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David Bowie Is... in Chicago

Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane and almost 400 pieces of Bowie history take over the fourth floor of the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago.

If it had been seen or worn before, David Bowie likely wasn’t interested. Up for anything, Bowie has donned everything from the often imitated character pieces of Ziggy Stardust—red patent leather platform boots with red spiked hair to match—to the face painted bolt of lighting of Aladdin Sane, inventive looks a lady could certainly go gaga for.  Now, thanks to the proactive efforts of Michael Darling, the MCA James Alsdorf Chief Curator’s efforts, Chicago is the three-month home and only U.S. stop of "David Bowie is…,"an international touring exhibition of album artwork, video installations of rare performances, photography, set designs, handwritten lyrics and of course, original fashion, organized by the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Presented in Chicago with support from Louis Vuitton, the "David Bowie is…" retrospective shows how the artist utilized art, music, theater and technological muses to create his own unique images, which have made a lasting impact on culture, zig-zagging across genres for over four decades.

Bowie Bests

MCA curator Michael Darling handpicks six pieces that embody the musician’s influence on fashion, design and culture. 

Starman outfit from “Top of the Pops” performance (aired July 6, 1972)

Quilted zip-front two-piece suits were the tour uniform of the “Starman” Ziggy Stardust and Bowie wore a colorful, patterned Freddie Burretti-designed one for a performance on the BBC’s pop music chart television show. Constructed of liberty fabric—floral, geometric, novelty—Darling said they were out there, but very much of the period.

Yamamoto bodysuit
(Courtesy MCA Chicago)

Asymmetrical knitted bodysuit (1973) designed by Kansai Yamamoto for Aladdin Sane tour

“So bold and crazy…I can see someone trying to revive this today,” said Darling. This piece is not your grandmother’s knitting project, but the brainchild of Japanese designer Kansai Yamamoto, a man whose fashions figured prominently in Bowie’s career. The one-armed, one-legged bodysuit features a mishmash of patterns and colors accented by stuffed fabric rings orbiting his bare left arm and right ankle.   

Cobweb bodysuit (1973) designed by Natasha Korniloff for the “1980 Floor Show”

Bowie wore the black see-through bodysuit for his last appearance as Ziggy Stardust. Twenty years before Janet Jackson’s controversial 1993 Rolling Stone cover, the outfit included two gold hands strategically covering Ziggy’s “breasts” (a third hand placement was censored by NBC for American audiences) and a shimmery gold pant leg. “Feels shocking and transgressive,” noted Darling. This piece is coupled with the pre-MTV “Boys Keep Swinging,” a video that has the androgynous Bowie playing three different parts, all female.

Saturday Night Live performance of “The Man Who Sold the World” (December 15, 1979)

The man who famously sang “what you need you have to borrow” wore a costume inspired by Sonia Delaunay’s designs for Tristan Tzara’s Dadaist play "Le Coeur a Gaz" ("The Gas Heart," 1923), for a performance on SNL. The top consisted of an oversized striped bowtie and triangular black patent leather blazer, while the skirt bottom was so constricting his accompaniments Klaus Nomi and Joey Arias had to carry Bowie to his microphone.   

Union Jack coat designed with Alexander McQueen (1997) for the "Earthling" album cover and tour

Ch-ch-changes from the elaborate stage costumes of the past, Bowie, one of designer Alexander McQueen’s first clients, requested a British flag be transformed into a coat; the result, an exquisitely constructed and highly recognizable Union Jack frock coat Bowie shared with his "Earthling" tour audiences by opening each show with his back turned so fans could see the full glory of the patriotic and perfectly distressed creation. 

“Tokyo Pop” vinyl bodysuit (1973)

In a January 1974 Mirabelle magazine interview Bowie said, “I like to think my most important contribution is the music but…if someone thinks of me as an important fashion trendsetter...” It’s fitting that this black & white vinyl bodysuit welcomes visitors to the "David Bowie is…" exhibit. Designed by Kansai Yamamoto, this unforgettable bodysuit resembles a vinyl album, a one-piece fusion of music, design and fashion, elements influential to Bowie and areas he’s had a far-reaching and impactful hand in creating and changing for almost half a century.