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David Bowie Is [on display]

22 Apr

Fashion in Film Beat: Yahoo! Movies

by Staci Layne Wilson

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David Bowie is, therefore we think.

Bowie bolt

“David Bowie Is” is the name of the exhibit on display now at the V&A Museum in London (the show ends on August 11). It’s brilliantly titled, as it leads to almost as many roads as the entertainer himself took on his long and continuing journey through fame.

As you walk into a virtual labyrinth (yes, film fans – Bowie’s star turn in the Jim Henson film Labyrinth is featured within the presentation), the first thing you will see is the writing on the wall “All art is unstable” and hear Bowie’s voice intoning, “There is no authoritative voice. There are only multiple readings.” Paraphrasing fellow troubadour Bob Dylan’s go-to muse, Arthur Rimbaud (and let’s not forget Bowie’s own A Song for Bob Dylan, off the Hunky Dory album), the ultimate glam rock entertainer leads you by the brain into his silvery lair.

Bowie  – a poet and a pin-up, a sell-out and a maverick, a lover and a loner, an actor reading from a script and an off-the-cuff philosopher – is pretty much impossible to define. And so is this exhibit. A mish-mash of glitter and substantive information, it’s up to the beholder to find the beautiful. Co-curated by Geoff Marsh, the items on display seem, at first, to possess a cohesive narrative (early career, glam era, influences, movie work), but then, like Gretel running out of breadcrumbs, I found myself lost in this forest of finery. Overwhelmed and all done, I could barely remember all that I’d seen.

Original Ziggy Stardust bodysuits are on display, as are Kansai Yamamoto’s Aladdin Sane tour outfits, an amazing Union Jack coat designed by Alexander McQueen and Bowie himself for the cover of the Earthling album, as well as a deeply striking, very irreverent religious-icon mask worn in the Dead Man Walking music video directed by Flora Sigismondi.

dead man walking mask


As a bit of a museum rat, I’ve seen some pretty awesome collections – from the unprecedented Stanley Kubrick exhibit by Elvis Mitchell currently at LACMA, to last year’s Hollywood Museum Marilyn Monroe retrospective in the famous Art Deco Max Factor Building in Hollywood. While I did love every spangle and glistening thread of “David Bowie Is”, I was unable to grasp a through-line. Perhaps that’s the blessing of, first of all, trying to make sense of such a mysterious icon, but also the curse of presenting a definitive picture of a living legend.

As you enter the first room, look up at the aerial library. It’s a disparate mock-up of suspended books that open like flowers to show a gilded glimpse of the intellectual influences inside the man who was so much about the façade. Then take a gander at the glamour Bowie beheld, regurgitated, and repackaged in his own image – the famous Marlene Dietrich photographic portrait and Bowie’s mirror of that same angular face on his Hunky Dory album cover is the most striking illustration. However, sprinkled throughout the rooms are many more eye-opening examples.


Eerie, androgynous mannequins lurk in corners and stand on open display, wearing Bowie’s most famous costumes. Room décor ranges from the Soho flavor on his U.K. beginnings to his current bedroom in Manhattan. Then we go from the deepest, darkest outer spaces bringing to mind Major Tom and The Man Who Fell to Earth, to bright and airy floor-to-ceiling video monitors showing Bowie strutting his stuff onstage throughout the eras. His Broadway dressing rooms are recreated to remind us of his powerful performance in Bernard Pomerance’s play about the “Elephant Man” John Merrick in which Bowie self-transformed without the aid of prostheses or makeup.

David Bowie exibition at the V&A

Film fans will flock to the rooms which feature Bowie’s considerable acting accomplishments, including the aforementioned sci-fi noir film directed by Nicholas Roeg, 1976’s The Man Who Fell to Earth, to his work some 30 years later as Nikola Tesla in Christopher Nolan’s magic mystery, The Prestige. Fantasy fanatics will thrill over the Labyrinth props, including The Goblin King’s sepulcher and crystal ball, and will enjoy reading the hand-written letter from Henson to Bowie asking him to read the enclosed “rough” script and please consider the role. Also on display is the white Andy Warhol fright wig Bowie donned in Julian Schnabel’s Basquiat bio-pic. (Aside: just prior to seeing “David Bowie Is”, I attended my first Jean-Michel Basquiat show in New York City. Those pieces are now in London at Sotheby’s, awaiting auction)


Like shed skins, each look and incarnation is left behind as the beholder moves from room to room. In the homestretch, we see a faux Ziggy Stardust laid to rest supine on the floor in a glass coffin; handwritten and crossed out lyrics; marked-up outtakes from the Diamond Dogs photography sessions snapped with Terry O’Neil’s camera; and much, much more.

Terry O'Neil Diamond Dogs Photo

Finally, a last look: The iconic photo of Bowie from 1972 by Japanese photographer, Masayoshi Sukita “Exit” and you do just that (through the gift-shop, natch).

Masayoshi Sukita Photo 1972

David Bowie Is book, last page