What I Learned About Tarting Up From David Bowie

Notes from the fashion apocalypse.
March 11 2013 7:30 AM

David Bowie Taught Me How to Tart Up

And it saved me from losing my mind.

Musician David Bowie performs onstage during his 'Ziggy Stardust' era in 1973 in Los Angeles, California.
Musician David Bowie performs onstage during his Ziggy Stardust era in 1973 in Los Angeles.

Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

David Bowie has a gorgeous, groovy, thoughtful new record out Tuesday. You would be a lad insane not to purchase it immediately. After several years of radio silence, the 66-year-old bloke from Bromley, England, whom I worship without reservation, is totally back! The Next Day is, therefore, something of a Bowie milestone—not to be confused with a Bowie gallstone, which I sincerely hope he never experiences. I don’t like to think of him ever being put in a position where he is obliged to wince.

Simon Doonan Simon Doonan

Simon Doonan is an author, fashion commentator, and creative ambassador for Barneys New York.

Full disclosure: I am one of the adoring, borderline-creepy fans who have made fame so cumbersome for DB. If he ever goes into seclusion again and you want someone to blame, look no further than yours truly. Is it really my fault, however, that he’s a bloody genius who has kept me, and millions like me, in his thrall for more than four decades? Aladdin Sane, Low, Station to Station, Pin Ups … too many great albums to mention. And whatever you do, do not make the mistake of cross-referencing Bowie’s oeuvre with today’s costumed schlock-pop, much of which sounds to me like hastily assembled clichés from the Eurovision Song Contest school of oompah. Bowie’s product, in sharp contrast, has always been meticulous. From Hunky Dory to Scary Monsters and beyond, the music is tight, immaculate, and considered. Yes, he’s had moments of high camp, but remember what they say about camp: Camp is the lie that tells the truth. Needlepoint that onto your man bag!

My Bowie ardor is always quick to manifest itself: Whenever I hear anybody refer to Liberace as Mr. Show Business, I invariably remonstrate: “Don’t you think that title really belongs to Mr. Bowie? He is one of the greatest live performers ever. He’s a funky thigh collector layin’ on ‘lectric dreams. So there!” Contrasting the two performers—Bowie and Lib—is a strange thing to do. But then I am a very strange person. And who gave me permission to be so strange? Yes, old Ziggy Stardust himself—on Aug. 20, 1972, at the Finsbury Park Rainbow Theatre.

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At the time I was working in a tragique department store outside London. I was in “clocks and watches,” and my best friend Biddie—later to become James Biddlecombe, star of panto and cabaret—worked in “soft furnishings.” This was a really grim period. Our lives were seedy and turgid, and we were in desperate need of some satin and tat, to mention nothing of a frock coat and a bipperty-bopperty hat. We divided our time between dodging the Reading skinheads and mocking the local gays in their fluffy sweaters who congregated in the functions room of a dismal pub near the train station. That’s how grim our lives were. But then, on that hot, smelly night in Finsbury Park, we found Bowie, the leper messiah, the new patron saint of marginalized freaks, and we began tarting ourselves up.

Biddie, with his long neck and henna’d tufts, was able to make himself look exactly like Bowie in his Ziggy incarnation, so much so that girls would sometimes scream and ask for his autograph even while he was at work on a wet Wednesday afternoon. I guess it never occurred to them to wonder what the world’s most exciting new pop phenomenon was doing in a suburban department store slicing up bolts of chintz and brocade.

The more Biddie and I discovered about Bowie, the more deranged our fan worship became. We just had oodles in common. We were all stuck in the same depressed, post-hippie quagmire, and we were attempting to claw our way out with the aid of sequins and extreme theatricality. Like Bowie, we loved Lindsay Kemp and Scott Walker and Jacques Brel. And we loved Anthony Newley. I was “The Laughing Gnome.” Still am.

Biddie may have looked just like Bowie, but my Bowie solidarity was more profound than his. Like DB, I grew up with a lobotomy and smattering of schizophrenics. As a result, I, too, lived in fear of losing my shit. When I saw Bowie onstage at the Rainbow in his futuristic costumes and space boots, I was filled with hope. Here was the antidote to life in the local mental institution. The way to avoid going nuts was to go glam rock. Bowie was living proof: Getting tarted up imbued the wearer with power and immunity. Wearing a striped, twinkle-knit unitard with one leg missing is the opposite of wearing a straitjacket. I think we can all agree about that.

Today women wear outrageously theatrical shoes, and men wear sneakers or boring flat-soled lace-ups. This is very upsetting to me. During the Ziggy years, girls wore outrageous shoes—you were nobody unless you had metallic snakeskin boots from Mr. Freedom or Kensington Market or Terry de Havilland—and so did we dudes. My fave pair was an electric-blue children’s-sandal style with a massive chunky platform.

Unlike moi, Bowie seems to have a healthy reticence about glam rock nostalgia. I, on the other hand, spend a ridiculous amount of time wishing that it would all come back, that Bowie and Bryan Ferry and Eno and even Alvin Stardust and the Sweet—would tart themselves up once more.

My hankerings may well be a function of the lack of flamboyance on the current male fashion landscape. All right already with all this earnest heritage workwear and nouveau preppy dreariness! If I see one more checked shirt or gray Mr. Rogers cardigan, I am going to wince. Why aren’t they selling quilted velvet catsuits for men at J. Crew? Perhaps the Bowie exhibition opening at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London on March 23 will reintroduce blokes on both sides of the Atlantic to the glories and rewards of tarting oneself up.

At some point in the late ’80s—it was after Glass Spider but before Earthling—I met Bowie for the first time at a Vanity Fair/Barneys bash. Naturally I became quite fizzy. Did Bowie wince? To my delight he fizzed back. “I loved your Tammy Faye Bakker window,” he said, referring to a display I had created at the original Barneys downtown store containing a life-size effigy of the disgraced, tear-stained evangelist lurking next to a giant mascara wand/Christmas tree. A compliment from Zig? Wow. That was the moment I really lost my shit.

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