I went to the Victoria & Albert Museum once, a long time ago, and shortly after walking into the building I understood that I had made a terrible mistake. I should not have reserved one lousy afternoon for my visit, but the majority of my week in London. I loved it that much. (The V & A is a museum of decorative art and design - think objects and textiles, not grand paintings.)
I heard about the V & A's “David Bowie Is” when it first came out, but knew that I wouldn’t make it back to London to see it. I went to see the documentary about it when it played in Houston in September, but walking out of the theatre I said, “All that really did was make me want to see the real exhibit.” My partner was already looking at his phone when I said it.
“The exhibit opened in Chicago today,” he said. “Do you really want to go? Because we can.”
Now, I have mentioned before that I am agoraphobic, though I have made excellent progress in my therapy in the past year. I had to think long and hard before I said yes.
But I said yes. And I am so glad I did.
The exhibit itself was beautifully designed, as expected from the V & A. I particularly liked the audio guide, which automatically played the corresponding music or interview for whichever thing you were looking at (or closest to). It worked surprisingly well, and also made something that could be riotously loud and cacophonous into a remarkably quiet thing. Until the last room, if you took your own headphones off you would mostly just hear the murmur of the pressing crowd - even if there were three different audio tracks for the room you were in. I loved that.
There were baby pictures, memorabilia from teenage bands he founded, and lots of wonderful handwritten original lyrics. David Bowie has, as someone in the documentary mentioned, “the handwriting of a 14 year old school girl.” And so he does, in the most charming way. He even dotted his i’s with circles back in the 70s. Teenagers tend to try on various identities as they go along, and how many different stage personas has Bowie had? Really, it makes sense.
The real highlight for me, though, was the clothing. Costume pieces ranged from a green jacket with a DIY stripe job from his teen years to the amazing frockcoats designed for Bowie by Alexander McQueen in the 90s and early 00s. Oh, the Yamamoto knitted asymmetrical catsuit! Gasp! Anything at all from the Aladdin Sane tour, honestly - all those Yamamoto designs. The exquisitely tailored suits from the Thin White Duke days, the Liberty fabric quilted “ultraviolence” suits, the infamous crocheted spiderweb/monster hand catsuit - they were all there.
David Bowie was so slim in the early 70s (the exhibit even included a tailor’s note with his measurements - starting with a 34” chest) that when Kate Moss wore his powder blue suit from the “Life on Mars” video, it had to be let out. And it still did not fit properly, as evidenced by the horizontal stress lines obvious in the photo below!
By the way, the detail on that suit was delicious. It had lapels prickstitched along the edge by hand. Beautiful work.
I solved one personal mystery, too. I never knew how he got in and out of that one Yamamoto jumpsuit - the black one with the exaggerated legs. There was never any visible zipper. But now I’ve seen the black snaps all down the side of it. Curiosity totally sated.
Like a lot of “high-powered mutants,” I’ve always loved Bowie and found him an inspiration. I really admire the way he never stopped growing or changing, never calcified into an artistic rut. He did a lot of envelope pushing back in the day that eased the way for many who came later. I think that David Bowie gave a lot of people creative permission. Whether that meant accepting an ambiguous sexuality, exploring many different styles in your work, or simply accentuating your personal glamour, a lot of artistic people owe Bowie a debt.
As one of those people, I’m truly grateful I got to see this. “David Bowie Is” was one of the best exhibits I have ever seen. I walked away energized and ready to try something new of my own.
Highly recommended! Five out of five stars! No, one million out of five stars! All the stars! SO. MANY. STARS.
I think I will lie down now.