David Bowie: the Mannequin who fell to earth
The V&A plans to use David Bowie's exotic costumes to chart his life and times in an exhibition next year.
David Bowie is to part-curate an exhibition of his life and work told primarily through his extravagant costumes at the Victoria and Albert museum next year.
The show will chart his rise to cult rock star status from his early years in Brixton, south London, using his collection of outfits to illustrate his constantly changing identity.
Details about the clothes are being kept under wraps until next month's official announcement of the show, but the V&A's director confirmed to the Observer that Bowie is involved in selecting exhibits. Many of the flamboyant outfits worn by Bowie in his years as a pioneer of rock style will come from his own collection.
The exhibition is expected to draw large numbers of visitors. However, some critics lament what they see as a further descent of a serious museum into the cult of celebrity.
Bowie's look was inseparable from his sound. The 65-year-old singer and actor, who merged rock and theatre with his androgynous alter ego Ziggy Stardust, is synonymous with futuristic costumes and outlandish makeup, from space-samurai outfits to white satin kimonos, flame-red hair to eye-liner.
He achieved wide popularity with his psychedelic rock single Space Oddity, coinciding with the first moon landing, and became an international star with albums such as The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. His films include The Man Who Fell to Earth.
Speaking to the Observer, Bowie's biographer Paul Trynka said that Bowie was at the forefront of fashion, recreating his own image with the aid of cutting-edge designers.
Seeing the costumes close-up would be amazing, he said. "Although he's an artist who… doesn't tend to revisit his own past, there's a kind of contradiction in that he's collected his pieces for over two decades, lots of them historic and iconic, not just for Bowie fans but for popular fashion… He's always had a public presentation in mind." Costumes that Trynka expects to be included in the exhibition at the V&A include the "bunny leotard" created by Kansai Yamamoto, one of the avant-garde designers whose potential was spotted by Bowie.
"That was quite groundbreaking because Yamamoto wasn't known in the UK," Trynka said. "Although other pop stars had flirted with high fashion, [Bowie] was the first one to use it as an integral part of his look. He then went on to even more outrageous Yamamoto designs. There's a fantastic one with hugely-inflated legs … and I suspect that will be there … [It] is engagingly ludicrous. Nobody had that effrontery to wear those kinds of outfits before."
Among other likely highlights, he said, are homemade catsuits created by the late Freddi Buretti, a designer who described himself as a "seamstress".
Martin Roth, the V&A's director, said: "Bowie is incomparable. No one has inspired the whole world not only in terms of music but also arts, fashion and style. He created a vision of individualism for an entire generation."
Others are less impressed, particularly following the V&A's 2007 exhibition dedicated to Kylie Minogue, which included her dungarees from the Australian soap Neighbours. Critics felt that it was unworthy of a museum dedicated to showcasing the finest arts and crafts.
The Bowie show has been condemned by Michael Daley, director of ArtWatch UK, the museums watchdog: "The museum world is losing the plot. They're just crazed about numbers at any cost… Obviously you could fill the V&A every day of the week if you had a pop concert or a bunch of celebs."
Noting that the V&A also covers fashion, he added: "Fashion is a bigger thing… than the cult of one man. If Bowie, why not Liberace? It's about the cult of celebrity, particularly youth." Bowie, he added, did not fit the museum's remit for recording significant fashion.
The V&A is of course tapping into a demand, but whether a cultural museum should be meeting it is another matter. The Kylie Minogue exhibition attracted 271,000 visitors and was one of the museum's most popular shows.
Trynka, who wrote the Bowie biography Starman, said: "Bowie epitomises Britain's influence on fashion and textiles. He represents the best of it. Kylie is a wonderful pop icon, but she hasn't had a lasting effect on popular culture outside of her fanbase."
Today Bowie himself remains elusive. He has not toured since 2006, and turns down requests to appear in public – most recently, the Olympic Games closing ceremony, although his song Fashion was used.
There have been reports of ill-health. Roth said: "[People] try to build a story around him. There's a lot of gossip."
Bowie's spokesman declined to comment.