David Bowie Changed My Life (& My Identities)
Research Team:
Marla Collins-Soana, Peter Dunn, Beth Harwood & Kat Sagan
Bowie had multiple personalities, many of which, like Ziggy, were influential on their own terms. But some of the respondents found the process of owning plural identities the beguiling bit.

According to Finkelstein ‘Identity is continuously re-styled and invented to suit the circumstances but, at the same time, it supposedly emanates from an inner quality that universalizes the human condition’[1].
Finkelstein’s comment is a useful way to think about the two respondents highlighted here for analysis. Andy and Bernadette, while clearly coming from very different backgrounds and having
quite strong character differences, shared similarities in their outward presentation of Bowie’s influence. Andy was raised in England by a very supportive mother and ‘an exasperated father’, but as early as seven years old Bowie inspired him to start experimenting with hair styles, make up and clothes. The fact that he was able to express himself from a relatively early age without being discouraged allowed him to forge a strong sense of identity. During his youth, he was constantly changing looks and each of these was accompanied by a change of nickname. Now in his forties, Andy claims to have abandoned party life and extreme looks for a more spiritual and mature outlook. Bernadette grew up in Northern Ireland and attended a boarding school with a more formal upbringing. She revealed her identity in the expression of more socially acceptable styles and hair colours when she was younger, and was conscious the power of stylistic expression as a woman seeking professional acceptance. David Bowie’s looks were edited and re-styled by Bernadette in the building of her own identity.


For both Bernadette and Andy, hair played an important role in the transformation of image during the period that their admiration for Bowie was most prolific. By examining their photographic archives, it was clear that cut, style and colour were major forms of expression and acted as key markers in the explorations that would define their personal style. Unfortunately, Bernadette declined the invitation to publish this imagery.

In her interview, she explained how she adopted geometric, structured hair that emphasised the sharp lines of the suited look that she favoured. She said she took inspiration from what she described as Bowie’s angular looks referencing both his changing hair styles and or make up. Andy treated hair as a form of rebellion. Shoulder length and crimped one day, short and preppy the next; the transitions were often harsh, dramatic and accompanied by a palette of bright colours, including his favourite pink immisso. Andy admits these changes were intended to make a statement, to antagonise his father maybe, but always with the view to emphasise his individuality.


Bernadette touched on the political problems of adopting punk and ska looks that, although popular, carried violent connotations in the eyes of older generations in Catholic Ireland during the 1980’s. Bernadette points out that the political violence in Northern Ireland held a different meaning to the aggression of dissent promoted by punk in England, and felt the softer, unthreatening aesthetic of the New Romantic or Goth was easier for others to accept. Andy’s make-up was a lot more dramatic, pointing more towards the new wave punk movement prevalent in the underground English scene. Not only did he wear heavy eye liner, lipstick and dark pencilled eyebrows, but he frequently continued the patterns and bright colours across his face.


Andy’s dramatic displays were adopted every time he went out to create a ‘look’, and no two looks would ever be the same. This gave him confidence that in building his own identity as an individual as well as negotiating it within a group. For Andy, changing a look created alter egos each which he would name. These ‘masks’ would mainly be worn as part of his involvement in the underground night scene. There was a sense of separation and disconnection between this activity and his everyday life although the telltale Bowie indicators, such as the hair style, were ‘permanent’ throughout the day.


In Bernadette’s case, her projection of style was more about uniform and she stated that even if Bowie had not adopted a suited aesthetic, as seen with the Thin White Duke, she would still have discovered and deployed it five years later. In her school days, her boarding school education dictated that she was required to adopt a given uniform. However, in her professional years it was her own choice to wear business dress; an expression of her willingness to adapt to the male orientated environment of IT and to be taken seriously by co-workers and clients. She stated that the decision to adopt a formal suited look helped to eradicate gender discrimination by putting her femininity to the background.  In creating a silhouette that didn’t emphasise her figure, her professional attitude and abilities would be seen first. As Entwistle says, ‘appearance is important because it tells us something about her, about her professionalism, her confidence, her self- esteem, her ability to do her job’[2]. Through power-dressing, Bernadette was able to share a cultural image uniting all career women. This look also marked the emergence of a new kind of consumption which empowered women in decisions about what to buy and wear to work.


Bernadette spoke about the disposable nature of clothing today in contrast to the limited availability of fashion whilst she was growing up. She believes that today’s youth can better afford to be more experimental with clothing and body adornments such as tattoos and piercings and says that if mass fashion was as readily available to her younger self, she would have been wilder in her clothing choices. She also says of her experience of Northern Ireland in the 1980s that expression of style through dress was reserved for going out but considered as disrespectful in an everyday context. In much the same way that it was Andy’s hair which remained a constant in everyday life, the Bernadette felt it was acceptable for young people to experiment to some extent with identity through hair.


For Bernadette, dress signified her rejection of the adoption of typical gender roles. The influence of Bowie enabled this to a certain extent since  his outfits were considered to cross gender boundaries. For Andy too, the androgynous personae that Bowie adopted broke boundaries for sexuality, allowing him to express himself in whichever way he wished, act however he wanted, and he took every opportunity to do so. Bowie’s gender moves were generally greeted as a positive due to their artistic context. Andy particularly referenced the cover art for The Man Who Sold the World. Here Bowie is seen reclining on a chaise longue in a ‘man’s dress’. This, says Andy, was particularly liberating for gay and lesbian people as this meant a cultural discussion of the taboo of sexuality.


Discussing his costume changes, Andy liked the way that Bowie introduced new characters. Although his favourite performance was Bowie’s last ever gig as Ziggy Stardust, Andy felt that he was able to embrace the end of an era, trusting that this was not the retirement of Ziggy, but an indicator that Bowie was going to constantly evolve and change. This chameleon-like evolution inspired Andy and he described how this gave him the strength to develop his own alter egos as he strived to never have the same look each every time he went out. The most famous and successful of these he says was Andy Eyes. This performativity gave Andy confidence while he was younger, but as the years have passed, he admits, he has found it almost comical to continue dressing as experimentally, even when going out.


Bernadette connects her own chameleon-like changes of expression with Bowie in the often-changing colour and style of her hair. She believes that Bowie’s changing of persona is a defence mechanism and argues that people who project an image unlike that of their true self are actually quite insecure. Creative people, she says, ‘have to be two steps off the centre of balance.’ Referencing the ever changing personas Bowie portrayed, Andy and Bernadette shared a common ground using the mask for partying, dancing and general social interaction, a form of escapism that pushed away the mundane reality of day to day life.


In conclusion, although Andy and Bernadette came from quite different social backgrounds, their experience of the Bowie phenomena has many similarities. They may have mainly referenced differing points of inspiration nevertheless these masks allowed them to develop strong identities and find social acceptance. These masks were empowering, enabling a sense of liberation of ‘core self’ whether through the underground nightclub scene or the male dominated world of IT. Whether it is from the perspective of a young woman from Northern Ireland with a catholic boarding school upbringing, or that of a rebellious teenager from England, it is clear that Bowie’s influence was felt not only at the surface superficial level but in the development of personality, in gaining self-confidence in the interactions with others and to feel the permission to experiment and assert differences.




Andy wore ‘masks’ as part of his involvement in the underground night scene. There was a sense of separation and disconnection between this activity and his everyday life although the telltale Bowie indicators, such as the hair style, were ‘permanent’ throughout the day




full interview transcript: 


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Andy treated hair as a form of rebellion. Shoulder length and crimped one day, short and preppy the next; the transitions were often harsh, dramatic and accompanied by a palette of bright colours 













[1] Finkelstein, J. (2007) The Art of Self Invention: Image and Identity in Popular Visual Culture. London: I.B. Tauris pp.3).

[2] Nava, M. (1997) ‘Power Dressing’ and the Construction of the Career Woman. In: J. Entwistle, ed. Buy This Book: Studies in Advertising and Consumption. London: Routledge p320.



Additional Bibliography


Forget, T. (2001) Rock & Roll Hall of Famers: David Bowie. New York: The Rosen Publishing Group.


Kemp, M. ed. (2001) David Bowie. Rolling Stone: Artists. READ ON


Waldrep, S. (2004) The Aesthetics of Self-Invention: Oscar Wilde to David Bowie. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press.