I will be completely honest: I have not yet seen the film “Bohemian Rhapsody”, the new biopic about singer Freddie Mercury and the band Queen. Having been fortunate enough to have seen Queen in concert during the mid 70’s, I know that my opinion will be clouded by preconceptions and comparisons to the real deal. When I saw them in concert, it was at a relatively small venue that accommodated maybe 500 people as opposed to the later performance venues consisting of football stadiums that could fit 100,00 plus souls. It was a time when Freddie still sported that sexy shag hairdo that gave him the air of a sensuous Persian Prince and not the obnoxious crew cut and mustache which gave him the air of a convenience store employee working the night shift at 711 or a leather cruiser at the Catacomb Club of San Francisco.
But the story I am about to tell, no doubt transpired during this time; Since it was at this performance that Freddie was sporting onstage a fashion confection that was a result of a creative collaboration between himself and another product of London’s early 70’s glam scene: Fashion Designer Zhandra Rhodes.
Now a bit about Dame Zhandra first: She is one of these creative dynamos who moved back and forth seamlessly between the wearable art world and high society fashion. She was a textile artist who first came into the public consciousness by designing the engagement dress of Princess Anne (Charles’ Sister, Prince Harry’s Aunt). This was really quite an accomplishment at the time. Zhandra Rhodes was a product of London’s Swinging 60’s, while the Princess Royal still used her Mother the Queen’s couturier. So her choice of designers for the most important day of her life was nothing short of a youth quake and the result was an ethereal fashion fantasy which still holds up today.
From there Dame Zhandra went on to design costumes for early glam rock stars like Mark Bolan, then for operas, other royalty, celebrities etc etc. On personal note, I had briefly seen Ms Rhodes at an opening night performance of ‘Giocconda’ at the San Francisco Opera in 1979. She was wearing a lampshade on her head and her hair was dyed purple. Really. Quite a sight to behold. I had also seen several years later, her costumes for the San Diego Opera’a ‘The Magic Flute’. Her use of color and texture were a feast for the eyes but in no way upstaged Mozarts beautiful music.
But I digress: thanks to Dame Zhandra’s zig zagging professional trajectory, it was only natural that her path crossed with Freddie Mercury’s. According to her, it all began when the phone rang at her studio. It was Freddie saying that he and Queen guitarist Brian May needed costumes. They met up at her studio later that evening, where she had Freddie and Brian try on a variety of tops, having them moving about to get a feel for how the garments would translate onstage. Freddie was drawn to one particular gown which was meant to be a wedding dress for another client. He loved how the pleated fabric draped on his body as he moved. So Zhandra, in a thunderbolt of inspiration, took a pair of scissors to the waistline and Voila! The gown became a tunic and Freddie said yes to the dress!
Brian May also benefitted from Zhandra Rhodes’ sartorial creativity, she confected a very colorful custom painted tunic whose sleeves we engineered in such a way that it would not interfere with his virtuosic guitar playing. Thinking about this heady collaboration between these two iconic entities, it got me to think why she never collaborated with that other Glam Icon: David Bowie. I did a pretty extensive internet search with no results, so one can only speculate as to what might have been.
So yes, that night in 1976, in that small crowded theater in San Francisco, I was fortunate enough to see Queen make their US debut. It was a blindingly theatrical show featuring strobe lights, special effects and of course, Freddie’s pleated tunic. Freddie had a stage presence almost like Bowie’s. According to Ms Rhodes, the tunic has since been banished into the costume food chain and is now experiencing a second life as a rental piece at an Oklahoma costume warehouse. Considering the way costumes are refurbished at those place, I fear that Freddie’s tunic is only a shadow of its former self and no longer viable.
But, Dame Zhandra did collaborate with “Bohemian Rhapsody” costume designer Julian Day, to reproduce the infamous tunic. She even reproduced several copies to be exhibited in theatre lobbies around the world. So please enjoy these images and perhaps now that I have published this post, I may actually go out and see the movie after all. Pre-conceptions optional!
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Finally made to the Holy Grail for all Bowie fans. The closing week of the ‘David Bowie Is’ exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum. This all encompassing exhibit has been touring the world since its premiere at the Victoria & Albert Museum 5 years ago. The fact that it only made two pit stops in the United States speaks volumes to The Thin White Duke’s worldwide appeal. This particular blog entry is of such a deeply personal nature, that I have procrastinated forever in posting this.
In spite of the fact that the presentation was disorganized and overcrowded, it was the content of the exhibit that overcame any drawbacks resulting from the ineptitude of the Brooklyn Museum. After all, we are talking Bowie here, and we all know that he was a ‘Mortal with potential of a Superman’. And I don’t want to totally trash the museum either; to their credit they did resolve some of my concerns. But according to one of my sources at the museum, even they acknowledged that they had gotten in over their heads with this exhibit.
David surrounded himself with the best talent: the best designers, the best directors, the best musicians. Talent that matched, but never surpassed his own. The show was a comprehensive overview of his collaborations as a performer, artist, writer, painter. Bowie the Artist. The shear breadth of his artistic accomplishments is overwhelming. Since this is a costume blog, the main focus will be his costumes. However I am including samples of his other facets because otherwise it would not do him justice.
I should start out with this caveat: there where no photos allowed in the exhibit so these pictures where taken clandestinely and at great personal risk. My apologies in advance for the poor quality of some of the images. In fact at one point when I was attempting to take a picture, a hand appeared in front of the lens belonging to an angry security guard who demanded that I stop on pain of banishment from the museum and confiscation of my pictures. So there was A LOT I could not capture: His costume from when he appeared on Broadway in “Elephant Man”, the Bauhaus costume from his “Saturday Night Live” appearance, the Kabuki cape designed by Kansai Yamamoto. And so on.
My attempt here is to present his costumes and how they would have been worn within the context of his performance. As mentioned earlier, David collaborated with the top creative talent and as a costumer and technician myself, I was in awe over the beauty and detail of his clothing. The delicacy of the tailoring conceits and the detail of the embellishments are incredible. It’s hard to believe that the enormity of the effort that went into creating a garment that was often times intended to be worn only once.
The first time I saw Bowie perform was in the “1980 Floor Show” which was broadcast in the USA on the “Midnight Special” TV series. It was a Rock’n’Roll cabaret with dancers, costumes, a guest appearance by singer Marianne Faithful and everyone’s favorite trans model Amanda Lear, who took time away from her duties as Salvador Dali’s muse in order to serve as MC for the show. Not a bad line up.
This production was the most blindingly theatrical presentation that my 16 year old eyes had ever seen. The originality of the costumes inspired me to grab a pencil and sketch pad. Aladdin Sane’s Thunderbolt of Enlightenment struck my brain causing a deluge of creative juices to start flowing and as I result I was sketching costumes furiously through the entire show. How’s that for inspiration?
The costumes for this show were showcased in their own particular vitrine. They now only had David’s costume but the one worn by guitarist Mick Ronson. Mick is often overshadowed by Bowie’s supernova, but let’s not forget that he had a hand in the creation of the man, before Ziggy broke up the band.
The first time I actually saw Bowie perform live onstage, in the flesh, was for the ’Thin White Duke Tour’ also called the ‘Isolar Tour’ on February 6, 1976 in San Francisco. To say that it was an out of body experience would be an understatement because I was completely consumed byhis presence. I am not the first person to say this. The energy and charisma he exuded onstage was something every performer can only dream of achieving. It was a true out of body experience. Un-psychotropically enhanced.
The concert began with a screening of the surrealist film ‘Un Chien Andalou’. The cinematic collaboration between Salvador Dali and Luis Buñuel best known for the close up of a girl’s eye being sliced open by a razor blade. When this happened the screams of horror from the audience was deafening! As the film came to its conclusion, the projection screen rose and the band began to play the intro to ‘Station to Station’, eventually a spotlight popped on our guy as the sang the lyrics about his return. Not knowing what kind of fashion statement he would make, he was dressed in black and white which went well with the stark fluorescent lighting.
The ‘Thin White Duke Tour’ was the most amazing piece of theatre I had ever seen up until then. Having out done the ‘The 1980 Floor Show’.
Feeling fully recovered from my out of Bowie-body experience, I decided that this concert was something that must be repeated’.So I hoped into my Ford Pinto (don’t laugh, it WAS 1976) and drove down to L.A. to catch the show again at the venerable L.A. Forum. This time I was able to relax and enjoy the show. Gloating with delight hearing the audience’s shrieks when the girl’s eye was slashed in the opening film. No more out of body experiences this time. I was just an observer. As expected Bowie delivered another out of this world performance.
So fast forward to the 80’s and by now I was a college student living in New York. ’Scary Monsters’ was constantly spinning on my turn table (kids, if you don’t know what that is, Google it). The third and last time I saw Bowie perform live was on Broadway in ‘Elephant Man’ and needless to say, it was the most amazing piece of theatre I had seen up until then. Only Bowie can out do Bowie., so all his previous opera.What a performance! He opted out on the prosthetic makeup and chose to use his body language and voice to convey the pathos of the lead character.
My college and my apartment were both located in the Chelsea district of Manhattan and in a stroke of Kafkaesque synchronicity, so was Bowie’s. According to a friend who had it on good authority that our Hero had a loft somewhere south of West 23rd St, so we took it upon ourselves to case every single single building in the vicinity until we came upon one building around West 20th @ 9th avenue that yielded results. We were reading the names on the mailboxes and one of the tenants went by the name: “Bewley Brothers Music”. Ya Think?! Eureka!
We stood in front of the mailbox pondering our next move: Should we ring the door bell? What if he answers? What if he invites us up? What do we say to him? This reverie of ‘what ifs’ was rudely interrupted by the booming voice of a very irate doorman: “Had it ever occurred to you kids that he may be going in and out the back door?!” Well, these two junior stalkers in training made a dash out the door to the back alleyway of the building but to no avail; we were unequivocally asked to leave the premises by the same irate doorman.
I lived in the Chelsea district for several more years and as time passed I became one of those blasé jaded New Yorkers who is not impressed by celebrity. Yes, I did spot him once or twice in passing and my heart would jump ever so slightly. But I was determined to stay in ‘Blasé New Yorker Mode’.To the point where one day I was grocery shopping at the local A&P supermarket and as I was browsing the produce department, I could see out of the corner of my eye that someone was trying to take my shopping cart. Without turning my head I grabbed the cart away from the interloper and shouted in my most nasally Manhattanese “That’s MY cart”. I heard a crisp British accented male voice mutter “Oh sorry” as he slipped away. Yes, The Thin White Duke was a grocery cart thief!
As time progressed, I moved on to other musical styles and to other cities. I hadn’t purchased a Bowie album or even listened to his music in years. I was vaguely amused by my younger relatives fascination with him and was pleasantly surprised to find one of my nieces apartment covered with Bowie poster when I visited her one Thanksgiving. But when I heard the news of his transition on January 10, 2016, it all came flashing back to me. The Stars did look very different after that. Tears would not stop flowing. Every time his name was mentioned, my eyes would water up. In fact I’m in a bit of a ‘Weepy Devotchka’ mode right now as I type this.The impact that he had on my life, my choices and values was something that cannot be quantified. In many ways he saved my life, lifting me out of the mundane and the cruel to a realm that was both sacred and sublime.
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