Let’s Dance: What to See at the David Bowie Is Exhibition

Christina Parrella

David Bowie oozed glam on record and on film, inventing a slew of vivid personas throughout his career. There was the androgynous Thin White Duke; faux astronaut Major Tom; the jumpsuit-wearing, dramatic-makeup-loving Ziggy Stardust; and the one whose image has been replicated time and again—the title character on the cover of Aladdin Sane, with his hair colored a flaming red and a lightning bolt painted across his face. David Bowie Isat the Brooklyn Museum surveys it all. The show features objects, videos and costumes spanning Bowie’s 50-year career. Because sound was at the core of Bowie’s art, the museum also provides headphones that play music corresponding to your location in the exhibit. On its final stop of a worldwide tour, the exhibit is on view through July 15. So put on your red shoes, and look out for these nine objects on your visit.

Publicity photograph for The Kon-rads, 1963. Photograph by Roy Ainsworth. Courtesy of The David Bowie Archive. Image © Victoria and Albert Museum

Publicity shot for The Konrads (1966)

Early in his career, Bowie (then known by his birth name, David Jones) was a saxophonist in a rock ’n’ roll group called The Konrads. Before a gig in 1963, a 16-year-old Bowie stepped in for the lead singer, who had cut his foot on glass—kicking off his life as a frontman. This promotional shot shows a more buttoned-up look for the singer than fans would see later.

Acoustic guitar from the “Space Oddity” era, 1969. Courtesy of The David Bowie Archive. Image © Victoria and Albert Museum

Acoustic guitar from “Space Oddity” (1969)

This 12-string acoustic Harptone guitar was used to record Bowie’s first major hit, “Space Oddity.” The song’s title was a playful reference to the 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey and was Bowie’s first of many space-themed records. It was released just days before the Apollo 11 mission launched—making it that much more poignant (not to mention popular).

Ice-blue suit, 1972. Designed by Freddie Burretti for the “Life on Mars?” video. Courtesy of The David Bowie Archive. Image © Victoria and Albert Museum

Ice blue suit worn for “Life on Mars?” music video, Freddie Burretti (1972)

Wearing white face makeup, electric-blue eye shadow and blush to match his orange hair, Bowie donned this light blue satin suit designed by frequent collaborator Freddie Burretti. The designer is credited with helping shape the Ziggy Stardust persona, adding shock value to many of Bowie’s outfits.

Original “Ziggy Stardust” lyrics, David Bowie (1972)

Ziggy Stardust was, as Bowie put it, a messenger for extraterrestrials. The character was inspired by William S. Burroughs’ novel The Wild Boys and the Malcolm McDowell character in A Clockwork Orange. This song and the rest of Bowie’s 1972 album, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, tell this character’s story.

Asymmetric knitted bodysuit, 1973. Designed by Kansai Yamamoto for the Aladdin Sane tour. Courtesy of The David Bowie Archive. Image © Victoria and Albert Museum

Asymmetric knitted bodysuit, Kansai Yamamoto (1973)

Designed for Bowie’s Aladdin Sane tour, this colorful zigzag knitted bodysuit was another in a series of risky artistic statements. This piece transcends gender boundaries for fashion: while Yamamoto says he designs without gender in mind, his pieces were mainly worn by women.

Striped bodysuit for the Aladdin Sane tour, 1973. Design by Kansai Yamamoto. Photograph by Masayoshi Sukita. © Sukita/The David Bowie Archive

Striped bodysuit for the Aladdin Sane tour, Kansai Yamamoto (1973)

This is another piece designed by Yamamoto. Despite his general habit of non-gender-specific work, Yamamoto says he created this one with a “lady in mind.” It was one of many costumes Bowie wore on the Aladdin Sane tour and is the piece that greets visitors at the beginning of the exhibition.

David Bowie with William Burroughs, February 1974. Photograph by Terry O'Neill with color by David Bowie. Courtesy of The David Bowie Archive. Image © Victoria and Albert Museum

David Bowie with William S. Burroughs (1974)

Not-so-talkative Beat writer Burroughs took part in an interview with Bowie for Rolling Stone in November 1973. Burroughs, accompanied by writer Craig Copetas, arrived at Bowie’s London residence for what would be a two-hour conversation. They discussed their views on art, the ’70s and their successes. This photo was taken during their Q&A and later colored in by Bowie.


Print after a self-portrait by David Bowie, 1978. Courtesy of The David Bowie Archive. Image © Victoria and Albert Museum

Self-portrait, David Bowie (1978)

Also a talented visual artist, Bowie made dozens of paintings—including portraits of friends, strangers and, as seen here, himself. This piece is a recreation of his 1977 Heroes album cover. His work was largely influenced by German expressionism; in 1976 Bowie moved to West Berlin with Iggy Pop, and the city is where he produced some of his finest work.

Original photography for the Earthling album cover, 1997. Photograph by Frank W Ockenfels 3. © Frank W Ockenfels 3

Photography from Earthling album cover (1997)

The cover photo for Bowie’s 20th studio album features the singer dressed in a Union Jack coat on which he and designer Alexander McQueen collaborated. Bowie wore the same coat during a performance at the VH1 Fashion Awards in 1996. McQueen had previously designed costumes for Bowie’s Outside album tour.