Arts, Culture & Media

David Bowie — Japanese fashion icon

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Stefan Wermuth/Reuters

David Bowie might’ve written the song "Fashion,” but he had more style than just one song could contain.

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A lot of his fashion sense can be traced to Japan, says fashion historian Helene Thian. She has written about Bowie and Japanese fashion for the anthology, "David Bowie:  Critical Perspectives." Many of the costumes that Bowie wore throughout his career were created by Japanese fashion designer Kansai Yamamoto.

“This includes the hairdo of the era, the buzz cut-looking red, fringed fantasy that David Bowie wore, which was actually Kansai Yamamoto’s creation and originally inspired by traditional Japanese dolls and Kabuki wigs,” says Thian.

Bowie was introduced to Japanese culture in the 1960s by his dance and mime teacher, Lindsay Kemp. “[Kemp] actually was the first person to introduce Bowie to Japanese culture, theatre, music and gestures from the theatre and the onnagata.” Japanese onnagata are male actors who specialize in playing women's roles in kabuki. 

However, the onnagata may have been just one influence in Bowie’s own androgyny, says Thian. Bowie was also a practicing Buddhist in the 1960s. For a period of time, he considered joining a monastery and becoming a monk.

“And as we know the pantheon of Buddhist gods includes rather, you could say, androgynous representations. It was all floating around I believe in Bowie’s consciousness,” says Thian, “which then in the 1970s — with the collaboration with Kansai [Yamamoto] came into full bloom with Kansai even noting that Bowie’s face and body were androgynous and therefore suitable for his own unisex fashion.”

In Japanese culture, this androgyny that so influenced Bowie according to Thian was the norm. The Japanese loved Bowie, says Thian.

“He really, more than the androgyny, was communicating the relativeness, importance, the absolute genius of Japanese traditional culture by way of wearing the Kansai Yamamoto outfits, by incorporating the stage techniques from Kabuki theatre ... so for them it was truly an homage,” says Thian. “And it’s my belief that Bowie was truly the ultimate diplomat because he really healed the rift between the Allies and Japan — in the post-war period, ushering in the post-modern era by incorporating Japanese costuming, staging, make-up, hair, the whole shebang.”

In fact it wouldn’t be a huge leap to say that Bowie is responsible for renewing the West’s appreciation of Japanese culture and fashion, says Thian.

“There were a number of rock stars after David Bowie that incorporated Japanese clothing, make-up, hair, design — such as Siouxsie and the Bansees and Siouxsie Sioux; Freddie Mercury traipsing around on stage in a Kimono, the group Sparks, with an album called 'Kimono, My House' in 1974. The list goes on and on and on.”

He ignited an interest in Japan that went far beyond celebrity culture and rock stars, says Thian.

“He also inspired the general public on a day-to-day level with the interest in wearing the hachimaki on the forehead that we see sushi chefs wear, but normal kids started showing up with this gear ... so yes, unequivocally he ignited that interest.”