For David Bowie, Japanese style was more than just fashion

by Helene M. Thian

Special To The Japan Times

The Victoria and Albert Museum in London has scored a victory with its exhibition “David Bowie is…” for elucidating what many have probably always suspected: David Bowie is a bit of a Japanophile.

From the kabuki-inspired costumes for Bowie’s early 1970s alien stage character, the famed Ziggy Stardust, to a page of notes mentioning a Japanese restaurant and hotel as sets for Nicolas Roeg’s 1976 film “The Man Who Fell to Earth,” in which Bowie played the role of yet another alien named Jerome Newton, there is no shortage of evidence of Japanese associations in Bowie’s artistry.

Having shared with the museum aspects of my research on the influence of Japonism on Bowie’s stage costuming, and participated in the museum’s Bowie Weekender of events in April as well as lecturing at the first Bowie Symposium last October at the University of Limerick in Ireland, I entered the V&A’s exhibition space two months ago and came face to face with “Tokyo Pop Jumpsuit” designed by Kansai Yamamoto. The zig-zag-stitched Ziggy Stardust jumpsuit is a “tear-away” costume as is much kabuki theater wear. And this story of Bowie’s “turning Japanese” continues throughout the exhibition.

Bowie’s private self-exile of sorts, shying away from the public eye for the past 10 years after a heart attack in 2003, ended this year on Jan. 8, his birthday, with the release of a new album “The Next Day.” It was then followed by the V&A’s blockbuster exhibition, which, though running until Aug. 11, has long sold out of tickets online, with only a limited number available at the door each morning.

A Japanese proverb says, “Speech is silver but silence is golden.” Bowie may have adopted the pose of the silent type for the past decade, but the V&A, in tandem with the Bowie Archive, has put the spotlight on his many golden years of creativity and given quite a voice to the gestalt of his artistic accomplishments. Geoff Marsh, V&A theater and performance department director and Bowie exhibition curator, has stated that the Bowie Archive stewards some 75,000 objects. Providing “unprecedented access” to the V&A, the archive made available items including Bowie’s costuming, handwritten lyrics and even a lipstick-stained tissue from a makeup session.

Bowie’s initial foray into the world of Japan began in the mid-1960s, when he encountered the flamboyant, openly homosexual performance artist Lindsay Kemp, who was teaching dance and mime with a Japanese twist to students at the London Dance Center. In a documentary aired last year on BBC 4, Kemp discussed how Japan influenced his art and Bowie’s performances. And in a recent interview, Kemp told me that the music of Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu featured in his classes at the time Bowie was a student of his, and that he educated Bowie about Japanese theater conventions using books on noh and kabuki — all of which intrigued the budding rocker.

Bowie was, in 1967, devoted to Tibetan Buddhism and seriously considering becoming a monk due to time spent at Samye Ling monastery in Dumfriesshire, Scotland. The androgynous rocker himself has acknowledged that encountering Lindsay Kemp was a turning point in the life of David Jones who had changed his name to David Bowie in 1965. Kemp’s outre style rife with androgynous characterizations was the catalyst for the singer, who caught a glimpse of his life as a performance artist as opposed to a monk living in quiet contemplation.

Bowie’s association with Kemp, who himself enthusiastically acknowledges the influence of Teinosuke Kinugasa’s silent film “A Page of Madness” (1926) on his own work, preceded the rocker’s collaboration in the early 1970s with Tokyo fashion designer Kansai Yamamoto. Yamamoto was the first Japanese designer to present a fashion show overseas — complete with models doing kabuki-inspired moves — in May of 1971 at the Great Gear Trading Company on the King’s Road in London. Impressed by the show, Bowie reached out to the designer through stylist Yasuko Takahashi, requesting that Yamamoto design his 1973 U.K. tour costuming, and subsequently the U.S. tour costuming for the Aladdin Sane shows.

Working as a fashion journalist for some time and married to an executive with Kansai’s company, I became well acquainted with Kansai and assisted him on site at his 1990 Paris Collection. The V&A exhibition has further energized the designer’s career as he approaches the age of 70. Fashion magazine Arena Homme’s fall/winter 2012 issue, for example, was devoted entirely to the theme of David Bowie and featured a two-page spread of male models wearing Kansai Yamamoto vests printed with kanji harkening back to his ’70s designs for Bowie.

Costuming by Kansai in the V&A retrospective of Bowie’s career reflects the postwar period of rapprochement between Japan and the West. “Space Samurai” is a satin-and-sequin jumpsuit complete with hakama, the split-skirt associated more with martial arts practitioners than rock stars. The wearing of exotic, spacey, Japan-inspired outfits by Bowie-as-alien Ziggy Stardust put Japonism center stage in the fashion scene of the West, placing a seal of approval on inspirations from Japan, which in the early ’70s was still considered an indecipherable, alien nation.

The kanji on the white cape used by Bowie for kabuki -style quick on-stage changes of costume actually spell out “David Bowie” phonetically and loosely translates as, “Fiery vomiting and venting in a menacing manner.” T-shirts printed with Japanese characters are commonplace now, but in 1973 kanji on such a garment symbolized that the Japanese aesthetic had officially debuted in the West by way of Bowie. Wearing such costuming, Bowie unwittingly became a symbolic representative of popular culture’s new world order in a postmodern world, which had oriented toward a bricolage-based dress aesthetic.

A knitted, one-armed and one-legged bodysuit oddly resembles the patterning of a yakuza tattoo, and interestingly Kansai appeared in a 1971 issue of U.K. Vogue, just prior to the time he created this outfit for Bowie, wearing a fundoshi (loincloth) with his body painted in jacket-tattoo style. In actuality, however, it was kimono textile patterns that provided the inspiration for the ensemble. The addition by Bowie of a feather boa, as inspired by Kemp’s costuming, creates the androgynous look with which he was then synonymous. Patterns for this knitted jumpsuit were widely published in magazines such as Elle France.

Bowie’s androgynous look paid homage to onnagata, the male actors who specialize in playing women’s roles in kabuki. It was in fact Tamasaburo Bando V, the famed onnagata, who taught Bowie how to apply kabuki makeup. Bowie wore a “shortie kimono” with matching silky boots, his makeup was onnagata-inspired, and his celebrated hairstyle, as created by Yamamoto, was electric red in color, imitating the look of a flaming red-lion dance wig of kabuki theater. As Bowie’s lyrics to the song “Ziggy Stardust” describe it, the alien rocker was “like some cat from Japan.”

“David Bowie is…” is a show for his fans but it’s also one for Japanophiles, including Bowie himself.

“David Bowie is…” at the Victoria and Albert Museum runs till Aug. 11, and is in partnership with Gucci, sound experience by Sennheiser. For more information, visit www.vam.ac.uk/davidbowieis.

Helene M. Thian, J.D., M.A., is a fashion historian/curator, Japan specialist and a Pasold Research Fund grant recipient for Tokyo-based work on Bowie and Japonism. For more information, visit www.cargocollective.com/japonicastrasse.

  • tanja stark

    Brilliantly written and researched article. Love it!

  • http://renascible.tumblr.com/ JM

    Can’t wait to go to this in August :)

  • Donal o keeffe

    Been to this exhibition…. its awesome, makes you want to listen to bowie for months ….