Scholars of David Bowie’s famed androgyny can trace its roots at least as far back as his teens. In 1964, the then-17-year-old spoke to BBC’s Tonight on behalf of an organization he founded, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Long-Haired Men. “We’ve had comments like ‘darling’ and ‘can I carry your handbag?’ thrown at us,” Bowie calmly stated. “I think we all like long hair and we don’t see why other people should persecute us because of this.”
Long before genderqueer and non-binary identities earned a glossary in the U.S. paper of record, before the American Dialect Society named “they,” used as a singular gender-neutral pronoun, 2015’s word of the year, Bowie used his unconventional, ostentatious gender presentation to challenge what the mainstream public associated with virile cisgender men. The irrefutably erotic rock star who stirred the loins of both men and women, gay and straight alike, gave his audience avenues for exploring internal multitudes of presence, vitality, and desire.
As Ziggy Stardust and a glam rock pioneer, Bowie—with his throaty voice, high cheekbones, reedy frame, and swaggering carriage—exemplified a meeting of the sexual ideals of both male and female musicians. When he appeared on the BBC’s Top of the Pops in 1972 in a clingy bodysuit, a full face of makeup, and bright red mullet, slinging his arm over guitarist Mick Ronson like a frat-brother–turned–lover, Bowie made lasting waves. Dylan Jones, author of When Ziggy Played Guitar: David Bowie and Four Minutes that Shook the World, describes his impact:
In those days, Top of the Pops could easily be watched by 14 million people, so the next day Bowie was all anyone was talking about. It’s not like hundreds of thousands of people all claiming to have seen the Sex Pistols live when they started out: Bowie genuinely did become common currency overnight. He was a dangerous figure on British TV at a point when television didn’t do danger. Forty-one years ago, it was an extraordinary experience. It didn’t immediately fill me with gay longings—though with some people it did. But nothing was quite the same afterwards.
In addition to Bowie’s outrageous bodysuits, he sported animal-print blouses, silk scarves, and pantsuits in every color of the rainbow. But there was a softer side to his androgyny and femininity, too. To wit: this incredible 1971 photo of Bowie outside his home, sporting a sensible feathered hairdo and a tea-length dress with princess seams and a floral print, the same dress he wore on the cover of The Man Who Sold the World. Here, Bowie looks demure and unpretentious, occupying the dress with such comfort and ease that it’s clear he’s wearing it because it feels right, not just for the sake of his stage persona.
Bowie leaned wholeheartedly into the contradictions he embodied in his gender and sexuality: A man in a dress and makeup isn’t necessarily gay, see, and a man who marries one of the world’s most dazzling female supermodels isn’t necessarily straight. He wasn’t quietly androgynous, nor genderless, smack in the middle of butch and femme. Bowie was flamboyant about both his masculine and feminine sides; he was all of the things at once, flying in the face of easy definitions. A University of Pennsylvania gender-studies undergraduate boiled it down to this astute statement in 2013: “The M-F spectrum does not have the descriptive capacity to categorize Bowie effectively.” Bowie often openly addressed the inadequacy of binary labels, as when he presented Aretha Franklin with a Grammy in 1975. “Ladies and gentlemen—and others,” he said with a coy smile, looking dapper as ever in a tux and copper ombré hair.
And he never stopped evolving. As soon as someone pinned Bowie to a limiting category, he changed. He was gay, then bisexual, then a “closet heterosexual.” He claimed the sexual power of spangled Lycra, androgynous formalwear, and hypermasculine leather jackets at once, exposing the performative nature of gender by inhabiting conflicting norms. The man who gave us our most cherished eyeliner and body-glitter goals also gave us the most compelling codpiece in all of children’s cinema.
Today, Bowie’s androgynous legacy finds new footing in gender-bending celebrities like Jaden Smith, who models womenswear for Louis Vuitton and wore a skirt to prom with bisexual actress Amandla Stenberg. But men still have much less leeway than women to experiment in the blurry interstitial spaces of sexuality and gender. “Bowie’s shameless androgyny helped women express their masculine strength without losing their feminine glamour and sensuality,” Gucci designer Frida Giannini has said. His ability to do the reverse—helping men express their feminine glamour and strength without losing their masculine sensuality—was a precious gift the world desperately needed.