is this: Do what you want. Practice fearlessness; present yourself however feels right. Change when you need to. As we look back on the life of an icon, we could all do to live a little more like David Bowie did: Turn and face the strange.