The Story Behind the Song: David Bowie’s ‘Fashion’ is a scathing assessment of the industry
David Bowie’s talent is one that stretched across many, many mediums. From performing mime to taking to the stage as an actor, from completing artistic self-portraits to his fabulous songs, Bowie is a man who could do it all. And, usually, when he was doing it, he was doing it in style. A perennial persona in the world of fashion, Bowie brought the avant-garde to rock ‘n’ roll with regards to costuming and with his persona Ziggy Stardust confirmed himself at the cutting edge of fashion forevermore.
It means the idea he would write a song called ‘Fashion’ a fairly typical one. But, what many people may not realise when singing Bowie’s 1980 track, is that the song is, in reality, a deprecating look at the fashion world. It’s a piece of candid reflection on the world he had helped to create that ended up as one of the brightest moments on the album Scary Monsters and Super Creeps. We are taking a look back at the story behind David Bowie’s classic song, ‘Fashion’.
Quite possibly one of Bowie’s most famous songs, and often regarded as one of his best, ‘Fashion’ has been littered across our airwaves since its release. It was the last track to be recorded for the Scary Monsters sessions and is imbued with all the peacocking-glory of the decade to come. With this release, Bowie would make a statement for the new age.
Many people suggested that this song was Bowie making a point about the new totalitarianism of the disco dancefloor, something he saw intently in the New Romantic movement. Bowie later clarified that he was trying to “move on a little from that Ray Davies concept of fashion, to suggest more of a gritted-teeth determination and an unsuredness about why one’s doing it”.
The song is a reference from The Kinks, ‘Dedicated Follower of Fashion’, a number which was a 1966 smash hit and one that Bowie, who was also an artist around this time, would have been all too aware of. Bowie was keen to take aim at the shallow nature of the industry, “When I first started going to discos in New York in the early ’70s, there was a very high powered enthusiasm and the scene had a natural course about it. It seems now to be replaced by an insidious grim determination to be fashionable, as though it’s actually a vocation. There’s some kind of strange aura about it.”
A comparison Bowie made within the song speaks most loudly for his views on the industry. He refers to the concept of fashion as akin to fascism with the line, “We are the goon squad and we’re coming to town.” The reference to the group of thugs who followed fascist leaders to violently disperse naysayers was apparently meant to be a reference to the New Romantics who were dominating the club scene in London and New York. “Turn to the left, turn to the right,” Bowie sings as he compares the fashion models to army privates in training, cementing his viewpoint.
The song has become a shining reminder of Bowie’s talent, especially in the context of an industry he helped to popularise and, at the very least, invigorate with his own incandescent style. Bowie has never been afraid to put himself on the chopping block and it’s clear he, as always, would champion his own art over the pleasing of anybody else’s sensibilities.
‘Fashion’ has since been used in countless films, TV series and theatre productions as a soundtrack shock of eighties pop music. We wonder just how many of them are aware that Bowie, during those vibrant and veracious lyrics were describing the industry they were celebrating as a totalitarian nightmare. In the end, Bowie’s so good at making pop songs that it doesn’t matter.