David Bowie was a master of every kind of drag. Unafraid to play fast and loose with gender, he reinvented himself endlessly, with each new incarnation inspiring boys and girls to copy his fashion as well as his sound. In 1970, on the cover of The Man Who Fell to Earth, he was an effete street urchin in a vintage frock; a year later, he had his Greta Garbo moment on the cover of Hunky Dory. Then there were the legendary mutations into Aladdin Sane, with the jagged red hair and lightning bolt, the radical alien called Ziggy Stardust, and the strange austerity of the Thin White Duke. In later decades, Bowie settled gradually into his role as the grand patriarch of gentle gender ambiguity. His changes never stopped, and he showed more than one generation how a man could be powerfully feminine.
“He was the embodiment of glamor, talent, and a new kind of personal expression,” singer-songwriter Justin Vivian Bond shared in a poignant tribute. “Bowie inspired countless people to take personal risks which led them to their own forms of self-actualization.”
This permission to take pride in personal expression inspired a diverse assortment of individuals through the decades. Joey Arias, the cabaret and drag artist who appeared with Bowie and German artist Klaus Nomi during a pivotal 1979 Saturday Night Live performance, says he was forever changed after Bowie gave Arias and Nomi $1,000 to buy costumes for the night. They bought red and black dresses, while Bowie wore a stewardess blazer and skirt. Years later, Arias and designer Thierry Mugler were dining together in Paris when they were joined by Bowie and his wife Iman. “I was in full drag, and Bowie kept saying ‘God, I wish you’d dressed like this when I first met you!'” Arias recalls. “He was always so curious, and his mind was so open.”
Fashion designer Jean Paul Gaultier has found inspiration in a variety of Bowie looks, most recently in his 2013 “Rock Stars” collection that included a star-spangled net catsuit. As Gaultier explained to Out magazine in a 2013 interview, he first saw Bowie in Paris for 1978’s Low / “Heroes” tour, where he was astounded by how the set was entirely composed of white neon. “It was unique; no one did things like that then. At the beginning of the show, he appeared as a kind of Marlene Dietrich, but with a white captain’s jacket and a cap — it was obvious that it was not Bowie playing a captain, but Bowie playing Marlene Dietrich playing a man.”
Constantly discovering creative people to collaborate with, Bowie was among the first people to discover designer Kansai Yamamoto, who made the clothes for his Ziggy Stardust era. “In that way he was always a pioneer,” Gaultier explained. “He had a Dadaist approach to his work; he would cut everything up and put things together in new ways that made them fresh and radical.”
Although Bowie often described himself as a being from another planet, the thing that endeared him to so many was that he never seemed to judge anything as alien. He just wanted to reinvent himself on his own terms – and, most importantly, he never wanted to be bored.