I was deliberating whether to even cover the David Bowie Is… exhibition that's due to open this Saturday at the V&A at all. You'll have read any number of the brilliant reviews on all the newspapers, seen the slideshows and even watched the television reports (I had never seen so many television news crews at a V & A exhibition press view). What else could I possibly add? I was never going to cover this exhibition as a die-hard Bowie aficionado because in truth, I'm not one. In all honesty, his music was only ever in the background of my childhood and my youth, and the iconic imagery of his various incarnations over the years have only ever swept in and out of my visual lexicon fleetingly. There's a difference between being aware of Bowie's iconic status and being utterly affected by it. After seeing the exhibition, it also felt wrong to cover it as a fashion exhibition. It really isn't that either. David Bowie Is.. an all-encompassing journey from Bowie's roots in South London suburbia through inner and outer space, through his many self-invented characters, communicated through costume, imagery, sound, film and countless instances of minutiae, with no final end destination.
Except perhaps a realisation that when creativity truly knows no bounds, borders of fields or restrictions, it can be a truly wondrous thing. That's what I ultimately took away from this exhibition. Then I listened to an interesting programme on BBC Radio 4 where British-Asian journalist Samira Ahmed investigates the relationship between being a second generation migrant living in the boring doldrums of London suburbia and then finding themselves relating to this alien that had landed on Top of the Pops in 1972. Ziggy Stardust, Bowie's influential and fleeting alter ego, liberated outsiders everywhere and gave them license to be themselves. Years before Boy George was warning us of karma for being a conformist chameleon, before Madonna was telling us to express ourselves or before Lady Gaga was singing you were born this way, there was Bowie. The tale of wanting to rebel from suburbia is all too familiar – a cliche even in some respects and one that obviously resonates with me.
Therefore David Bowie Is… is a magnificent summation of wondering whether there is a world bigger than Finchley (replace with whatever small town you want), feeling like you don't fit in and then subsequently rejecting the socially accepted norm, can take you. That's a sentiment I and any other non-Bowie fan can definitely get onboard with.
The exhibition would not have been half as effective or powerful without the great amount of detail that had gone in, thanks to the David Bowie Archives and the nuanced curation by Victoria Broackes and Geoffrey Marsh. The Archives kept EVERYTHING – annotated lyrics, tissues with Bowie's lipstick on it, sketches on random fag packets – these only serve to bring to life Bowie's creative output outside of music. From the get-go, he was sketching out costumes, writing prolifically and absorbing everything like a sponge and that's evident throughout the exhibition.
The criticism that Bowie is essentially a highly skilled plagiarist lingers in the background of the exhibition as it points out every single reference, influence and inspiration that informed Bowie's characters, tour sets and imagery. That niggle gets swept away though when you see how those things manifest itself. How the stunning Earthrise photography by astronaut Bill Anders inspired the lyrics for 'Space Oddity'. How a Lauren Bacall photograph becomes a gender-bending soft-focus image of Bowie on the cover of the Hunky Dory album. How Sonia Delauney's geometric costumes trickled down into a body-morphing ensemble worn to perform 'The Man Who Sold the World' which eventually became part of Klaus Nomi's image. How the 1927 film Metropolis and George Orwell's 1984 informed the 1974 Diamond Dogs tour and vivid storyboards, drawn by Bowie for an unreleased film called Hunger City. It's all process, inspiration and re-interpretation – things that of course are part and parcel of the creative cycle.
Of course, the costume moments on display (and there's plenty of that) do provide a fashion slant to this exhibition, which is inescapable, what with Gucci being a sponsor and all. I don't want to sound dismissive of the fashion angle but I feel like this exhibition is so much bigger and culturally wide-spanning than merely the surface of clothes on a mannequin. I heard the curators absolutely insisting that this wasn't a fashion exhibition but inevitably you're still going to get a bajillion banal articles titled with "Yay or Nay on these David Bowie looks" or the like. Fashion was a medium of expression for Bowie with the final costume likely to be disposed of within a year. It wasn't about communicating permanent personal style but about finding the right talent to bring his characters to life. There's no harm in revelling in so-called Bowie "style" but the more interesting take-away point is that it was all artifice, created with a plan. It just so happens that those images of Bowie have had a rippling wave effect on fashion, to different degrees of success. His Ziggy Stardust TOTP debut was accompanied by a Clockwork Orange-inspired jumpsuit, created by longtime collaborator Freddie Burretti, which Bowie called "ultra violence in Liberty fabrics." Was it created to do anything except seduce the nation with its deliberately bizarre juxtaposition of sixties flower power with space-age uniformity? Doubtful…
Bowie's collaboration with Japanese designer Kansai Yamamoto is probably the most well-known visually out of Bowie's costumes, especially when you look at this striped bodysuit curving outwardly in the legs. He latched on to Yamamoto's work from his first show Kansai in London in 1971 and then commissioned Yamamoto on a set of costumes for his Aladdin Sane tour in 1973. His Ziggy persona heavily relied on the influences of Kabuki-style make-up, which was informed by Yamamoto's designs. "They were everything that i wanted them to be and more, heavily inspired by kabuki and samurai, they were outrageous, provocative and unbelievably hot to wear under the lights." Yamamoto's work isn't widely known beyond his collaboration with Bowie as his no longer creates collections but his hey day certainly deserves to be spotlighted, perhaps in a separate exhibition.
Essentially it's hard to figure out whether Bowie is a man who truly loved the act of transformation with clothes or whether they were just a means to step into character so that he could achieve fulfillment as an artist. The different style phases be it Le Corbusier-inspired workwear, dandy-esque tailoring, moody cabaret suits that befit the Thin White Duke or a sad Pierrot clown costume going hand in hand with Blitz kid extrovert expression – they're all vital to completing the visual mindmap of Bowie's world.
Bowie also collaborated with Alexander McQueen, again early on in Lee's career when he had just graduated. The brilliant accompanying book to David Bowie Is, highlights the calculating way which Bowie worked with designers, always giving specific direction rather than complete carte blanche.
The final room brings to life the essence of the exhibition. The main point is still the music. Strip away all the imagery and artifice and you still have brilliant songs that will last well beyond the costumes on show. With sound provided by Sennheiser and a larger-than-life staging design by 59 Productions, Bowie's image beams over you and Heroes, probably one of Bowie's best tracks, blares out at you. There's something completely pure and stripped back about that last room, despite the fact that you have costumes looming over you behind veiled screens.
I like the rudimentary exit room of the exhibition where you see instances of Bowie's influence on fashion. In recent collections, the references in a variety of houses and designers are countless. Endless even. Has somebody started a Bowie Did It First… Tumblr blog yet? Someone should even if it drives them crazy when they find that the cultural trickle-down effect of Bowie is never ending.
A final note is that we were told at the press view that tickets are still available and that the public shouldn't "give up hope!" and I've just checked the ticket section and whilst the exhibition is now solidly booked up for the next few weeks, May, June and July are still wide open. I'm going to head down there again when I can in June. This is an exhibition that warrants another visit. Or two. Get lost with the Sennheiser headsets on (the one instance where I think audio guides are actually effective) for at least two or three hours. If you can't make it though, the accompanying merch is pretty impressive. Like I said, the book is brilliant and whilst can't replicate the exhibition, gives a much more detailed written context that is still fascinating.