A few weeks ago, I finally made it to David Bowie Is, at the Brooklyn Museum (the first time I tried to go, the Saturday after it opened, there was a five! hour! wait! (not ideal when you’re carting around a baby)). The exhibit is a full-stop audio-visual spectacle, part documentary, part concert, part bohemian rock funhouse, but for me, the best part, apart from rediscovering how ridiculously hooky “Life on Mars” is, was the costumes. Bowie literally contained multitudes, and he inhabited each fully, in layers of sound, style, and backstory.
A few of his multitudes had clear inspirations — the Thin White Duke, in his tuxedo shirtsleeves and two thirds of a three piece suit, was an evolution (or devolution) of the alien Thomas Jerome Newton, whom Bowie played to cold, disaffected perfection in The Man Who Fell to Earth — but many of them blurred cultures and histories and genders with such verve and panache as to seem sprung from thin air (their own sort of Big Bang, in fact). Ziggy Stardust, with his third eye and shock of vermillion hair, his Kabuki jumpsuit and his Clockwork Orange facepaint and stompy boots, his galactic heights and subsequent junkie lows, is perhaps the most famous of these, but at the exhibit, I lingered longest over The Man Who Sold the World, and specifically, the armless, monolegged tuxedo-cum-straightjacket Bowie wore when he performed the song, on SNL, in 1979.
The costume was designed by Mark Ravitz and Bowie himself, and drew from those used in the 1923 Dada play The Gas Heart (sample quote: “Everyone does not know me. I am alone here in my wardrobe and the mirror is blank when I look at myself.”) Made of cardboard covered in PVC, the tux was so stiff and heavy that Bowie’s two backup singers had to carry him to the mic, where he more intoned than sang, dirgeically, like a doomsday prophet.
I realized why that costume stuck so in my head when, a few days ago, I read Rosemary Hill’s essay on “frock consciousness” in the London Review of Books. The term — and what a term! — was coined by Virginia Woolf, in a 1925 diary entry: “‘My present reflection is that people have any number of states of consciousness: & I should like to investigate the party consciousness, the frock consciousness etc. These states are very difficult … I’m always coming back to it … Still I cannot get at what I mean.”
Hill, in her essay, treats clothes as one part of the equation and the wearer as the other, and looks at a few particularly seminal combinations, throughout the nineteenth century. It’s very pleasurable, thought-provoking reading, written in a discursive, Woolfian style (btw, Jen, it made me think of you!), and one passage in particular jumped out at me:
Another product of 1925 was the woman’s ‘pullover’. Not today the most exciting item in anyone’s wardrobe, it was in its way revolutionary. A pullover is pulled over the head both on and off and the person who does the pulling is the wearer. Yes, I know, but until then it had been, for more than a century, virtually impossible for a woman to get dressed – or undressed – by herself. The rich had ladies’ maids, the poor had one another, but the laces and hooks and eyes, the fastening behind, required assistance. This was not true for men.
Perhaps because I have been, these past few months, a hasty, thoughtless dresser, the notion of having to wait around for someone else to dress me seemed particularly galling (I mean, really — how did nursing women manage it?). And it’s not just the time; it’s the utter dependency, and lack of privacy. Here I was, thinking happily that the advent of pockets allowed women to venture forth without their menfolk, but it’s not much of an adventure if doing so still requires someone else (or, if you were able to afford them, several someones).
Hill says that, when the marvelous pullover came along, Western women had been dependent dressers for a century, but really, they had been so for at least three centuries, barring the brief Regency period, when Grecian-style gowns with empire waists were all the rage. Gowns typically fastened up the back and the view on fastenings was: the more the merrier, especially where buttons were concerned. Even when the gowns did up the front, with the fastenings covered by stomachers, the corsets laced up the back. The tight lacing was a Victorian thing (Elizabethans favored a more conical style), but even the loosest corset would require someone else to bring it all together. (And if there wasn’t anyone else? Well, then you’d be a loose woman, you slattern, you!)
Typically, fashion changes quite gradually (I’m talking major changes, not, like, normcore versus menocore), but in 1910, women wore s-curve corsets and skirts that tightened at the ankle — basically, the height of restrictive clothing — and by 1920, all corsets were gone and Madeleine Vionnet had introduced frocks that, Vogue noted, “not only have no lining, but are closed and that you pull at will over your head.” Five years later, you have the pullover Hill mentions, this by Schiaparelli, where “the fiddly bits, the bow and ribbons, are knitted into the one piece.”
The primary catalysts for this complete sea change were, first, the increasing popularity of sport, itself occasioned by (wealthier) people having, thanks to machines, more free time, and second, the war, which created a dearth of men in the workforce that women stepped in to fill. You could not, on a factory floor, wear restrictive clothing–best case, you’d be inefficient, worse case, imperilled. So corsets vanished, and fabrics got softer; Chanel introduced jersey, to great success, and the ideal feminine shape went from S to I. And suddenly, women could move much as men had been moving for millennia, and more so when the second World War and Katharine Hepburn made pants acceptable.
And this is why Bowie’s tuxedo so stuck out to me: because, on the surface, it resembled menswear, but in its bones, it was womenswear pushed past even its Victorian extreme. Freedom, once acquired, is not often willingly relinquished — but of course Bowie only wore the costume for the duration of the song, before changing into a skirt and heels to sing “TVC15.”