David Bowie’s Style Decades

                                                                    Andy Warhol looks a scream,

                                                                    hang him on my wall.

                                                                    Andy Warhol, silver screen,

                                                                    can’t tell them apart at all.

                                                                    David Bowie, Andy Warhol from Hunky Dory 1971

Give Bowie a boundary and you’ll get back a blurred edge. It is this signature evasiveness that describes his x-factor, that which in less brand-conscious talk is more prudently defined as his jai ne c’est quoi. It’s something he made into a career, if not an art. He sampled and exhausted musical genres long before postmodernism became a buzzword. He practically invented the need for Queer Theory with his staged gender rebellion. And as Danny Lewis says, his restless reinvention is what has kept us enthralled for so long. But is this evidence of his style, as the title of the book puts it, or of his serial style appropriations?


David Bowie Style. It’s either a bold contentious title, one that suggests the reduction of all Bowie identities into an overall strategy, or a sloppy one, a mere synonym for fashion or oeuvre. There is some evidence that its author has committed to the singularity of the title since the artist formerly renowned as Ziggy Stardust is very much the heartbeat of a career given retrospective coherence. Early chapters chalk up Bowie’s influences and frustrations, setting the stage for the entrance of central figure, while the later chapters are caught up in following the tail of comet Ziggy. For Lewis, all the characters up to the Thin White Duke are an emotionally voiding, a retreat from Ziggy … and since he also considers the Duke the final character, once Lewis casts off the sartorial suits of Let’s Dance, everything else is relegated to seeing Bowie on fashion autopilot, churning out new looks for new albums. This is actually an approach Lewis argues with but also exemplifies by turning Bowie’s last two decades into a single chapter conveniently called Contemporary Chameleon. This Ziggy-shaped narrative is surely at odds with the portrait of an experimentalist always trying on styles rather than clinging to the ghost of the familiar. Indeed, Bowie may not have a style to call his own, so busy was he scavenging at the zeitgeist.


To be fair, the book is primarily a visual resource, with limited space for text, further compromised by having to follow a predictable chronology over five decades with the character Ziggy centre stage. When Lewis does break with the grand narrative, it is actually to very good effect, the few interval sections – on such topics as Punk and German Expressionism – adding cultural context and indicating where a larger project may have profitably gone. One of those sections is on Andy Warhol, who Bowie played in Julian Schnabel’s 1996 film Basquiat.  Like Bowie, Warhol made himself the subject of his art and thus confused the relation between ‘reality’ and representation, artist and persona.

‘Warhol not only reinvented art, but constructed a self-defined image of himself to go with it. He wore obvious wigs, gathered a coterie of transvestites, drug addicts and musicians around him, and claimed he wanted to be a machine. He professed to be interested in money, not art. He mixed with the upper echelons of society as well as the lowest, and he experimented with many different art forms, including film, literature and theatre, refusing to be pigeonholed.

Such an act of self-creation was part of the philosophy engendered at the Factory, the art production/ party space in New York in which Warhol worked and his entourage socialised. It was a place where people could re-make themselves into whomever they wanted to be, something that was both an aesthetic and moral exercise, and where style had meaning as part of that process.’

Danny Lewis, David Bowie Style, 2012


All of which cues the relevance for a discussion about the convergence between Bowie performance outfits and his ‘day wear’. But Bowie’s performativity is not something the book is able to find space to take on, a pity since it both underlines and undermines the project. The question of the missing plural also centres the issue of authorship which warrants engagement rather than assertion. Indeed, there are some harsh historical and theoretical elisions. Bowie’s influential friend and designer, Freddie Burretti, apparently isn’t an important enough reference although some lesser collaborators are given passing credit. Forget Tin Machine and Bowie as the democratic dresser and group member… er, duly forgotten. These fashion collaborations are cues to contextualising Bowie’s changing styles since the singer soaked up the ideas of people and books like a fly in milk (as he famously says in the BBC documentary Cracked Actor). But Lewis is not a fashion commentator; hailing partly from a background in the underground music scene, he is clearer and more confident about the musical debts and connections. Eschewing precision for a tabloid-fashionese, Lewis sometimes glosses over what may otherwise make interesting points if developed. Describing the duality of seventies Berlin, he suggests for example, Bowie wore ‘[a] kind of proletarian chic of leather jackets and flat caps alternated with a more classic look of trench coats, fedoras and three-piece suits’.


This is not an academic book and Lewis does well both to cram some good ideas into the tight margins of what is, effectively, a book of photos. This book is indeed a fine visual reference with pointed, if provocative, linking narrative. It is well designed too, with a reader-friendly layout and legible fonts, with the addition of french flaps for convenient bookmarking. Although really a long article, the book has, for want of a more considered word, style.


David Bowie Style by Danny Lewis, published by Bloomsbury, 2012 £18.99

Andy Warhol from Hunky Dory