Born David Jones in 1947, David Bowie was arguably one of the most inspirational and influential artists of the last 50 years. This January 10th sadly marked seven years since his death after a struggle with cancer, but, with well-known songs such as “Rebel Rebel”, “Starman” and “Changes”, Bowie has become a household name and his impact will undoubtedly be felt and remembered for years to come. Bowie, however, was also revolutionary in his androgyny and in an age of toxic masculinity, discussions around gender and “manliness” are more crucial than ever.
The English singer’s gender nonconformity can be seen as early as his teenage years when he founded a ‘Society For The Prevention Of Cruelty To Long-Haired Men’ which sought to defend men who, as the name would imply, had long hair. In an interview, Bowie stated that the men in the society ‘had comments like, ‘Darling’ and ‘Can I carry your handbag?’ thrown at [them] and [they thought] it just [had] to stop’. Even at the age of 17, Bowie’s rebellious spirit could be seen and creates a fascinating and solid introduction to his predisposition to androgyny.
In 1971, the singer released his fourth studio album, Hunky Dory. On the cover, Bowie is presented in a distinctly androgynous way. With his hair slicked back and a haunting expression on his face, it is a memorable album cover but the ambiguity of his gender is what enables it to be an expression of androgyny. This is further shown by the resemblance between Bowie and actress Marlene Dietrich who Bowie imitated for the shoot. Using her photo as a guide, the more feminine mannerisms combined with the idea of Bowie as a man and therefore naturally inclined towards masculinity creates the androgynous effect of the album cover. Hunky Dory, however, is not the only album where Bowie is presented in an ambiguous way; we see this idea of androgyny and gender neutrality on the covers for The Man Who Sold The World (1970), Diamond Dogs (1974) and Pinups (1973).
Bowie later solidified this with his creation of the renowned character, Ziggy Stardust. Ziggy Stardust was, perhaps, the pinnacle of Bowie’s androgyny and the fame of the persona allowed much of the public to be exposed to new ideas surrounding androgyny and gender ambiguity. While his cover of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars does not explicitly suggest androgyny, the image of Ziggy Stardust’s orange hair accompanied with striking blue eyeshadow is one that is iconic and easily recognisable. By using the Ziggy Stardust persona for his Ziggy Stardust Tour in 1972 and 1973, Bowie was able to display a queer identity to the wider public. As well as this, Ziggy Stardust was considered to be bisexual and while Bowie himself was hesitant to label his sexuality, the queerness of Ziggy Stardust was essential to the character and is still admired even now. In this sense, one could argue the Englishman was a pioneer of androgynous identities, especially considering almost 1.2 million people attended the tour.
However, as significant as Bowie’s role in exploring masculinity versus androgyny was, he was not the only influential figure in discussions surrounding gender nonconformity and sexuality. Singers such as Marc Bolan - lead singer of ‘60s and ‘70s band, T. Rex - and Freddie Mercury, lead singer of Queen, both experimented with androgyny, a common feature of the Glam Rock music scene, especially in the 1970s. In the wider rock industry at the time, there were also other artists such as Jimi Hendrix presenting themselves in androgynous ways.
The influence of artistic androgyny can even be seen today with queer and straight artists alike (such as Harry Styles, Omar Rudberg and Conan Gray) experimenting with clothing, hair and make up styles. The idea of being able to reconcile androgyny and being a man, especially in today’s society which perpetuates the notion that make up and dresses make a man “less than”, are incredibly important and having artists explore their own gender encourages those who consume the media they create to do the same.
Seven years on from his death, David Bowie’s influence can be felt and experienced throughout the music industry as well as the queer community. The androgynous image he made for himself is seemingly eternal and the timeless sound he created has provided the soundtrack for many generations. Bowie’s legacy has created a way for those who are considered outsiders to be “Heroes”.