Popular literature’s commentary on David Bowie’s appearance and demeanour during his Ziggy Stardust phase usually focus on his ‘games’ with sexuality and gender. Whilst most recognise that there was an aspect of theatricality to this, they still see Bowie as breaking ground in expressing ones sexuality and gender. Iain Chambers writes that Bowie’s style was able to “crack” an image of male sexuality “brittle with repression” [i]. According to Dick Hebdige, Bowie helped open up agency for his fans to challenge the prevailing gender norms by creating “a space where an alternative identity could be discovered and expressed”[ii] 


Although there is undoubtedly some truth to such claims, I will argue that the gender focus placed on Bowie’s dress has been overstated, and perhaps misread. I will make this case by examining the tradition of kabuki theatre Bowie was drawing on as inspiration for his live shows, and by claiming that the idea of ‘expressing one’s self’ through dress shows a disconnect between a modern understanding of self-image inherited from the Romantics and the dandy tradition of which Bowie can be seen to be a part.


Ziggy Stardust’s appearance owed much more to Japanese kabuki theatre and its tradition of onnagata, than to Western forms of cross-dressing, especially in its latter days. Bowie was introduced to kabuki by Lindsey Kemp, who trained him in various aspects of performance art – such as mime, acting and dance. Kabuki is a traditional form of theatre consisting of an exclusively male cast. The actors who specialise in playing women’s roles are known as onnagata. Though uncommon nowadays, the onnagata would also dress and act as women off-stage. During the Edo period (1603–1868) their daily lives have been described as being “lived in the same way as women in almost every detail”[iii]. However, this should not be seen as an attempt on their part to validate gender identity. Referring to the writings of Yoshizawa Ayame I (1673–1719), legislator of onnagata acting, Laurence Senelick points out that whilst Ayame advocates the onnagata living “his normal life as if he was a woman”[iv] the motivating reason for such a lifestyle is for the onnagata to achieve “an inner state that would prevent outbreaks of masculinity marring the illusion [of the theatrical performance]”[v]. In other words, the act of assuming women’s dress outside of the theatre was a technique employed by the onnagata to give a convincing performance in the theatre rather than a desire to be or live more like women outside it.


Making comparisons between culturally and historically specific modern notions of cross-dressing and those found in kabuki cannot be undertaken without difficulty. Indeed, there is a tendency in modern Japanese culture to protect kabuki from such comparisons[vi]. However, to gain a deeper understanding of Ziggy’s image it is necessary to make the following two points in this regard. Firstly, it is interesting to note that the dress worn by the onnagata on stage is based upon historic female dress. As time has passed they have become theatrical costumes increasingly removed from everyday dress, perhaps to the extent that it no longer makes sense to speak of them in terms of being ‘women’s dress’. The difference between the two is described by Senelick:

Unlike the real-life kimono, the onnagata’s costume, especially for courtesans, could weigh up to fifty or sixty pounds, and was so like a counterpane in bulk that, in some cases, the character could only move with the aid of stage-assistants.[vii]


Since these costumes only exist within the specific context of the kabuki theatre, it would be erroneous to equate a dressed-up onnagata with a Western cross-dresser. By extension it would be misguided to read Ziggy as Bowie in drag. Secondly, Bowie wasn’t merely appropriating an aesthetic, but using kabuki-concepts actively in his performance. In kabuki, when a character goes through a ‘change in nature‘ the costume is changed to symbolise this. These dress changes happen on stage, by the technique known as bukkaeri. These rapid costume changes, which can be seen in Ziggy Stardust The Motion Picture (2003), are – according to Bowie – instrumental in building the narrative of his performance. In the documentary Cracked Actor (1975) he gives this explanation:


Aladdin Sane was a schizophrenic. That counted for lots of the … costume changes, because he had so many personalities …. Each costume change was a different facet of his personality.[viii]


If Bowie is to be believed, informing us of Ziggy’s gender or sexuality isn’t what the costumes are about as such. Rather, they are about expressing the ‘personality’ of the character.


According to Charlotte Suthrell, clothes in modern Western culture are used to “express personality“.[ix] We identify ourselves to others by using them as “visual markers”.[x] Although clothes are used widely around the world as signifiers for gender and social status, the idea that they ‘present the self’ is a fairly new concept to Western society. Joanne Entwistle refers us to Richard Sennett’s The Fall of Public Man (1977) which argues that up until the mid-eighteenth century one’s appearance was not deemed an expression of one’s self. Rather, in the case of both males and females, one would have worn “highly elaborate dress, heavy make-up and flamboyant wigs” the purpose of which was to “set the body (and thus the identity) of the wearer at a distance as ‘costume’ does in the theatre”[xi]. This type of extravagant dress was the reserve of the aristocracy, the membership of which could afford fashion. The Industrial Revolution changed all this, and two opposing styles of fashion would come into prominence in the nineteenth century – namely the dandy and the Romantic.


The dandy’s dress had much in common with that used by the aristocracy in so much as it emphasises “artifice of appearance, the self as performed and perfected through self-conscious use of dress and the body”[xii]. On the other hand, the Romantics, because they placed great value in concepts such as the ‘natural’ and the ‘true‘ thought that one’s appearance reflected the inner truth of one’s identity. This was enabled by the Romantic tendency to value ”subjectivity and introspection over reason” which was in turn fuelled by their antipathy towards the newly industrialised world and its “Enlightenment emphasis on scientific enquiry and reason”[xiii].


Bowie can arguably be seen as a dandy. Throughout his career he has created a new look for each album as part of an artistic project where, to paraphrase a statement he gave in a Rolling Stone interview: the music is the mask, and he the performer, is the message[xiv]. His motivations can also be seen to be financial. Of the category Entwistle refers to as ‘artist-dandies‘ there are plenty of examples of careerists. These young men, frequently writers, would like Bowie use their dress to call attention to themselves and their work. Their dress was often considered flamboyant and outrageous if not necessarily tasteful or elegant. For instance, dress played an important in the construction of Oscar Wilde’s  (1854–1900) personas. Clearly celebrating the notions of theatre and artifice over authenticity, Wilde’s clothes were:


worn openly … as a theatrical costume. These clothes, and the accompanying mannerisms, were neither mask nor embellishment of Wilde’s individuality, and they had nothing to say about his social superiority or his “gentlemanliness”.[xv]


If we are to accept Bowie as the “ultimate type of Wilde” [xvi] as Shelton Waldrep suggests we must regard Bowie’s off-stage dress as costume used for the specific purpose of self-promotion.


The breaking down of the distinction between life and stage was for Bowie, as for Wilde, and intrinsic part of his success. In the period after the release of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972) this was especially true. The narrative of the album –usually understood as being the rise and fall of a cosmic rock n roll singer– seemed to be repeated in Bowie’s own rise to fame. It was hard to see where Bowie ended and where Ziggy began. This involved an elaborate performance, staged in part by Bowie’s manager, Tony Defries. A whole range of people played their part in the performance among them Mick Rock – Bowie’s ‘exclusive photographer’. Reflecting on his ‘part’ Rock has stated the following:

The whole game was theatre … I was part of the theatre to treat him as a star … The people reasoned: ‘If he’s got an exclusive photographer and bodyguards there must be something going on’. That was a piece of living theatre, if you like, part of the whole thing Tony and David cooked up between them.[xvii]


Bowie’s on-stage kabuki costumes arguably do more to make Bowie look strange and alien than to actually trouble the gender codes of Western dress. If we look at Bowie’s off-stage wardrobe, however it is interesting in the respect that it is more ambiguous in regards to these gender codes. Bowie often wore suits designed by Freddie Buretti. Traditionally a ‘masculine’ item, these suits could be seen as subverting menswear and masculinity by their flamboyant use of colour and patterned fabrics. Furthermore he wore ‘feminine’ jewellery and his famous red hairstyle, cut by Suzy Fussey and inspired by a kabuki wig.  


The full ambiguity of this dress is made apparent by Rock in his video for Life on Mars (1973). The video shows Bowie performing alone in a white space, without any props apart from his body and dress. Arguably, it is all about him, his appearance and his presence. Though more heavily made up than he would usually be off-stage, Bowie performs in his off-stage dress. For reasons I can only speculate about, Rock has used an effect to create a scenario where Bowie’s pale skin is indistinguishable from the background. Thus, his body disappears, leaving only the signifiers of dress, make-up and hairstyle behind for us to view. I would argue that, in this scenario, it is impossible to make out Bowie’s gender. To cast further doubt over his ‘true’ gender identity, Bowie adopts a consciously ambiguous body language. He takes up a series of stereotypically ‘feminine’ poses only to counter them with ‘masculine’ ones, alternating between ‘masculine’ rock-stances to coy, vulnerable, and sexual ‘feminine’ poses.


Rock shot the video for Life on Mars after spending a considerable amount of time with Bowie, in his position as ‘exclusive photographer‘. It would therefore be reasonable to say that he had formed an opinion of the man he spent most of the day observing and photographing. An interesting counterpoint in the video is that whilst Bowie’s physical body has disappeared into the white background, it is predominately shot in close-up. Such a technique is usually used to gain a sense of closeness, familiarity and personal interaction with the subject, however Rock has purposely removed the subject from our view. It is like he is making the point that he is trying to get close to something that is not there. Towards the end of the video Rock has inserted some still frames, close-ups of Bowie’s eye and lip make-up. This is significant in a video where the camera is otherwise constantly moving. Perhaps he has thought of these stills as part of a conclusion; that after spending the length of the video searching for the ‘true’ David Bowie, these artefacts are his only findings, the only real and tangible items. The ‘true‘ Bowie cannot be found – perhaps because he does not exist.


David Bowie and Notions of Gender, Truth and Artifice in Dress
by Trond Klevgaard

[i] Chambers, Iain (1996) Among the fragments The Bowie Companion eds. Elizabeth Thomson & David Gutman, Da Capo Press, p67


[ii] Hebdige, Dick (2005) Subculture – The Meaning of Style, pp.88–89


[iii] Gunji, Masakatsu (1980) Kabuki Tokyo: Kodansha International Ltd, p32


[iv] Senelick, Laurence (2000) The Changing Room – Sex, Drag and Theatre London: Routledge, p89

[v] Senelick The Changing Room, p89

[vi] Senelick The Changing Room, p81

[vii] Senelick The Changing Room, pp89–89


[viii] Bowie speaking in interview, author’s transcription: Cracked Actor (BBC2, 26 January 1975)


[ix] Suthrell, Charlotte (2004) Unzipping Gender – Sex, Cross-dressing and Culture Oxford: Berg, p17


[x] Suthrell Unzipping Gender, p17


[xi] Entwistle, Joanne (2005) The Fashioned Body – Fashion, Dress and Modern Social Theory Cambridge: Polity Press, p72

[xii] Entwistle The Fashioned Body, p133


[xiii] Mercer, Wendy (2002) German Romanticism and French Aesthetic Theory A Companion to Art Theory eds. Paul Smith & Carolyn Wilde, Blackwell Publishers, p151


[xiv] “The music is the mask the message wears – music is the Pierrot and I, the performer, am the message” – from an article was originally printed in Rolling Stone, 1 April 1971: Mendelsohn, John (1996) David Bowie? Pantomime Rock? The Bowie Companion eds. Elizabeth Thomson & David Gutman, Da Capo Press, p46.


[xv] Moers, Ellen (1978) The Dandy – Brummell to Beerbohm University of Nebraska Press, p298


[xvi] Waldrep, Shelton (2004) The Aesthetics of Self-Invention – Oscar Wilde to David Bowie Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, p105


[xvii] Buckley, David (2005) Strange Fascination David Bowie - The Definitive Story London: Virgin Books Ltd, p153: citing Mick Rock