The death of David Bowie has an eerie resonance with this moment in style, when the focus of fashion is on the sexual fluidity that was pioneered by Ziggy Stardust and The Thin White Duke.
The cult of Bowie has been around for nearly five decades and I cannot count the number of times that designers have cited him as their inspiration. Everything that he epitomised — androgyny, cultural diversity, glam rock — has been absorbed by the fashion world.
But in 2016, “all the young dudes” include women as much as men. It is as if, at this moment of his passing, society has finally developed Bowie’s cultural diversity, which expressed itself visually as much as musically.
Looking back from “Space Oddity” in 1969 through the New Romantic period that counterbalanced the androgynous Eighties, Bowie as image-maker stands skinny suit and frilly cuff above the rest. He pushed boundaries that by now have grown into an entire fashion landscape.
In his re-invention over more than 45 years, the ever-changing appearances may seem trivial in relationship to what the multi-talented rock star produced in music and movies. But I don’t think that Bowie himself can have seen it like that. The attention he gave to how he looked was an integral part of his identity. With hindsight, his vision seems phenomenal.
I have been thinking a lot about what was called “gender bending” in the Eighties, because that once raw and daring idea about male/female sexuality is no longer an issue for millennials. Their attitude is that anything is appropriate to either sex, without making a big deal about a his ‘n’ hers look (such a dated expression). What is worn on the streets — elongated knitwear with stretch hose or wildly patterned tank tops — is considered gender neutral.
And so it is on the current runways. Because I no longer report on the totality of menswear shows, I have been dipping in and out of the London Collections: Men season. Burberry is a prime example of how designer Christopher Bailey sees the gender unity. For the second season he brought women into the men’s collection, with some outfits that could make a perfect duo. Although they were never shown together, both sexes appeared in a coat with military buttons and scarlet trimming, and in nearly matching duffel coats or bomber jackets. With Bowie’s music opening and closing the show and a live performance by British artist Benjamin Clementine, the mood was sober. Re-issued Burberry vintage clothes, which Bailey has been collecting, hinted at a nostalgia to appeal to the young. “I feel like the whole world is changing, but in an exciting way,” said Bailey, referring to the departure of Bowie. But he saw it also as a moment to “embrace change”.
As I was travelling back from Paris, I could not make it to the J.W.Anderson show, which was frustrating because he is the most obvious current designer to put a modern spin on gender. Starting with menswear and then bringing his vision to women, Jonathan, 31, understands the concept of oversize tailoring, with elongated cardigans and transparent body-con or silken fabrics appearing on the runway. Snail prints probably had a deep meaning for the designer, but they were also a neat metaphor for how androgyny has not only caught up with specific male and female offerings — it has overtaken them.
As we looked together, before the Alexander McQueen show, at a jacket patterned with butterflies, I asked Sarah Burton if she felt the tug of re-developing the man/woman fashion thing. “There is such a fuss about gender. Now it’s always a matter of what women have brought to men’s collections, always about the feminine in a masculine section,” Sarah said, before showing tailored masculinity with a hint of the female in a high-waist jacket cut.
There were also floral patterns as well as butterflies on tailored coats and jackets, inspired by the Victorian botanist Charles Darwin and his research for his groundbreaking book, “The Origin of the Species” of 1859. More intriguing were dramatic and aggressively spiky silver brooches and a giant safety pin pushing through the cheek. A bit of a hyper-male punk revival? “I used a lot of jewellery from my women's collection,” Burton said. “But the way I design, I don’t have my complete menswear head on!”
Jeremy Scott, with his bright, bold, man-woman collection for Moschino — inspired by British art duo Gilbert and George — had an outspoken vision about mixing men and women’s clothes, which he has been doing for at least a decade. “Transgender has always been part of my DNA,” said Jeremy, whose saturated colours and bold patterns for Moschino did not differentiate between menswear and womenswear, but drew a line between that visual mash-up and the emotional pain of being trapped inside the wrong body.
“There are people like Caitlyn Jenner (referring to the sex-changed former Bruce Jenner) who have brought the whole issue of transgender to attention. It’s heartbreaking when the wrong soul is trapped in a body,” said Jeremy, who added that mixing fashion for once separated sexes “is something very natural for me”.
Christopher Raeburn, whose robust, outdoor clothing suggests a striding masculinity, feels that the gender divide is no longer a chasm. Not only has he developed his own womenswear, using a great deal of Army surplus to follow the principles of “re-made”, he has also allowed his men’s clothes to soften up, with a Mongolian-inspired coat that the designer describes as “a shredded snow camouflage poncho”. In this brand for the big outdoors, the stirring of femininity showed Raeburn marching forward.
So much of what I am seeing in the men’s shows could be traced back to Bowie and his attitude to sexuality. His great fashion legacy is that the controversy he started about sexual definition through clothes is no longer questioned in the 21st century.