An examination of David Bowie's gender and sexuality performance on stage through fashion.
On the cover of the November 9th, 1972 issue of Rolling Stone, readers are taunted “Are You Man Enough for David Bowie?” The use of this gendered language implies that you must be secure in your masculinity to appreciate and support the androgynous rock icon that is David Bowie. Why did Rolling Stone make masculinity and gender the focus of their interview about him? It is because they reflect society’s ideas that David Bowie is in contrast with masculinity. Between his “feminine” looks, his androgynous fashion choices, and his performance on stage; people make a lot of assumptions about him.
Before he was David Bowie or Ziggy Stardust, he was David Jones from South London. “A single punch in a fight nearly cost him his left eye. Surgery left it with some sight but with the pupil paralyzed open. Reflection of strong light off the back of the retina makes the eye look orange or gold, like a cat’s in a headlight.”1 Timothy Ferris’ description of Bowie’s striking eyes further illustrates how otherworldly and strange David Bowie appeared to people.
Rolling Stone wrote about his appearance: “Nobody had ever looked like Bowie did - a skeletal face riven with audacious lightning bolts, penetrating eyes that didn't match in color. Nobody moved like him, with impossible grace at moments, then in jerky, bent, almost inhuman angles at others. Nobody wore the clothes he wore, princely yet feminine robes, tight pants that presented his sex as the center of his being, as the focus of the stage.”2
Bowie once said, “I feel like an actor when I’m onstage, rather than a rock artist,”3
What is gender and sexuality if not a performance? “Bowie would claim that he intended Ziggy Stardust as only a theatrical creation, “but I play that character right down the line.” When, during a June 1972 Oxford Town Hall show, Bowie sank to his knees before Mick Ronson, wrapped his hands behind the guitarist’s ass and pulled Ronson and his guitar to his mouth in a mime of oral sex — the effect was titanic. The moment (which was a surprise to Ronson) was caught by camera and printed in the music papers.”4
Rolling Stone’s approach to interviews and gendered comments about androgynous fashion icons like David Bowie revealed homophobic and homoerotic norms within the rock world
Timothy Ferris described David Bowie as a great performer despite some homophobic comments about people’s expectations of how Bowie should be. “The early shows met with mixed critical reaction. Some reviewers seemed disappointed that Bowie didn’t turn out to be a super Alice Cooper, a queen of fag rock and an all-purpose high-voltage degenerate…So assessments varied widely. My own was that Bowie is the strongest figure to appear in rock in years.”5
David Bowie’s apparent unconcern for traditional ideas of masculinity, femininity, sexuality, and gender roles drew in like-minded people who ached to be free and liberated from societal constraints, but it also alienated people who saw those societal norms as law. He used fashion and his appearance as a tool for nonconformity against the stereotypes of what a man should look like and be.
David Bowie had the distinct privilege of being an exception to that cultural rule because he was a white man in a position of power and influence, but that doesn’t mean he was never challenged on it. What makes fashion gendered? The gender of the person wearing the clothes or the clothes themselves?
People had a lot to say about his androgynous appearance and fashion choices, including Rolling Stone: “One eye is green, the other alternately green and orange. The boots are bright red with two-and-a-half-inch risers. The blouse is orange see-through. The hair, dyed bright carrot, sticks straight up above the brow. Bowie was thin before he arrived in America and he has lost weight since; his smooth white skin is stretched from bone to bone in his face like telegraph wire along poles. He changes expression constantly as wind blowing across a lake, instantly as static electricity. Everything about his appearance is extreme.”6
David Bowie used his striking looks to his advantage and didn’t apologize for being too “extreme.” However, people had a lot to say about David Bowie and what his androgyny meant about his sexuality. Rolling Stone’s Timothy Ferris said that “debate over the term “bisexual” be what it may, Bowie is both gay and married. They have a son, Zowie.”7 However, in his most famous interview, in Melody Maker, in 1972, he spontaneously announced, “I'm gay - and always have been, even when I was David Jones.”8
Being a representation of feminine masculinity or androgyny was not always easy for David Bowie. In 1964, “he appeared on BBC Tonight as the founder of the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Longhaired Men, with a cohort of other longhaired young men.”9 The cultural norm for traditionally masculine men to have short hair led to homophobic pushback. “For the last two years, we've heard comments like ‘Darling’ and ‘Can I carry your handbag?’ thrown at us,” David said. “And I think it just has to stop now.”10
Rolling stone wrote that “Bowie's androgyny signaled that changes were coming” to the world of rock. David Bowie’s extravagant looks, style, and stage presence exemplified liberation and freedom from traditional heteronormative culture. “We were giving permission to ourselves,” Bowie later wrote, “to reinvent culture the way we wanted it. With great big shoes.”11
David Bowie continues to be an inspiration to other people for daring to reject traditional masculinity; he paved the way for other white male rock stars like Harry Styles. Rock stars and other celebrities have de-gendered fashion to an extent or at least made it more acceptable to wear masculine/feminine clothes despite the gender you identify with because society views them as bold trendsetters. The more we see differences represented in the media and in society, the more accepted those differences become.