Fashion features

Stardust costume designer interview: The difficulty with dressing David Bowie

‘I wish his style came into fashion again so men wouldn’t feel so threatened in their masculinity all the time’, Julia Patkos tells Harriet Hall

Friday 15 January 2021 12:29
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<p>Johnny Flynn as David Bowie in Stardust</p>

Johnny Flynn as David Bowie in Stardust

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In the final scene of Stardust, Gabriel Range’s new David Bowie biopic, we are finally granted a glimpse of the moment the trailer promised us: Ziggy Stardust on stage in all his full glam rock glory. With the unmistakable choppy flame-hued mullet and electric blue Kansai Yamamoto-inspired cape, Johnny Flynn, who plays the musician, has transformed into Bowie the icon.

Stardust was made without the approval of Bowie’s estate and as a result, is not to him what Bohemian Rhapsody or Rocketman were to their respective leading men. Instead, the film is a snapshot of Bowie’s 1971 US tour, in which the singer attempts to build interest in his third studio album The Man Who Sold the World but is unable to officially perform due to visa restrictions.

Music thus plays second fiddle to Bowie’s apparent desperation to make it in the industry, while revealing his disdain for it at every turn through petulant magazine and local radio interviews.

Given he was famed for his outlandish stage costumes, a Bowie biopic is a costume designer’s dream, but Stardust is closer to an origins story. For costume designer Julia Patkos, this actually made the role even more interesting. “Mostly in our collective memory we remember who he became after Ziggy Stardust in the 1970s and 1980s and we don’t really have a lot of images of him before he became a star,” she tells me over Zoom from Canada, where much of the film was shot. “From a design point of view that’s nice, because you use the missing parts of our collective memory to fill it up with ideas and images.”

Johnny Flynn in Stardust

Patkos compares the process of costume design to that of converting a poem from its original language. “If you translate it word for word you will end up with something which doesn’t speak to anybody. So, with costume you have to recreate the feeling of the garments, the feeling of people’s responses to it.”

To get to grips with Bowie’s more casual attire, Patkos pored over his oeuvre in an attempt to understand his mindset, what was he looking for when he got dressed in the morning, hoping to ascertain the way he was thinking and the importance he would attach to certain looks and garments.

Just the fact that he would go up to his wife’s wardrobe and just casually slip on one of her dresses, how cool is that?

Julia Patkos

Stardust touches on Bowie’s sartorial evolution – his penchant for a fedora, his fascination with Japan and his exploration of gender-fluid dressing, seen through an appreciation of spandex body suits, makeup and high heels.

Only one designer is name-checked in the film: Michael Fish, whose Mayfair boutique became the fashion hotspot of London in the 1960s and 1970s. Trading with the name Mr Fish, his flamboyant 18th century-inspired designs became the bleeding edge of London menswear seen on the likes of Mick Jagger, David Bailey and Lord Snowdon. His extra-wide kipper ties were to the era what the skinny one was to indie rock.

On the album sleeve for The Man Who Sold the World, Bowie wore one of Mr Fish’s men’s dresses in ivory and blue. “He was particularly fond of Mr Fish, he owned many of his outfits,” Patkos says. In one scene, a customs officer holds up a dress and asks, withy concern: “You dress in women’s clothes?” Tucking his yellow Mary Janes under the chair, Bowie replies: “It’s a man’s dress actually, it’s by Michael Fish, he invented the kipper tie.” “Are you a homosexual?” presses the officer. “If I judge you to be a sexual pervert, I have the authority to bar you from the United States.”

I was browsing all the websites; a lot of the stuff came from Zara womenswear

“In England if you wore it people would look at you like wow you are really fashionable and then he shows up at the airport in America and they are like ‘what’s wrong with you man why would you be wearing this?’ This was part of [Bowie’s] genius as well. He would always associate himself with real trailblazer designers,” Patoks says.

A maverick of reinvention, Bowie’s alter-egos from Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane to the Thin White Duke became the blueprint for collections by many avant garde designers from Jean Paul Gaultier to Hedi Slimaine and Alexander McQueen (and was later explored in the Victoria and Albert Museum’ 2013 retrospective, David Bowie Is). But it is Bowie’s androgyny that Patkos most admires. Setting traditional gendered dressing ablaze, the “Heroes” singer famously borrowed his wife Angie’s clothes, his svelte physique enabling him to easily slip into her outfits.

Jena Malone as Angie Bowie in Stardust

“Just the fact that he would go up to his wife’s wardrobe and just casually slip on one of her dresses, how cool is that?” Patkos says. “He said it’s OK to be different, it’s OK to break down barriers, it’s OK to be who you are.” For her, this is Bowie’s enduring style legacy. “What we need today is a lot of men getting in touch with their feminine side. I wish it came into fashion again so men wouldn’t feel so threatened in their masculinity all the time.” Indeed, Bowie’s gender-fluid dressing feels even more progressive when you consider the recent backlash faced by Harry Styles for daring to wear a dress on the cover of US Vogue.

The fact things haven’t progressed presents a particular difficulty to a costume designer, especially one on a tight budget. The team started by scouring through all the costume houses in Canada before going to Angels costumier in Covent Garden, London. “I basically had to find Seventies women’s clothes which would fit a normal size man, which Johnny [Flynn] is. That was interesting but also really challenging. Some of the shoes we found in the drag queen section.”

They couldn’t spring for contemporary designer items, so instead Patkos browsed online for hours, eventually finding many of the costumes from Zara – “the women’s section, of course”.

Johnny Flynn as David Bowie in Stardust

The real challenge, though, came not in sourcing items for Bowie’s early aesthetic, but – perhaps surprisingly – for refabricating his stage costumes. The final Ziggy costume in particular, came with hurdles. “There’s a whole process when you have to replicate costumes which are famous,” Patkos says. “They cannot be exact replicas because they are copyrighted material. You have to walk a thin line between it having to evoke the outfit and satisfying fans who know exactly how it looked and be true to it.

“Then at the same time, it really has to look significantly different so you’re not stealing somebody else’s design. And within those limits you have to work with so many people. It’s a difficult process; you make a design and then you show it to the lawyers who will inevitably say it’s too similar, it’s too similar, so you keep changing it and by the time it almost doesn’t resemble the original. It’s a quite complicated process.”

Stardust is available from 15 January on streaming services

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