Outrageous costumes and hand-scrawled lyrics are among hundreds of items going on show in a major London retrospective tracing David Bowie’s relentless self-reinventions over five decades.
Charting the British singer’s rise to fame and his reincarnations as Ziggy Stardust and other outlandish alter egos, the “David Bowie Is” exhibition has become the fastest-selling show in the Victoria and Albert Museum’s history ahead of its launch on Saturday.
The prestigious art and design museum was given unprecedented access to the 66-year-old singer’s personal archives for the show, which includes everything from baby photographs to painstaking sketches of designs for his own costumes.
“David Bowie is a true icon, more relevant to popular culture now than ever,” said the V&A’s director Martin Roth.
“His radical innovations across music, theatre, fashion and style still resound today in design and visual culture and he continues to inspire artists and designers throughout the world.”
Born David Robert Jones to modest parents, Bowie grew up in the bomb-scarred south London neighbourhood of Brixton after World War II.
The exhibition explores his early life and first forays into music with bands The Kon-rads and The King Bees — with his designs for the fledgling groups’ costumes and stage sets revealing that even at this early stage, he had an instinctive grasp of the power of image.
Hits including “Space Oddity”, “Starman” and “Heroes” follow visitors around the vast exhibition, while the costumes on display include the multi-coloured jumpsuit in which he burst onto the stage in 1972 as the gender-bending, other-worldly Ziggy Stardust.
The retrospective casts light on Bowie’s almost obsessive attention to his image, taking charge not just of his ever-changing sound, but almost every element of performance and presentation from lighting to set design.
Some costumes appear alongside Bowie’s original sketches — including a massive tubular outfit worn on a US television show in 1979. “Access into and out of to be easy,” says a note on the felt-tip drawing.
“You can’t get more multi-disciplinary than David Bowie,” said Geoffrey Marsh, one of the show’s curators.
“He’s a musician, he’s a songwriter, but he’s also fascinated with graphic design, costume design.”
Huge projections of Bowie’s live performances cover the walls in one room, while another explores the influential years he spent in Berlin in the late 1970s, recovering from drug addiction and creating his stylish Thin White Duke persona.
In a show focused on Bowie’s enduring cultural influence, there are few reminders that he is still recording.
But a bizarre puppet from the video for “Where We Are Now” — the single with which he broke a decade-long musical silence on his 66th birthday in January — makes an appearance, and visitors can listen to strains of his new album “The Next Day”.
The album rocketed to the top of the British charts this week — a sign that retirement may be some way off.