These golden years

This spring’s David Bowie retrospective at the V&A celebrates the style icon’s influence and examines his influences. Exhibition co-curator Victoria Broackes offers a private view

Long before David Bowie released ‘Where Are We Now?’ out of the blue on  his 66th birthday, we’d decided to call the exhibition David Bowie is. We wanted  to put Bowie firmly in the present tense and explore what he means now, after a career that has lasted more than five decades and is still continuing. He is a pioneer  in music, rock theatre, style, video, gender politics and  the use of the internet and digital downloads to reach out to fans. It’s rare to find  a musician with such a fantastically broad range  of interests and that’s partly what makes him so admired. 

The poster for the exhibition is from the photo session Brian Duffy did with Bowie for the cover of his 1973 album Aladdin Sane. It’s possibly the most iconic image in rock. On the cover his eyes are closed, but we chose a photo in which he  is staring right out at you.  It’s an image that’s borrowed time and again – among many other such examples, Kate Moss appeared on the cover of British Vogue in May 2003 with an Aladdin Sane lightning bolt across her face. 

Bowie himself has had  no involvement with the exhibition, but he gave us unprecedented access to the David Bowie Archive to curate the first international retrospective of his career. We have chosen more than 300 objects from the archive, which include lyrics, ideas scrawled on the back of cigarette packets, his own storyboards for music videos and films, the footage itself, set designs, photography  and original costume. 

The costumes, which most people have only seen at a distance on film or stage,  are breathtaking. They include the Ziggy Stardust suit designed by Freddie Burretti and worn for Bowie’s performance of  ‘Starman’  on Top of the Pops in 1972,  as well as the Union Jack  coat Alexander McQueen designed in 1997 for the Earthling album cover and tour. We want to show  not only how Bowie has influenced fashion through his personal style, but also how he has spotted and championed upcoming design talent. 

He saw the work of Kansai Yamamoto [no relation to Yohji] when it  was first shown in London  in 1971, but couldn’t afford  the original designs, so  asked Burretti and Natasha Korniloff to create their own inspired versions. A few years later, after the success of Ziggy Stardust, Yamamoto himself designed a set of stage costumes for the Aladdin Sane tour, which are also on display in the exhibition. 

We could have put together a rather good exhibition around just that 1972 Top of the Pops appearance. Bowie’s vivid, outlandish appearance and daring stage-play sent out a message of individualism, that you can be whomever  you want to be. It changed the lives of such a broad demographic of people: not only gay teenagers sitting in their bedrooms wondering why they had to hide away, but anybody interested in style or  who was a music  fan or felt themselves to be a little bit quirky or different. Iain R Webb, professor of fashion at the Royal College of Art and Central Saint Martins, was an adolescent superfan listening to Bowie in his bedroom in Wiltshire in the Seventies. In the exhibition, we display his scrapbooks and a version  of a painting he did of Bowie that he sent to Bowie’s mother. She liked it so much, she put it above the fireplace. 

For me, one of the real highlights of the exhibition  is the stage model from the Diamond Dogs tour of 1974. The set was informed by George Orwell’s dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, William Burroughs’ avant-garde novel The Wild Boys: a Book of the Dead and Fritz Lang’s expressionist film Metropolis. Bowie really wanted to stage a musical  of  Nineteen Eighty-Four and fully expected it to happen – he was at the stage where  he could pretty much do anything he liked – but Orwell’s widow refused permission. History doesn’t relate exactly why, but reportedly it was connected to the 1954 live BBC TV adaptation, which was so frightening someone supposedly died from shock while watching it.

He couldn’t make his musical, so he turned it  into the stage show of Diamond Dogs. It was the most ambitious theatrical rock show ever staged.  Bowie, who had been on  the verge of pursuing a  career in theatre in the Sixties, pulled in collaborators in a way that hadn’t been done before. The show was stunning, albeit logistically  a total nightmare. In fact, half the set was ditched before the tour ended, but rock shows were never quite the same again.

The exhibition is arranged thematically rather than chronologically. But it does kick off in post-war London, which we see as the landscape of Bowie’s imagination.  We chose photos of him in his first bands and a green jacket he’d decorated with hand-drawn felt-tip stripes. We found some early radio interviews in which  he sounded really earnest  and thoughtful about what he wanted to do. He was ambitious, but, of course,  he could not possibly have predicted the sustained influence he would have. 

It was fantastically hard  to settle on 300-odd objects. The David Bowie Archive offers almost infinite opportunity for an exhibition. For an artist who has always been forward-looking –  with the exception of ‘Where Are We Now?’, which is a lovely, reflective song –  he had the prescience to hang on to all those scrawled-on cigarette packets and sketched storyboards. It’s our great luck and joy that the story is there to tell. We just had to find a way of telling it.