DAVID BOWIE IS – Brooklyn Museum March 2 – July 15, 2018
By Madeline Bocaro
Last stop, Brooklyn! Just got back from the preview. I last saw the exhibit in Toronto just after its debut at the V&A in 2013. There are many additions and updates to the show – including a Blackstar room. But let’s start with my favorite things. Be forewarned that my recap is far more obsessive than the simple texts written on plaques in the museum…
(see more photos below)
Never in my wildest dreams did I think that I would ever see the shroud of Turin with my own eyes! Well, actually it was not really a shroud. It was more like a spider-webbed body suit with one shiny gold sleeve and one shiny gold leg, and two oversized glittery gold mannequin hands wearing black nail polish, clutching the chest area. And it was not actually from Turin, but from London, worn by David Bowie on American TV in 1973, singing ‘The Jean Genie’ on The Midnight Special during his 1980 Floor Show. What ever happened to the censored third hand?! (The finger loop was tucked inside the right sleeve, as the mannequin’s hands were webbed!)
It stood near my other favorite Floor Show Costume, the red vinyl, black/red sequined and feathered jumpsuit, Angel of Death. It was missing one feathered wristband and most disturbingly absent, the lace-up stiletto thigh high boots. But nonetheless, it is breathtaking! I envisioned Bowie smiling as the feathers grazed and tickled his face when he shimmied in this wacky creation on the TV show, singing ‘I Got You Babe’ with Marianne Faithfull. There are over hundreds of artifacts (most of them costumes) media and maelstrom created by Bowie and the countless designers and artists who fueled his career, spread out in endless rooms.
I reveled in the absurdity of it all, recalling memories of family and peers scoffing at Bowie on TV, asking, ‘Who is this freak?’ and having no one to accompany me to Bowie concerts in the 70s. Now his entire career has been elevated to high art – presented behind Plexiglas. And Bowie is now a ‘genius’. In Toronto, young and old strolled through taking notes, shuffling by in varying degrees of human decay – with walkers, in wheelchairs, lots of old folks looking confused, some humoring the trembling hardcore Bowie fans they’d accompanied. Lots of Bowie wannabees in an array of his different guises. I wondered what each person was thinking. All I know is that nobody was laughing. My god – if this is not hilarious, what is?!
Really?! The cover of Iggy’s masterpiece of depressing droning noise, The Idiot hanging in a museum over a plaque! Gotta love it! People gazing at the Velvet Underground acetate, bearing a single label with the name ‘Warhol’ scribbled on it. The late Guy Peellaert’s amazing, censored original Diamond Dogs cover artwork is now revered, whereas people recoiled, disgusted at Bowie as Dog when it came out! Bowie’s gorgeous 1976 mug shot is on display, as is his coke spoon (kept in his pocket during the Diamond Dogs tour) with its own descriptive plaque!!! I burst out laughing! Nobody else cracked a smile!
The preview last night in Brooklyn lacked the excitement of true fans being present. There were no Bowie clones. We saw the old standbys; producer Tony Visconti escorting Kristeen Young, photographers Mick Rock and Bob Gruen, Ziggy’s hairdresser and wardrobe mistress Suzi Ronson (the late Mick Ronson’s wife)… Otherwise it was a typical NYC VIP crowd who seemed more interested in watching the videos on display (which Bowiephiles have seen thousands of times) rather than basking in the glory of the multitude of artifacts surrounding us.
The first object on view is the stunning and iconic Tokyo Pop – a dramatic monochrome sculptural pull-away snap-front one-piece so fantastic that it had its own name! It’s a spectacular design by Kansai Yamamoto in heavy PVC with bright pink lining and snap-off panels. Snaps run from the tops of both sleeves to the cuffs for easy pull-away (hayagawari 早替り in Kabuki theater), which always revealed another amazing Kansai creation worn by Bowie underneath. The extremely wide legs adapted from hakama, loose trousers first worn by samurai warriors. In total darkness, two of Bowie’s black clad wardrobe mistresses doubling as stage assistants (kuroko) would stealthily approach from opposite ends of the stage. They wore head pieces with black flaps, which folded down to veil their faces, rendering them invisible when they pulled off Ziggy’s Tokyo Pop costume. Only Bowie was in the spotlight as the underlying costume was unveiled.
In London and in Toronto, Tokyo Pop was shown with the famous red patent leather boots with black platforms, now scuffed and worn. But now someone has got shiny new boots! This is sacrilege! Like all of the other costumes, it is tiny. Bowie had a 24-inch waist. I had seen the real Tokyo Pop at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Rock Style exhibit in 1999/2000 where I gazed upon its cracked and dulled pleather, quivering for at least 30 minutes. But here, it looked perfect – a reproduction, as were a number of the iconic costumes.
A large room illustrates Bowie’s childhood and career, starting as a mod, through the 1960s. His vintage white Grafton alto sax is the same acrylic model that Charlie Parker played. There is also David’s acoustic guitar and his Little Richard promo photo from the 1950s.
A floor-to-ceiling mirrored Starman room shows the Top of the Pops performance on floor-to-ceiling video, reflecting everywhere, behind Bowie’s quilted rainbow-colored suit with red Droog boots & green laces. The only thing that pried me away from this was anticipating what else was in store.
In Toronto, there was an Andy Warhol room including a double Elvis painting, a video portrait of Edie Sedgwick and a blue and orange Marilyn with silver foil. In Brooklyn, the Warhol items are scattered. The repeating video of Bowie and Warhol’s awkward first meeting shows his odd disembowelment mime.
Otherwise, there was no mention by name of the Warhol gang, who became the Bowie’s MainMan management staff, except for a Pork program with a vague mention of the cast. But I will mention them here; Leee (RIP), Cherry, Jayne and Zee! Love to all of you.
Also ignored is David’s ex-wife Angela Bowie and her immense contributions to the creation of Ziggy Stardust. Mick Ronson appeared in some photos and videos, but there was nothing substantial about the guitarist and master behind the musical arrangements of several classic Bowie albums, who should be revered. I didn’t see any mention of Kabuki actor Tamasaburo, the onnagata who taught Bowie the art of Kabuki makeup. And strangely absent were the dresses by Mr. Fish. Also missing were Vince Taylor and the Legendary Stardust Cowboy, whose personae made up the Ziggy Stardust character. The show is not in chronological order and is quite disjointed.
A Space Oddity room housed moon-landing memorabilia with the original 1960s Bowie video, and also the 1970s Mick Rock produced promo playing the Stylophone. Nice to see the original Varsarely Op Art painting (curated by Calvin Lee) surrounding Bowie’s face on the first edition of the Space Oddity album cover. It was amazing to see George Underwood’s original illustration with Bowie’s reference sketch.
Here are my favorite things…
The London Boys / Liza Jane sheet music / Score for The Laughing Gnome / Oh You Pretty Things / Life On Mars? (completely different lyrics) / Starman / Five Years / Rock N’ Roll Suicide / Rebel Rebel / Fascination / Right (the difficult section) / Heroes … The Blackstar room houses the ‘little black book’ from the video, along with handwritten lyrics for the song. Bowie’s sketch of the ‘somnambulist’ sleepwalking character from the ‘Lazarus’ video is eerie.
It was cool to see Bowie’s (reproductions) Kirlian photography slides again! There were a couple of Richard Hamilton posters representing swinging London, A Clockwork Orange and Chelsea Girls (Warhol) poster and an Erich Heckel woodcut. Also a set of Eno’s Oblique Strategies cards, and Duffy’s Aladdin Sane session prints.
There was a very cool 1966 letter to Ken Pitt from Ralph Horton confirming David’s name change from Jones to Bowie. A double-bill poster: The Hype with Tyrannosaurus Rex was on display.
The short legged, snap-front ‘Woodland Creatures’ one-piece is from Kansai’s’ 1971 collection. It was David’s first Kansai Yamamoto costume, purchased in 1972. Ziggy first wore it at the August 1972 Rainbow concert in London. The material is ultra-soft unlined leather painted red, adorned by a pattern of white rabbits with angel wings. There is a black ink Hokusai styled wave pattern on the sleeve edges and leg bands. Kansai states that it could be worn in a traditional Japanese Noh play by an actor playing a woodland animal (but this likely did not happen!) The costume did not survive the wear and tear that David put it through during each performance. It was usually worn during the song ‘The Width of a Circle’ in which Ziggy performed a stunning mime escape and flying sequence. Suzi Ronson recalls that she and Leee Black Childers had to repair the costume with red and black ink when it became tattered after each show. ‘Woodland Creatures’ was later replicated for Bowie by Natasha Korniloff, as the cracked leather on the original Kansai creation was torn to shreds. This is most likely a reproduction. The leather was cracked on this one when I saw it at the Met years ago.
This was shown next to the white silk embroidered kimono jacket and pants, and red geta shoes modeled upon traditional Japanese okobo, worn in summer by apprentice geisha; black lacquered platform geta with red straps.
The opulent long flowing white satin cape by Kansai with red and black printed kanji was displayed high above. It looks much heavier and more exquisite than in pictures. (Another reproduction). Like many of David’s Ziggy costumes, it has snaps down the front to facilitate hayagawari (quick change).
What do the five kanji on the cape mean? In 1999, Bowie joked, ‘It may well have said, ‘Get your potatoes here’. In the Bowie documentary, Cracked Actor (1974) David interprets the label inside, ‘Dry cleaning only’ when in fact Kansai’s name is printed there. However, each of the kanji actually means (from upper to lower): ‘exit’, ‘fire’, ‘breathe out’, ‘wild’, ‘force’. But as words they are meaningless. The letters should be pronounced; ‘De’ ‘Vi’, ‘To’, ‘Bow’ ‘I’ (which phonetically reads, ‘David Bowie’). The kanji also translate as “One who spits out words in a fiery manner”.
The feather necklace was placed with the Lou Reed style ensemble worn at Ziggy’s farewell gig at Hammersmith Odeon during the final song, ‘Rock N’ Roll Suicide’ – a tight shimmering translucent black mesh long-sleeved shirt with form-fitting trousers. A band of sequins runs down each leg. Bowie wore this for the first time at the Rainbow Theater in London on 19 August 1972, and it is also on the cover of the album cover, The World of David Bowie.
The gorgeous Freddie Burretti (Freddy Burrett) irridescent ice blue synthetic textile ‘Life On Mars?’ suit was complete with black & white striped shirt and silver/turquoise dotted tie with red stripe – and THE SCUFFED SHOES! In Toronto, the mannequin wore the silver Peruvian wedding bands (bangle bracelets) – but on the wrong wrist! In Brooklyn, there were no bracelets. I spent a very long time with this one. The iconic video repeated right beside it! Newly added to the exhibit is the vest made of the same blue material. (The vest is not worn by Bowie in the video, but only offstage with a purple/white patterned shirt and white satin tie). Here, the vest is displayed with a (newly added?) sequined lightning bolt. It was worn by Kate Moss in a 2003 Vogue spread in which she modeled Bowie’s costumes.
This suit was not lit to the best effect to show its iridescence. The long jacket is lightweight, and streamlined with wide lapels. The trousers have large cuffs at the front only. This suit was a popular silhouette for women’s trouser suits from Yves St. Laurent at that time. Burretti’s design/measurement notebook was amazing to see. (A documentary film, Starman (Freddie Burretti) The Man Who Sewed the World was released in 2015.)
A nice surprise to see the Size 13 yellow, red and green satin wedge shoes carved with palm trees from Pelican Footwear, New York! It is not mentioned that Bette Midler urged Bowie to buy the wedge platform shoes with tropical motif, but she was too late – Cyrinda Foxe had previously taken him to the same shop and he already had bought them. Bette told Bowie, ‘With those shoes, and that chicken on your head (referring to his red Ziggy hair) you’ll take Manhattan by storm!’
Also from Pelican, size 13 lavender wedge platform shoes (deliberately mis-matched pair – black and pink satin ribbon, one open-toed clog and one sandal with long ankle straps) worn with the keyhole leotard (missing from the exhibit) during the 1980 Floor Show.
Also missing from the 1980 Floor Show was the asymmetrical ‘Time’ jumpsuit, sold in April, 2007 via Christies in London for 10,800 pounds ($21,500) to the Hard Rock Cafe. (Blue ground with silver nylon thread weave appliqued on the body and leg with a flame design in orange, red, yellow, gold and pink). The costume was discovered by chance by a New York stylist, who scoured costume shops and flea markets.
The Black and White Years section featured Ola Hudson’s 1940s cut black & white Station To Station tour suit and the Thomas Jerome Newton (The Man Who Fell To Earth) suit with black platform shoes and beige wide-brimmed hat. The film script is also displayed.
Bowie’s 1975 Grammys suit (with the stunning classic black brimmed hat ) is again incorrectly labeled as Burretti. It was thought to be by Ola Hudson, but it has been recently revealed that it was made by Jan Girard. Jan (who had outfitted Cherry Vanilla in sequined jumpsuits) was commissioned by Cherry to create a tuxedo for ‘a skinny friend’. The wide-lapeled jacket and a stripe down each pant leg set it apart from a normal tux.
It was assumed that Freddie Buretti made the suit, however he and David had parted ways after a financial disagreement (according to Kevin Cann). Freddie soon went into exile, moving to Israel in 1977. His family listed him as a missing person, as he had vanished without a trace and had not been seen in ten years. Fred Burrett (his birth name) died peacefully in his sleep at age 49 on 11th May 2001 in Paris, where he had lived and worked since 1991. He is buried in Brittany. A documentary film was made about Burretti in 2015.
“Starman – Freddie Burretti – The Man Who Sewed the World”.
Natasha Korniloff’s naval outfit and sailor hat from the Stage tour were placed elsewhere – along with her Scary Monsters Pierrot suit. Low, Heroes and Lodger albums were hung in a group.
In the German sector, the keys to Bowie’s Berlin apartment hung next to a postcard from Christopher Isherwood.
It was a real treat to see Bowie’s Head of Mishima painting IN BRIGHT COLOR! Astounded to find that it has ‘Mona Lisa eyes’ that follow you around the room!!! Another painting of a Berlin landscape with Iggy in foreground, and a Heroes self portrait print 38/509. Bowie’s blue and gray portrait of Iggy (Head of James Osterberg) comes to life. And there’s Bowie’s cartoonish sketch of a woman on a Gitanes cigarette pack.
After scrapping a giant choreographed puppet idea, we see Bowie’s lighting notes for Station to Station tour. ‘Spot on B for ‘Wham bam’.
Eno’s EMS Synthi AKS from 1974 used on Low, Heroes and Lodger was stunning to behold!!! It was gifted to Bowie by Eno in 1999 saying, ‘Look after it. It can still make noises that nothing else can make.’ There are 36 knobs under the categories; Oscillator 1,2,3, Frequency shape level knobs, Noise Generator, Output Filter, Envelope Shaper, Attack Decay Trapezoid, Reverberation.
It was at once chilling and calming to see the Koto used on ‘Moss Garden’ with small bits of satin on its edges – in the same display cube as the Synthi.
Very interesting ‘Young Americans’ movie notes; Major Tom watching English news of his sendoff, taken off in a patrol truck straight to base (just like Thomas Jerome Newton in TMWFTE) to meet three other astronauts.
The monochromatic Dada Saturday Night Live costume was displayed next to a video of ‘The Man Who Sold the World’ TV performance, with nice mentions of Joey Arias and dear Klaus Nomi. There was a sketch by David describing what became the hard plastic sculptured tuxedo with barrel shaped bottom to the designer at Brooks Van Horn ‘Access into and out of to be easy. Back door (crossed out) gate? Sleeves real material, tramp-like.’ This costume was displayed next to the inspirational sketches and the portfolio of Sonia Delauney (the Dadaist German Cabaret Voltaire movement’s designer, who created many of Tristan Tzara’s outfits in the 1920s.) This costume, in turn inspired Klaus Nomi’s iconic angular vinyl tuxedo.
The other two SNL costumes were randomly placed. The drab blue/gray skirt and jacket, with the stuffed pink toy poodle with video screen in its mouth (’TVC-15’) triggered the amazing memory of being at that performance and having seen the outfit before ON Bowie as he walked right past me. But the ugly gray suede sling-back shoes were missing!
A real treat was the puppet body that David had attached to his body (over a green leotard) during ‘Boys Keep Swinging’! That puppet had a special surprise in its pants (not seen here), which David slyly snuck in past the live TV censors!
I could live without seeing Bowie’s Elephant Man diaper. Wish I’d never seen it actually! It was alongside Jareth’s Labyrinth crystal ball and scepter.
In London and Toronto, floor-to-ceiling 100-foot high video walls with black screens totally obscured some very important Aladdin Sane tour costumes. Thankfully, although the video room was still dark, the costumes are now liberated from their cages.
The spectacular silver with black trim Spring Rain (a.k.a. Rites of Spring) is a short black and silver metallic legless leotard. The silver bodice has a thick, deep black V- neckline. Heavily beaded silver and gold tassels made with clear glass beads (the rain) cascade from the long sleeves. Next to it stood the pink, green and gold Burretti ‘Space Oddity’ striped suit (the collar was turned down so that the bright inside was not visible). Another fantastic Kansai creation – Space Samurai – the quilted triangular red, blue and black shiny metallic breakaway (hikinuki) was resplendently lit with red and white light – simply stunning. The extremely flared legs are based on hakama, trousers first worn by samurai warriors.
The white Burretti suit with satin lapels and gorgeous pointed sleeve cuffs from the1980Floor Show (‘Sorrow’) was no longer hidden in the video room, but in the display with the other Floor Show costumes!
The curators are oblivious to the fact that in the same display case is a Mick Ronson stage suit! A short sleeved black jacket with lightning bolts on the lapels, black velvet pants and a black feathered waistband.
Kansai’s asymmetric cat suit with gold threads (1973) was more easily seen in Toronto. In Brooklyn it is placed way above our heads and is hardly visible. The one-legged off the shoulder knit suit, (not the turtleneck with separate leggings is striped with internationally flavored patterns – Nordic, Aztec and a Roman scroll pattern. Complete with thick foam glittered bracelets and anklettes. It is displayed next to a 70s era turquoise suit with a lightning bolt on the back, rarely worn by Bowie.
Burretti’s Diamond Dogs suits and trench coat were in the video room, as well as pieces of the Diamond Dogs stage set. There was a cool telefax from Elvis & the Colonel wishing David well on the Diamond Dogs tour.
A 30-minute film reel featured performance clips of ‘Heroes’, Live Aid with Tina Turner, Glass Spider tour footage, the recently found ‘The Jean Genie’ Top Of the Pops appearance, and one song from the farewell gig. There were no rare or unseen videos or films.
The Scary Monsters Pierrot clown costume by Natasha is exquisite with pearls and rhinestone flowers. The plaque read, ‘Music is the Pierrot, it is not to be taken seriously or questioned.’ Everyone stared at it – seriously!
The slashed and burned Alexander McQueen Union Jack coat from Earthling was really cool to see. There were many more suits; the ‘Blue Jean’ ensemble, DJ jumpsuit, Culottes by Issey Miyake worn in the photo shoot with Lulu and in The Man Who Fell To Earth, brown Pin Ups suit (by Derek Morton for Tommy Roberts’ City Lights boutique, which influenced the design of future Burretti suits for David) with the shiny shocking blue ankle boots. Freddie’s handwritten style and measurements book was very interesting. Freddie Burretti created the Ziggy Stardust costumes inspired by the design of Bowie’s favorite films 2001: A Space Odyssey and A Clockwork Orange.
The Ziggy Stardust circuit patterned suit was a re-creation of the one designed by Freddie Burretti and made by Sue Frost. (The dozen or so that were made in the 70s had been torn by fans.) In Toronto, it lay in a glass-topped coffin, displayed with the white lace-up Droog boots by Russell & Bromley. In Brooklyn it was arisen. The caption read ‘Made from 1930s furniture fabric.’ My boyfriend lovingly and sarcastically told me that he is going to have a suit made from his grandma’s couch! ‘It’ll be the next big thing! It will be culottes!’ This is why I adore him!!!
I never imagined that I would live long enough to see these Bowie artifacts all in one place. Who knows what might happen if I stay alive for another fifty years! My boyfriend said that if I live for one more year, I will see his couch suit!
As Bowie rests in peace, his career is still on tour! After opening at London’s V&A Museum, it travelled to Toronto, Berlin, Sao Paulo, Brazil, France, The Netherlands, Australia, Italy Barcelona, Japan, Chicago and now New York (last stop)!
Exclusive vinyl for Brooklyn Exhibit: