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Music

How David Bowie's fashion was influenced by his fans

@SamWKemp

We often assume that creativity flows in just one direction: from the artist to their audience. From there, it runs like a river down to the open sea of popular culture, where others will eventually absorb and perhaps even be inspired by it.

This view of creativity is innately hierarchical. It tells us that innovation is the sport of a select few talented individuals, without whom culture would be a featureless void. It implies that the role of the audience member is to serve as a passive consumer. They, unlike the artist, are merely a necessity on which art depends. Countless artists have upheld this view of creativity. Consider the number of musicians, artists, and writers who have scorned their audience for not fully appreciating or ‘understanding’ their new work.

David Bowie viewed creativity in a slightly different way. In his eyes, the artist and the audience formed a circle around which ideas flowed freely. Unlike many of his musical contemporaries and literary heroes, he was open to the idea that the audience might know something he did not, and that they could be as valuable a source of inspiration as any poem by William S. Burroughs.

Bowie gave an example of this perspective during a 1974 interview with Dick Cavett. The musicians had just finished his Diamond Dogs tour and had picked up a bad coke habit along the way. Nevertheless, he managed to speak with remarkable clarity. Explaining his new look – Bowie at this time had abandoned his Ziggy Stardust look for something much more refined – he said: “When I first started [in music] I could get out and about a bit and I used to go to clubs and dance, and, you know, that was quite easy. And I’d sorted out what I wanted to wear and what I’d wanted to do.”

“But later on,” Bowie continued, “when things became slightly cocooned, I found I was seeing what everyone else was wearing when they came to the shows. So it ends up that I kind of get influenced by people coming to see me.” At this point, Bowie grabbed the black cane at his feet “I mean, canes you see. Somebody started bringing them to the gigs and I really like them, so I started using one. And it wasn’t me, it was them.”

So, the next time someone tries to lecture you on how Bowie singlehandedly changed the aesthetics of popular music, hows about pointing out that none of it would have been possible without his audience.