David Bowie: Essay On An Icon

From our music issue, Peter Doggett reflects on how the late singer found his sartorial magic

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Believe it or not, there was a time when David Bowie wasn't cool. You can find mystery in any man, but genuine mystique demands the ability to pass yourself off as an enigma. The same distinction divides ephemeral fashion from eternal style. To prove the point, the teenage Bowie mirrored every shift of image that the rapidly evolving Sixties pop scene demanded. You could map the decade through his transformation from beat to mod, or Carnaby Street peacock to Notting Hill hippy. Through it all, however, Sixties Bowie was echoing the outside world, not shaping it. He was contemporary, but never cool.

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Stale from his schooling, the teenage Bowie had endured a reluctant year in the lowly echelons of a London advertising agency. There he learned the potency of image, watching as copywriters and designers conjured glamour out of naked commercialism. What was missing from his early efforts to reproduce this sleight of hand in his own career was a sense of conviction. He found it only when the counterculture decayed into hopelessness and ennui as the Seventies began. Aware before most of his peers that the Sixties dream was over, Bowie reinvented himself as a prophet of doom, with a gospel of salvation: an androgynous rock'n'roll alien named Ziggy Stardust. Unable to locate stardom by traditional means, he declared himself a superstar — and a generation rushed to acclaim him as its messiah.

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Bowie was now his own creation, able to mould his audience in his own image. Throughout the Seventies, he subjected his psyche to the relentless, perilous pursuit of change, each mutation of sound and image offered with a beguiling mixture of utter certainty and total vulnerability. Contradictions became his compelling stock-in trade: he was intensely serious and disarmingly flippant; instinctively spontaneous and carefully calculating; open to chance and creativity, yet concealing himself at every turn.

Through that frantic, insane decade, Bowie alighted upon the key elements of cool. Here was a man who always knew more than we did; who could invite us into his world while maintaining a stern distance; who could refashion himself as a dandy or a Clockwork Orange droog, clad in Japanese jumpsuit or catwalk suit, while convincing his audience that each fleeting image was the only possible response to a landscape mired in chaos and confusion.

Having barely survived the Seventies, Bowie thereafter opted for self-preservation over existential quest. But his sense of certainty, of effortless ease, his untouchable aura — they remained intact. And they have merely been heightened by the past decade, when he has been hidden in plain sight, nurturing a marriage and a family in Manhattan, and choosing the school run over the concert stage. Place him in front of a camera, though, and the old Bowie remains intact. (It doesn't hurt that he has always known how to wear a suit.) He still faces the lens with the utter assurance of a man who knows his own mind; whose slightly ironic gaze seems to offer incalculable secrets, dangled tantalisingly out of reach. His cool no longer exists only in the eye of his beholder: it's become who he is, the token of his flawless wizard's spell.