#108: David Bowie, "Hunky Dory" (1971)

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“Bowie will never die.”

                   - Tracy K. Smith, “Don’t You Wonder, Sometimes?”

One of the deepest pleasures of David Bowie Is, an exhibit that began at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London in 2013 and ended at the Brooklyn Museum today (July 15, 2018), was the clothes. For me, they were the show within the show. As with the rest of Bowie’s life on display, they had come out of whatever photo session, concert footage, or video and became real; he was no longer a myth or an alien, but a man with a preternatural sense of style. If Bowie ever suffered through an awkward phase or a fashion disaster, he kept it to himself.

Hunky Dory is less an album to be assessed than it is a moment: Bowie in the “Life on Mars?” video, volcanic red-orange hair, turquoise eye shadow, and that suit, called “ice blue” in the exhibition catalog; it looks more saturated in the video. In the Brooklyn exhibit space, it was placed on its own riser, forcing people to look up and admire, or thrill to the sharp, wide lapels and knife-pleats in the trousers, striped cuffs peeking out from the jacket at the wrists. The video is set in an all-white space, and you almost forget about the song he’s singing. Almost. Bowie told stories through his songs and his clothes, and it’s hard for me, sometimes, to say which one I value more. In a 1974 interview with Fan Magazine, he said, “One of my great loves is clothes…I go through so many different phases, at the moment I’m into short-jacketed double-breasted suits, but next week I might be into something completely different.” I follow this in my own life; I’ve gone through so many hair color changes in the past five years that I don’t think there’s one I haven’t tried. Fashion empowers me, and it is the best kind of play. Bowie was one of the few who truly understood this, and we walk through the sunken dream he sings about in “Life on Mars?” together. Fashion is the conduit for how we tell ourselves stories about ourselves. If we’re lucky, these are not the stories that our parents want us to tell, or even the ones our friends want to hear. It is only for the self, and if people want to follow along, great.

Bowie understood this too, and maybe this is part of the reason why he made so many shifts in his persona and style. I dare you to follow me. I dare you to pull it off. This is what the “Life on Mars?” suit is about for me; this shot of glamour as he sings of a girl watching a movie she’s seen or “lived…ten times or more.” How will she shake the boredom? Will she hear Bowie on the radio or see him on Top of the Pops, and decide “I want that?” Or will she kick everything over in 1976-77, and make a DIY dress out of a garbage bag and safety pins, daring people to come at her as she sneers?

I missed that moment. I saw David Bowie for the first time at eight or nine, in the video for “Let’s Dance.” I wanted his seeming detachment, a guise that would let me go somewhere else but still let me see whatever was going on around me. That was not who I was. I cried at the smallest things, I was deemed “weird” by my classmates. If I had an armor, or a talent, then maybe I’d be left alone. Bowie had both, and had it until the end. It was only later that I figured out what I wanted, and learned how not to care about what anyone said about what I wore. I wonder, arrogantly, if the people who praise my style now are the ones who would have laughed at it when we were children.

Tracy K. Smith, in her poem “Don’t You Wonder, Sometimes?,” says that Bowie “leaves no tracks… // Silently, lazily, collapse happens. / But not for Bowie.” Collapse did happen for him, though. His body betrayed him, but whatever spirit is, did not. I go further into middle age, and some days feel twice the 44 I am. I’m not the girl with the mousy hair anymore, but she’s inside of me, looking for the next hair color, the next dress. The next story that I want to tell myself.

—Sarah Nichols

Note: Fan Magazine interview with Bowie is quoted in David Bowie is the Subject, Victoria Broackes and Geoffrey Marks, eds. London: V&A Publishing, 2013. 250. Print.