Fashion, Fringe, and David Bowie

By Alllie

It is hard to overestimate the influence of the WWII and Korean War generations on America. About 16 million people were in the US military during WWII. That was 12% of the US population and 56% of men eligible for military service. During that time period the majority of healthy young men spent at least a couple of years in the service. During the Korean War, the military only made up made up about 4% of the population since draftees were pulled from the much smaller depression generation. The military was a formative experience for the men of those generations. It formed them. When they came out of the service their preferences shaped the nation. They had gotten used to having short hair in the military so most wore their hair short the rest of their lives and insisted that their kids and the people who worked for them did as well.
uniforms 50s civies
Uniforms Worn Uniformly 50s Civies

For at least twenty years after the end of these wars the pants and shirts these men preferred were similar to the khaki uniforms they wore in the military though, usually, made with better fabrics and brighter colors. Sometimes even their civilian clothes were khaki colored. These vets and their cohort choose suits that were often just military dress uniforms but without the epaulets, ribbons, shiny buttons and pocket flaps. The sport coat worn with a different color pants, a favorite in 50s male casual wear, is similar to the army’s semidress uniform, nicknamed “pinks and greens”, with its olive drab coat and khaki pants. One thing they didn’t keep in civilian life was the belt often worn over a uniform jacket but otherwise most of what they wore was just a version of their military gear. Conformity was the message.

army twill pink and greens
Civilian wear but khaki colored
and even the cloth was called “army twill"
Generals wearing “pinks and greens”

Then there was Elvis. He wasn’t like them. He scared them. So they put him through the conformity machine of the US Army and when he came out he was no longer the trashy, sexy, dirty-looking rock and roll god but “one of them”, the neat, trim, polite good boy who made musical comedies and called everyone sir and ‘mam. Conformity 1, rock and roll 0.

Wild Boy Elvis in Uniform
Elvis: Untamed Elvis: No longer the wild boy

Time went on and the Beatles arrived. Their slightly long hair was controversial among the WWII and Korean generations but mostly they were sweet, clean, funny and adored from the first. Only their fans noticed the sarcasm and underlying rebellion but the Beatles could pass as “one of them” until the late 60s when they started looking like the hippies that had coalesced out of the mists of the San Francisco.

As Cynthia Rose wrote of the hippies in her chapter “Girlstyle” in Cool Cats:

Their striking and singular clothing (much of it fished out of secondhand stores by impoverished but imaginative hippies) seemed in its juxtaposition to explore the mythic possibilities of many points in time, from the Old West to the Victorian era. Fantasy and role-playing flourished: ethnic, craftsy, and thrift-shop costumes all joined forces. Exhibitionistic and evocative, the clothes paraded themselves in the new ballroom dance halls – at live concerts which served as a stage for rogue-dandy fashions and for the assimilation of radical politics into rock. And like the poster art which emerged to advertise these events, the ensembles showcased the flowing lines and rainbow colors which codified the psychedelic experience.

It was playing dress-up and was fun from the start. By the summer of 1968 a few kids where I lived started to dress like hippies, which meant, not like corporate clones, but with a casual unconventional beauty. My generation had grown up with men dressing uniformly, almost like they were still in the military. You can’t imagine the joy of seeing a hippie in those days. It was like growing up surrounded by black beetles then suddenly seeing a butterfly.

Every day as my bus went down Canal Street, around 33rd or 34th Street I would see this guy standing on the corner, looking, I always said in my mind, like “Jesus Christ Our Lord,” like the most romanticized versions of Jesus. A beautiful serene face, long blondish brown hair, a short beard. Sometimes he’d be wearing a loose velvet shirt. Looking back through the years I’m a more suspicious person and I have questions instead of just lustful admiration. Why was he so often on that corner? Was he a drug dealer, selling? Seemed too busy a corner for that, too many cops passing by or sometimes directing traffic. Was he selling himself? The idea of a hooker, especially a male hooker, was beyond my comprehension. I guess I’ll never know. Maybe he was just waiting for a bus. George Washington University wasn’t far away so maybe he was just a student at the end of the day. But I’d always watch for him, to catch a glimpse of his sensual perfection.

Dressing like a hippie meant something in those days. It meant being a part of the counter-culture, being anti-war, leftist, loving rock and roll. For a couple of years you could tell someone’s politics by how they dressed. I don’t remember the first hippie I saw but I clearly remember the first guy I saw who was dressed like a hippie, longish black curly hair, a loose white peasant shirt, jeans, a leather cowboy hat, but who turned out to be a conservative, an arch conservative. I always felt it was false advertising, that he should have worn dark tailored pants with a white shirt tucked into them and with a dark tie. For him hippie was fashion. He couldn’t be cool unless he wore hippie clothes, no matter what his politics. Maybe it was to get girls. I never asked him. I just avoid him once I knew.

In the summer of 1968 I saw a Country Joe and the Fish/Iron Butterfly concert. I wasn’t familiar with Country Joe and the Fish but I wanted to see Iron Butterfly since I had their hit album, In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida. I rode my motorcycle out to the Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, Maryland. I don’t remember much about Country Joe but for their last number Iron Butterfly had flat pots on stage and lit them and played among them with the flames giving an eerie flickering light.

It wasn’t my first concert in Columbia or my last but it was the one where the audience was more interesting than the bands. I got there early and watched the crowd parade in. At one point a boy led a cheer, “Give me and F!”, “Give me an I!” and so on. I thought it was spontaneous but it was from Country Joe’s Feel Like I'm Fixing To Die Rag. At least half of the audience seemed to be dressed in full out hippie attire, boys with long hair and girls with flowers tucked behind their ears or in crowns around their heads. Many of them were barefoot and I remember a girl with flowers threaded around her toes and a girl wearing a lace tablecloth like a toga, the sheer fabric revealing her panties and bra, very risqué for the day.

And there was fringe. The 60s generation had grown up watching westerns on TV and in movies. Westerns were what crime drama is today, the most popular genre. In those westerns there were often characters in fringed buckskins, Indians, Davy Crocket, Daniel Boone, mountain men, frontier scouts. The rule seemed to be the more fringe, the freer the character, the less subject he was to social constraints.

The Big Sky

Here’s an example, a still from the 1952 movie, The Big Sky, based on a popular novel by A.B. Guthrie. On the far left is the character Zeb Calloway (played by Arthur Hunnicutt and which got him an Oscar nomination), all in buckskins and fringe. He’s a mountain man, scout, hunter/trapper, the white character the least dependent on white civilization. Next you have his nephew, Boone Caudill (Dewey Martin). He’s run away from civilization to join his uncle. He’s not as free as his uncle, having grown up in white civilization, and not, in the end, as free and unencumbered as his uncle remains so wears less fringe. Next we have Kirk Douglas playing Jim Deakins, friend and traveling companion of Boone. No fringe. Jim doesn’t stay in the wilderness but returns to civilization. The Indians, being independent of white civilization are always in fringe.

The hippies adopted this view and the fringe that proclaimed their freedom. When Neil Young appeared in his fringe with Buffalo Springfield, he was able to pull focus from Steven Stills despite Stills’ great voice and (at that time), pretty face and figure.

Neil Young in fringe
Neil Young proclaiming his freedom with fringe

Hendrix wore his fringe at Woodstock and The Who’s Roger Daltry shook his, showing how effective it could be on stage.

Hendrix in fringe Daltry in fringe
Hendrix, the free bird at Woodstock Daltry shakes his fringe

It seemed that rock had taken flash as far as it could be taken.

When rock started, it didn’t seem part of “show business”. Except for Elvis, rock musicians stood on the stage and played. That’s all even the Beatles did. Then a few rockers, mostly singers, began to dance a little, like Mick Jagger, like Roger Daltry, and a few guitarists added some moves for the audience, like Hendrix or Pete Townsend. But mostly the musicians stood and played and the singers sang. The magic they made was with their instruments, their voices. Maybe there were also some nice lighting effects. Maybe you got a contact high from some guys behind you passing a joint around. But it was still a concert, not a show.

Then came glam and then came Bowie.

I first became aware of David Bowie in the early 70s. He was very popular in Memphis, which might seem strange. He was a performer who, off and on, claimed to be gay, and Memphis was a very conservative southern town. Despite that, the first places he became popular in the US were Memphis and Cleveland, Ohio, hardly bastions of tolerance or sophistication. His music and interviews were prominent on local radio and he appeared in multiple sold out concerts. He became so popular that, for a year or two, it looked like he was gonna be the “next big thing”, like Elvis or the Beatles “next big thing”.

When I became a fan of Bowie’s he had one name and no eyebrows. His manager at the time, Tony Defries, had decided that his client should go by the single name, “Bowie”, like Cher or Liberace in those days or Madonna, Prince, or Eminem these days. After a few years he went back to “David Bowie” but his fans from that time still tend to refer to him as “Bowie”, not “David”. His name is pronounced with a long “o”, like the “o” in “show” or “no”, NOT like the “oo” in “booze” or “boo-hoo”. In a Memphis radio interview he corrected the DJ’s pronunciation of his name, thus cementing the tendency of his early Memphis fans to correct those who mispronounce it.

As for his eyebrows, Bowie has very low eyebrows. When he shaved them and wore his hair back it opened up his face, made it more beautiful and expressive. But the no eyebrows look didn’t last long either. Though I still miss it.

Bowie No Eyebrows

Bowie was an artist, not just a musical artist but a visual artist. And a magpie. He’d steal from anyone, use anyone as inspiration, as he admitted later:

“The flash on the original Ziggy set was taken from the ‘high voltage’ sign that was stuck on any box containing dangerous amounts of electricity,” Bowie explained many years later. “I was not a little peeved when Kiss purloined it. Purloining, after all, was my job.” The Complete David Bowie by Nicholas Pegg

His music is still readily available but unless you have a time machine you can’t experience his early concerts and the videos of them are either unavailable or not very good. So let me tell you a little about them.

The Ziggy Stardust tours were the most visually arresting. Bowie was an extraordinary performer at that time and wore some extraordinary stage costumes on those tours. Looking back, the Ziggy Stardust garments were couture, women’s couture mostly created by advant guarde Japanese fashion designer Kansai Yamamoto. They had been made, or remade, for a man’s figure, for Bowie’s figure. The shock of seeing these costumes, on stage, worn by a man, cannot be overestimated. Not only were they beautiful and completely out of the norm, they were works of art and made Bowie, with his striking features, makeup, hair and hair coloring, part of that art. Bowie’s songs were wonderful. But the visual elements in the tour and in some of his television performances (the 1980 Floor Show), things never seen before or since, took it to a whole other level. We, the audience, would sit there with our mouths hanging open in awe and amazement. The beauty of Bowie and his costumes made him, not a gay icon, but very appealing to young women, like an alien sex object, like a peacock strutting in front of an audience of peahens. We were not turned off by his androgynous beauty.

Another thing I remember about the Ziggy show is the roadies. The audience usually sees roadies setting up the stage, running the spotlights and sound board, going “test test test” into the microphones. In Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust tour the roadies were not in their general jeans and T-shirts but dressed all in black down to their shoes. When a microphone fell over it was one of these black-clad ghosts that stood it back up and faded away. They also had another function. Bowie had a couple of rip-away costume, Kansai’s samurai-spaceman piece and the Kabuki inspired costume called “Spring Rain” .

Spring Rain
Designer Kansai Yamamoto fitting his Samurai-Spaceman costume on Bowie Rite of Spring or Spring Rain Costume

Bowie would take a stiff, arms-out stance, and two of these all-in-black roadies would stand to his sides, seize the costume, rip it away, then disappear with it, leaving Bowie in the brief costume he wore under it, usually, but not always, the Woodland creatures onesie or the crotch length white kimono with the full sleeves. You can see it in the beginning of this video though I remember the roadie’s T-shirts as being long sleeved and the roadies standing more to the side and back than these roadies do, not blocking the audience’s view of Bowie.

This is very much like Kansai Yamamoto’s 1971 London fashion show when a black-clad figure ripped away a model’s outer apparel to reveal a garment underneath. This was inspired by the traditional black clad stage attendants in Japanese Noh dramas.

Here are some of Kansai’s costumes.

Asymmetrical catsuit with wrist and ankle bangles
woodland starman
Woodland Creatures onesie Starman outfit with platform boots
Kansai’s Aztec catsuit
keyhole sumo
The keyhole outfit Sumo Briefs
tasseled inaction
Kansai’s tasseled silver costume In action
seethrough leaf
Kansai seethrough top... ...with leaf butt
kimono cape
Kansai’s crotch length kimono

The red lined cap was often worn over the kimono
then thrown off onstage

Then something new happened. Bowie became, not the inspired, but the inspiration. Ziggy Stardust, Bowie’s bisexual transvestite from another planet persona predated Richard O’Brien’s Rocky Horror Show by more than a year. A month after The Rocky Horror Show opened Bowie folded up the Spiders and killed Ziggy, maybe not totally a coincidence since O’Brien had appropriated so much of Ziggy’s iconic imagery. When Frankenfurter throws off his black cape revealing the “Sweet Transvestite” underneath, he is but imitating Ziggy throwing off his white Kansai cape to reveal a scantily clad Bowie underneath. While Tim Curry’s Frankenfurter was beautiful and sexy and shocking all at once, he was also clearly a drag queen, a homosexual. His seduction of Janet/ Susan Sarandon and previous relationship with Columbia/Nell Campbell were never quite believable. But when Bowie revealed himself the girls screamed. He was always a heterosexual sex object, abet an unusual one. Bowie has a long history of liaisons and marriages to women but his relationships with men always seem to have been with men who could help his career.

After the Ziggy tours came the Diamond Dogs tour. In that tour it was the stage that was complex. As Bowie said about Diamond Dogs: “I must have the total image of a stage show. It has to be total with me. I’m just not content with writing songs, I want to make it three-dimensional.” Thus Diamond Dogs included a cityscape with Bowie being lowered to the stage on a giant hand, and a chair on a cherry picker that swung out over the audience with Bowie singing “Space Oddity” from this perch.

We had four skyscrapers on stage, with bridges that went backwards and forward and would go up and down. The whole things was built on a city pretext. I had dancers working with me and it was choreographed and was a real fantastic musical event…Bowie

There was a lot of choreography. More art and artifice. Toni Basil, who had the #1 single Mickey in 1982, was the principle choreographer as she was for Bowie’s Glass Spider tour in 1987. For Diamond Dogs Bowie wore the same costume throughout, a white suit with red suspenders and a blue sweater with white dots and had his hair, not red, but red and gold. He was white and blue, red and gold, a shiny bauble in the light.

Diamond Dogs Tour

In addition to the choreography the props he used in Diamond Dogs included an enormous trench coat, a kabuki stick-mask showing the Aladdin Sane trademark lightning bolt, a Shakespearean doublet and a skull, ropes which bound him then changed into a boxing ring with Bowie in red boxing gloves.

It was sad to read in Paul Trynka’s David Bowie: Starman about the misery of David’s life at a time when he was putting on such great shows for his fans. After he found out his manager, Tony Defries, had lied to him, robbed him blind and gotten control of his master recordings, Bowie drowned that betrayal in cocaine. He came out the other side a different artist. On the good side, Defries seems recently to have lost $22 million in an offshore tax evasion scheme. What comes around goes around.

Bowie has said he hated the Diamond Dogs tour and all the setup that went with it. The next tour, which followed close on Diamond Dogs, was the Philly Dogs tour. There wasn’t much theatricality in that tour. Just Bowie in a suit with a lot of black backup singers. This is where his popularity took a dive in Memphis. Apparently we were willing to accept him as gay but not as black, as advant guarde rock god but not R&B singer.

Philly Dogs Tour

I thought Pilly Dogs was a good show but not much compared to Ziggy or Diamond Dogs. We, his fans, were spoiled by that time. And as his songs got less wonderful and his shows less fantastic, some fans drifted away. He had started at such a high level that everything after was like a slide down a mountain. It took a long time for him to fall, but there wasn’t much to stop him. He was also heavily into drugs by that time and they destroyed much of his unique creativity. His later songs might have sold more but they weren’t a spot on his early stuff. Sadly.

I remember enjoying the Thin White Duke/Station to Station tour, Bowie in black and white.


Though I have the ticket stub for the Low/Heroes show I don’t remember it. Bowie had ceased being uniquely memorable or memorable at all. The Low album was Bowie’s Metal Machine Music. No magic in it. And not much Bowie. During Bowie’s later career I’ve wanted to find Brian Eno, Robert Fripp and Tony Defries (the manager who betrayed him) and punch them out. It’s also a cautionary tale of cocaine, which seemed to have damaged that part of Bowie’s brain that produced his early works. Too much of his later albums were the work of mediocrities like Eno, Alomar, Fripp and various session musicians who did most of the composing. These were usually talented people, talented in their limited way though they never had much success in their solo careers, and they were nothing compared to what Bowie was in his most creative periods. They could not do what he did, but he wasn’t able to do it any more either. So he settled for the crap they fed him. His later albums often lack melodies and are just rambling jazz or experimental John Cale type drones.

Recently I went on youtube and listened to his later stuff to see if there was anything I could love. I ordered Hours and Bowie in Bertold Brecht's Baal. Bowie didn't write Baal but it's a straight forward performance that I really like. I've played it again and again. Hours is a little too orchestrated for me but I still like it. It had a lot of sadness in it, but some time we must all be sad.

So I recommend Hours and Baal. But not the enhanced Hours. The 'enhanced' version of Hours that I got was so distorted it was out of tune. I got another copy of Hours with Earthling. Earthling I didn't like. I especially hate the drums. But Hours I do like. There's a restrained emotionalism to it that reminds me of the emotionalism of Bowie's early records. .

Looking back I wish Bowie had never broken his band up, discarded the Spiders and Mick Ronson. He did his best work with them. Sometimes, with a band, the whole is more the sum of its parts. Like the Beatles were something amazing together, something more than they were apart. Thus Keith Richards has always worked to keep the Stones together, no matter how much Mick might have annoyed him and Mick kept the Stones together even through the worst of Keith’s drug days. What they can do together is much better than what they can do apart. Also Steven Tyler, Joe Perry, Tom Hamilton, Joey Kramer and Brad Whitford can make something together as Aerosmith that none of them could make alone or with different musicians.

What I wanted for Bowie was different than what he wanted for himself. I wanted more of the rapture, more of the genius, more of the musical ecstasy his early work gave me. Bowie, for his part, wanted to be fabulously rich for life, to be a star, a star alone in the spotlight, not sharing it with anyone. And he’s been successful at that. He is rich and his early genius should keep him rich for life. He’s famous, still. He’s reached his goals. Certainly he remains one of the most influential of artists. But I can’t help but miss the quality of the music and performances that he once showed us.

There seem to be two David Bowies, the very ordinary guy who shows up for interviews and the extraordinary performer that existed in the 70s and thrilled us to the core. It’s one of my unsupported theories that Bowie died of an overdose back during his drug days and was replaced by a less talented look(somewhat)alike so those around him could keep on raking in the dough.

I believe Bowie is one of the reasons that gay people are more accepted these days, the other being AIDS, which brought so many people out of the closet once they realized they had nothing left to lose. But when Bowie came out there was no other openly gay performer. Not even Liberace. A few people claim that Bowie was straight and proclaimed himself gay only for the publicity, that he gave up Ziggy and went to butch(ish) suits and unambiguous hetero attire because he found he didn’t like being perceived as gay, attracting gay fans, men and boys who wanted to fuck him, and found that a turnoff as most straight men do. After he killed Ziggy, and briefly resurrected him for the 1980 Floor Show, he never again flaunted his body for a live audience, though he did strip for some movies.

During the early 70s Bowie changed his proclaimed sexual orientation more frequently than I paid my rent. In some interviews he would say he was gay and had always been gay. The next interview he would say he was straight, had always been straight, pointing to his wife and son as proof. In between he would say he was bisexual. Gay, straight, then gay again, then bisexual, then straight again, till we, his fans, gave up. While his sexual orientation might remain a matter of interest, it ceased to be a matter of importance. If someone as creatively gifted as Bowie, such a genius, was gay, then we could accept gay. I finally came to believe he was what he most often claimed to be, bisexual. These days bisexuality is said to be just a stop on the way to gaytown, though it is mostly gay men who make that claim. It is only the explicitly gay POV in a few of his early songs like Queen Bitch, Jean Genie and Rebel Rebel that make the bisexuality believable. But again, it doesn’t really matter. Bowie made bisexuality or homosexuality acceptable to those who loved his work. It was his work that mattered and the work he did in the late 60s and early to mid 70s was so wonderful, the songs that still play in my heart, that nothing else about him matters.

Alas, not all results of Bowie’s career were good. Some mediocre performers learned if there was enough show business in the show, then the music didn’t have to be that good, they didn’t have to be that good. While I blame the boy bands of the 90s on the R&B groups of the 50s and early 60s, with their hammy harmonies, matched suits and matching dance moves, I blame mediocre singer/dancers like Britney and Christina Aguleria on Bowie. And Lady Gaga, though there is a lot of talent there, as well as a willingness to use other’s talent. To purloin in the name of art.

But thanks Bowie, it was a trip, and I loved it.


© Alllie, 2012

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