Encountering the first piece in a museum
exhibit should be a visceral experience, one that transports you to another place and time. At David Bowie Is
, that place is a stage, and that time is 1973.
Just beyond a tangerine wall bearing the exhibit’s name stands a lone costume: Tokyo Pop
, the bodysuit Kansai Yamamoto designed for Bowie’s Aladdin Sane
tour. Mesmerizing lines descend from the standup collar, drawing the eye down the slick black suit and around curved, oversized pant legs that together resemble a warped record or a cross section of some mutant tree.
It is unmistakably Bowie, a costume that embodies what might be his most iconic era, by a designer who proved to be one of his most fitting collaborators. Bowie once described Yamamoto’s designs as “everything I wanted … outrageous, provocative, and unbelievably hot to wear under the lights.”
Tokyo Pop is just one of roughly 60 garments on display in David Bowie Is
, a collection of art, photographs, lyric sheets, and other memorabilia that spans the icon’s nearly 50-year career. The exhibit is currently stationed at its only US stop—the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago
—and after attending a preview last week, we compiled a list of our five favorite outfits. Look for them beginning at the exhibit’s opening on September 23, which Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has officially declared David Bowie Day.
Striped asymmetrical catsuit for the Aladdin Sane tour (1973)
Though it’s another Yamamoto creation, this colorful bodysuit couldn’t be further from Tokyo Pop’s voluminous, monochromatic design. It became so popular that a sewing pattern went into distribution for fans who wanted to imitate Bowie’s style.
As evidenced by the above photo, all the exhibit’s mannequins were custom-made—and not just for recreating Bowie’s signature poses. “David had a 26-inch waist,” said Geoffrey Marsh, who co-curated David Bowie Is
for London’s Victoria and Albert Museum
, where the exhibit debuted. “And you can’t find mannequins that size, so we had to get a sculptor to carve [them].” According to Marsh, Bowie was so slender that when Kate Moss wore his “Life on Mars?” costume for a Vogue shoot
, it had to be let out.
Cobweb costume with fake hands (1973)
One of Bowie’s other go-to designers was Natasha Korniloff, who made such memorable pieces as the blue clown costume in the “Ashes to Ashes” video
(also featured in the exhibit). This cobweb costume, made for a TV appearance, originally had a third hand covering the crotch. When producers deemed the hand too risqué, its removal made the outfit even more revealing, so leggings were added at the last minute.
Costume for John Merrick from The Elephant Man (1980)
Bowie once said, “I could never consider putting something on stage that doesn’t owe something to theater.” And indeed, acting was a huge component of his career. On a seven-month tour from 1980 to 1981, he played the title role in the Tony-winning play The Elephant Man
, which had a run at Chicago’s Blackstone Theatre (now the Merle Reskin Theatre
This austere costume, designed by Julie Weiss, stuck out from the exhibit’s otherwise theatrical garments and is reminiscent of the sumo loincloths Bowie sometimes wore in his Ziggy Stardust shows.
Embroidered and distressed coat (1997)
Unfortunately, there are no costumes on display from one of Bowie’s most beloved roles: Jareth the Goblin King in Jim Henson’s Labyrinth
. There are a few props, however, and this coat is said to have been inspired by the film’s aesthetic. Bowie designed it himself to wear at his multiple 50th-birthday celebrations.
Shop ideel for outerwear for women and men.
Union Jack coat for the Earthling tour (1997)
“This is a party test if you ever want to challenge your friends,” Marsh said. “Give them a Union Jack, and tell them to cut it up and turn it into something. It’s incredibly difficult.” When Bowie wanted a flag coat for his 1997 tour, he commissioned Alexander McQueen, then a recent design-school grad. McQueen passed Marsh’s test. “There is something so beautiful [about this coat], almost like sculpture. And yet it … flows in performance,” Marsh said.
David Bowie Is runs through January 4, 2015.
Photos: Andrew Nawrocki, Groupon
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