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Bowie's best: Digging into the costumes behind AGO's new David Bowie exhibit

David Bowie’s best-known costumes are like flash cards for the glam-tastic, eclectic 1970s. The shape-shifting star has made a career-long study of how to appear on the edge of things – of human existence, even – while remaining at the centre of attention. But the look of Bowie’s stage personae, explored in a Victoria & Albert Museum exhibition that opens Sept. 25 at Toronto’s Art Gallery of Ontario, often has antecedents in visual art, stage costumery and cultural history. Robert Everett-Green deconstructs four of his costumes, coupled with images that inspired or prefigured them.

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BLUE PIERROT: In 1970, Bowie appeared as a singing cloud in a short film called Pierrot in Turquoise, starring the English mime and actor-director Lindsay Kemp, Bowie’s mentor and sometime lover. A decade later, Bowie got designer Natasha Korniloff to make him a more splendid version of Kemp’s elaborate Pierrot costume, which itself was related to classic clown blanc costumery, and more distantly to designs from 17th-century theatre. The blue Pierrot outfit appears in Bowie’s 1980 video for Ashes to Ashes, which he described as his way of “wrapping up the seventies” – and perhaps also of working out some lingering Oedipal issues.

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KNIT BODYSUIT WITH LEG- AND ARM-WARMERS: This outfit was designed by Kansai Yamamoto, who did Bowie’s costumes for the Ziggy Stardust Tour in 1972. The fine geometry of the horizontal patterning recalls the knitted Fair Isle vests popularized in the 1920s by the Duke of Windsor, whom Bowie has latterly come to resemble. Fashion historian Helene Thian has traced a more distant link to the striped swimwear worn by geishas in Japan in the late 19th century. No doubt that appealed to the gender-surfing Bowie, for whom Yamamoto also made a tent-like white kimono.

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SPHINX COSTUME: Many rock and pop musicians who came of age in the sixties were keen on Aleister Crowley, the Edwardian libertine whose fascination with sex, drugs and spiritual arcana seemed to foreshadow their own. (Crowley’s face appears on the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, right next to Mae West’s). Bowie went further than most, lacing his songs with reference to Crowley and mystical symbolism. Bowie dressed as an initiate into one of Crowley’s quasi-Masonic cults for a photo shoot with Brian Ward in 1969, images from which later adorned albums legitimate and not.

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“SPACE TUX”: Bowie wore this outsized plastic suit for a performance of The Man Who Sold the World on Saturday Night Live in 1979. Visual artists began resolving and neutralizing the body into basic geometric forms a century ago, but the lineage of Bowie’s tux runs more directly to Bauhaus designer Oskar Schlemmer, whose costumes for The Triadic Ballet of 1922 included a couple of outfits that belong in the same wardrobe as Bowie’s streamlined suit. The movement style of The Triadic Ballet was jerky and mechanistic, just like that of Bowie’s backup singers on SNL.

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