Fashion Philosophy‘s Nicole Clinton, considers David Bowie’s stylisation of the outcast and its effect on his followers.
No-one personified the intersection between fashion and music more than David Bowie. In fact, considering that his amalgamation of the two media verged on art and that he also dabbled in film, he could certainly be placed firmly in the centre of the Venn diagram of modern culture. He was one of those rare figures whose work marked a collision of pop-culture and high-culture. Following his death, the public lamented the loss of an icon and the legacy that was revered by many Bowie fans was that he showed the downtrodden outcast (that they themselves confessed to have been) that it was okay to be different. This, he most certainly did. However, was every person who claimed that Bowie helped them to accept their outsider status actually an outsider to begin with? Or did Bowie’s image make the strange so alluring that even a very average person wanted to see themselves as alien in order to feel touched by his genius? Or maybe it is the look, and consequent reputation, that is tied to the icon that attracts those who dwell very tentatively in between, to call themselves different so as to garner association to brilliance.
Fashion is a great visual representative of inner thoughts or feelings. A look can exude an attitude, a state of being or an ideology. It is not only a physical indicator of personal taste but also of membership to a social or cultural group. Bowie’s style very much played on the exhibition of the extraordinary to controversial effect. His Ziggy Stardust days saw him exploit androgyny audaciously; making women’s clothing and make-up part of his stage persona. The sexual ambiguity that Bowie wove into his public image constituted something that the mainstream public had never seen before and could barely comprehend. While he outraged and bewildered many, he intrigued those who appreciated his intentions from an artistic perspective and spoke to those who had difficulty finding their place in conventional society. Christening his band The Spiders from Mars and emphasising the space theme in his music and visual graphics, reinforced the metaphorical connection between not being from this planet and not fitting in. He explained the origins of his preoccupation with alter-ego: “I think my problem used to be that I was always shy and fairly awkward in social situations. All through my youth, I would use bravado and device- costume and flamboyant behaviour- in a desperate attempt to not be iced out of everything”. This testimony illustrates that fashion can do a great deal for the psychological state and social appearance. By performing as a fundamental tool in the creation of alter-ego (even the subtle alter-egos that we all use to get us through everyday life), it serves as a means of escape, a way to fool the psyche into believing that you are something that you are not. It makes you feel things that you wouldn’t otherwise experience and can turn even the most mundane routine into a phenomenon. For example, after Bowie’s death, his Spiders from Mars drummer, Mick ‘Woody’ Woodmansey, told RTE 2fm DJ, Dave Fanning, that “the presentation of the music ” was so vital to the icon that “ he got dressed as a rockstar for breakfast”, which illustrates the strong link between fashion and mentality.
Hence, the outsiders identified with what the artist was doing with his image and they viewed him as an almost Messianic force coming to save them from the ridicule and trauma of social exclusion. They no longer felt pressurised to conform because uniqueness could now be respected as innovative, stylish and exceedingly courageous. They employed Bowie’s blend of fashion and music to express and release their personal feelings of alienation but also to assert their membership to his fan club. Rather paradoxically, the star’s followers were united in a group by their shared sense of isolation.
However, like most prophets, it could be claimed that Bowie did not just lead existing outsiders; he converted people into them as well. This is where the complex element arrives as we ponder which came first for the individual; the outcast status or the Bowie infatuation? Essentially, it could be argued that he appealed to an additional group to those mentioned previously: average girls and boys who functioned rather unassumingly within the social structure, but found Bowie’s eccentric world infinitely more engaging. Bowie made the bizarre glamorous and unexpectedly attractive with Ziggy’s spectacular barrage of glitter, patterns and colours. In this way, a look can be so arresting that it can persuade someone to believe that they are, or can become what the look was initially designed to represent. Perhaps he offered salvation to these people who were floating around in the purgatory of the mundane, unaware of what the alternative to normality was. His “costume and flamboyant behaviour” lured them from the no man’s land between conservative life and alternative life, into the latter. Bowie loaned the notion of being alien a magical and intellectual reputation and this aura was transferred on to his community of fans. Many Jane and John Does now gazed with admiration at the outcasts that they had previously mocked; yearning to share their affiliation with Bowie’s brilliance – thus turning on the very society that they had formally accepted and been accepted by, without question. Not only did he provide an alternative to the boredom and disillusionment of traditionalism, but from a credibility point of view, being a Bowie fan made them seem more interesting, cooler and more unique.
Nevertheless, I am not trying to insinuate that the source of this group’s devotion is impure. Indeed, some may accuse those who reconsidered and rechristened their social status, after being seduced by style, of superficiality. But this is not an apt judgement because were they not more artistically enlightened by joining Bowie’s army of outcasts than they ever would have been under the control of group-think logic?
However, I am not suggesting that you had to be an outsider (or view yourself as one) to be a fan. With icons like Bowie, appreciation often transcends their own band of followers and radiates out to affect the mainstream audience and critics alike. But while the particularly pretentious members of the fanbase may condemn the thought that their conventional contemporaries are jumping on their bandwagon; they should not have a problem as long as the artist has not changed or “sold out” in order to find popularity amongst the general public. Commanding a mass audience does not pollute the realm of originality in which the icon dwells because mainstreamers simply admire their product from the outside instead of living in there like their followers and they have no intention of trespassing on their territory.
Not only did Bowie assign eminence to the outsider; he gave them a face, a look, an identifiable visual representation. He employed style to visually embody the strange and projected it in a glorious way. He glamorised the notion of not fitting to such a degree that you would contemplate why you would even want to fit in when being different could be this magnificent.
His image, and its contribution to society, raises questions about artistic representation. What did an outsider look like before Bowie’s vibrant, androgynous, glam-rock fashion manifestations? From a physical perspective, there were no explicit rulings as to what they were; only an understanding that they were anything that the conventional was not. Bowie played with this concept to form an image for the outcast that challenged all accepted social norms (sexuality, fashion, behaviour).
This depiction was more about the essence than the actuality as all outsiders were not necessarily labelled so because they were homosexual, bisexual, transgender, fashion experimentalists, libertines or reckless rebels in the way Ziggy’s image implied. Bowie’s stylistic decision to eccentrically invert tradition did for the outsider what illustrators did for nursery rhymes: they handed us striking visual associations to latch on to.
There is a deeper level to allowing oneself, or even choosing, to be enticed outside the margins of society by the alien. True, Bowie’s exotic image made life outside the box seem particularly exciting and artistic. But is this really enough to decline the ease and ‘comfort’ of fitting in? So if we remove the reason that it was merely an antithesis to boredom, there is something quite romantic about being an outsider. It can be a release of pressure by issuing a sort of pardon from society. It carries with it a degree of freedom that the brave search for. This liberation may seem rather terrifying to those who just want to effortlessly roll through life, mindlessly slotting into the roles that someone else has created for them and many others before them. But for anyone who finds this fate stifling, oppressive and unrewarding, perhaps this outsider status is the only way to unearth the originality that they seek.
One wonders if all cultured people are in fact outsiders. Maybe they pursue such a status because it tends to hold a reputation for producing artistic brilliance. Perhaps it is simply necessary to stand alone, to view the world from the outside, so as to create something marvellous, to know what has not yet been done and how to do it masterfully. If so, thank God that Bowie was an outsider. Not only did he use his art and his charismatic, exaggerated image to help outcasts to accept, flaunt and celebrate their differences; but his flamboyance inspired and touched many ‘insiders’, triggering a soul search as to why they should reject and challenge convention. If Bowie had not instigated this enlightenment, the world may not have gained many of the creatives that we venerate today. Whether the outsider status begot the Bowie fascination or vice versa, one thing is for sure: the outside was a dreary, lonely place before the icon’s appearance and with a flash of red and blue lightening and a sprinkle of stardust, he animated it.
Written by Nicole Clinton, with accompanied image of David Bowie.