Six months ago, I didn’t really know who Bowie was. It’s embarrassing to admit, but it’s the truth. I mean, I probably knew he was a famous musician and could recognize a few of his hit songs, but wouldn’t have considered myself a fan. So why a Bowie costume?
I have always wanted to make costumes, but never made the time to do it. I decided this year I would make the time. Not long after I won a small prize for the first costume I made, a David Bowie tribute event encouraging costumes was announced. Creating a costume, something original inspired by his body of work, sounded like a nice way to honor and remember him and a good opportunity to attempt a more complicated project.
As soon as I started researching costume ideas, I was completely drawn in. David Bowie was legendary. To say that his outfits were spectacular is an understatement. I have never seen anything like them. His music was equally original and he was an extraordinarily talented performer. He clearly had impeccable taste, a unique creative vision, and the courage to fully embody and express who he was. Bowie was truly an original, and his style makes an especially great theme for a costume event because of his many androgynous looks. His looks were all expertly curated, visually stunning, and unique.
I enjoy the challenge of trying to recreate a look as closely as possible, but which one to pick? Like any artist that transcends time, Bowie reinvented himself. In his later years, he seemed to have completely moved on from the Ziggy Stardust era of his youth. He seemed disinterested in playing any of the old music in favor of creating new work. In fact, he released an album just before he passed away that sounded much different than his earlier work to me.
Yet each of his Stardust outfits were extraordinary, mesmerizing, irresistible works of art. As I scrolled through the archival images and footage on fashion websites and YouTube, it became clear that my favorite Bowie looks hailed from the 1970s during Bowie’s Ziggy alter-ego days. My favorite look was the black body suit by Kansai Yamamoto with thin white stripes that looked like it could have been inspired by a vinyl record. I envisioned somehow elevating a commercial grade contractor’s garbage bag (the heavier weight ones) to fine art through laborious fittings and hand painting white lines on the black plastic to replicate the original look. I also was inspired by the choreography of his on-stage, mid-concert wardrobe changes where stagehands ripped one layer of expertly crafted garment away to instantly reveal an equally stunning new creation.
I did not have time for any of that. The event was less than a month away, which was hardly enough time to put together anything that would do Bowie justice. The detail and craftsmanship in each of his costumes was a sight to behold. Every single thing he wore in the Stardust era was one-of-a-kind, custom, tailored to fit him perfectly. Everything spoke to his specific style, in a specific era. One would not find anything like those things in any mall store today. It was clear that any Bowie costume would require a serious commitment to DIYing everything.
I didn’t initially want to make the flame outfit he wore in a performance of his song “Time” in London in 1973 because others had already done it. But I could see that what would be required to make that outfit was something I would likely be able to finish within the available time. People seem to like flames, and I liked that the outfit had one arm and one leg exposed. This was a silhouette I have only seen Bowie attempt (and probably one that only he can really pull off). Iconically Bowie, any diehard fan of his (or someone exceptionally well-versed in fashion, perhaps) would surely recognize the silhouette and associate it with him.
I didn’t really know who Bowie was when I started making this costume, but as I pieced it together I became a huge fan. I don’t know if he would have liked it, but it is my way of saying “thank you” for all of the great work he made.
My budget was tiny, and it was a lot of work, but seeing how much people loved it made it worth it. The best part of making costumes is definitely seeing people smile in delight in reaction to it.
Making the costume
For the base outfit, I bought a knit top and leggings in the same color from Forever 21. It may have been this top and these leggings, but I’m not sure. I would recommend visiting stores in person to get the right color and fit. These options were good for a tiny budget.
I got home and promptly removed the right leg of the leggings and left arm portion of the v-neck top. I would have preferred to begin with a crew neck top, since I had to make it asymmetrical, but the v-neck top was all Forever 21 had that matched the leggings. The top ended up having a wider neck opening than I would have preferred, and I had to use garment tape to ensure everything stayed in place. Since my sewing machine is in storage, I roughly hand sewed the hems to finish the raw edges.
I would recommend gradually removing fabric for this part because you don’t want to remove too much! I tried on the pieces several times between cuts to make sure the result would be decent. I would also recommend using wooly nylon (or the zigzag stitch) for sewing spandex or knits that you want to retain the stretch in. I didn’t have this, and so was just careful to leave extra thread as I wanted to make sure there was some give. This is really not ideal, though, especially if the fabric needs to stretch a lot.
I had to hem both the top and bottoms to get the right fit. When I hemmed the top, I made sure it was long enough to slightly overlap the waistband of the leggings to make it look more seamless. This also gives more room for error to ensure you don’t end up inadvertently with a trendy but inappropriate crop top.
For a more conservative event or person, you could replace the removed blue pieces with pieces from a nude colored top and leggings that match your skin tone. That would definitely eliminate any chance of wardrobe malfunctions and probably would be warmer. Forever 21’s leggings come in many different colors and there are many other manufacturers of nude dancewear type garments. I wasn’t going to an office party or an afternoon high tea ceremony (I was going to a late night event), so I decided that in the spirit of Bowie I would rock a bare leg. I also didn’t want to have a visible neckline where there was supposed to be bare skin.
Instead of top and bottom separates, you could get a one piece cat suit type garment. These weren’t available locally for me, and I didn’t have time to wait for shipping, but there are several vendors on EBay (keywords like “zentai” and “catsuit” seemed to work).
Making the flames
I hit up a local fabric store to find flame like textiles in fabrics with stage presence. I picked a shiny metallic fabric (not sure what it’s called), and bought it in blue, red, yellow, orange, and light orange (like an oily orange sherbet). I did not use the orange or light orange because I didn’t think it would add anything, and thought it might actually detract. I originally purchased a nude fabric (left most in the photo above) for the arm ribbons by mistake and didn’t use that in the costume either (I made something else out of it that I’ll share later).
I cut out the flames, trying to get them to look similar to how they look on Bowie’s original outfit. Sometimes I just freehanded it, and other times I sketched it out lightly on the fabric first with permanent marker (which is mostly permanent on this fabric, so you have to be careful). I used a “Permanent Fabric Glue” by Aleene’s (this one has a similar label but is a smaller size) to glue the flames down to the fabric. I just placed the cut out flames where I wanted them, and slathered glue all over it. The flame fabric was somewhat porous, and the blue knit fabric was thick enough for the glue not to bleed through. This technique worked really well for me, but always test with small fabric scraps first.
The glue label says the glue dries clear and flexible. I liked that the glue would have some flexibility since I was gluing to a knit that needed to stretch and covering a large area. I liked that it would dry clear, since I didn’t want to see it. Note that this glue does not dry clear on all fabrics. You need to test the glue out on the fabric you are using to see what happens. The glue did NOT dry clear on the blue knit fabric. I took extra care to keep it off the blue areas that were not going to be covered with flames. (Alternatively, you could sew the fabric on.)
For the flame design and layout, I knew I wanted the flames to appear continuous from top to bottom, despite the outfit consisting of two separate pieces. I also wanted to have the red streak down the leg, as in the original outfit. And I wanted to make sure part of the flame wrapped around the leg. I think when you’re designing something that is three dimensional, it is important to utilize all three dimensions.
Since the glue takes a day or two to cure fully, I worked in sections and skipped around. To line up the flames on the top and bottom, I glued down the part on the leggings first and then laid the top out flat over the leggings approximating how they would line up when worn, and then cut out a flame pattern for the top that would match what had already been glued down on the leggings.
The resulting flaming leg did not have a lot of stretch. The glue really inhibited a lot of the stretch. This is the one downside to having the flame wrap around your leg. If reduced stretch is a concern, you may want to minimize the lateral coverage of the flamed area or sew on a stretchy fabric. It would be such a bummer to finish the costume and then not be able to get into it! Mine was a little constricting, so if I were to do it over, I would probably opt for a stretchy fabric for the flames and I would probably zig-zag stitch them on. That would be so much more comfortable and wearable! Given the glue, metallic fibers, and hand sewing, the result is definitely hand wash only, but you could definitely make this to withstand machine washing with more durable fabrics and sewing machine. I think this costume in all spandex would make a great outfit for a charity walk!
Arm “ribbons” and leg “donuts”
For the “arm ribbons”, I bought a satin-y yellow fabric and paired it with the blue metallic fabric. Bowie’s original outfit had flames on the blue side of the ribbons. I opted not to do this mainly because I think the flames there – while super cool from a technical and craftsmanship perspective – looked a little busy to me. Also I was pretty tired of designing flames at that point and wanted to get to the next step. Actually, looking at the photos now, I kind of wish I had done flames on the arm ribbons, so I must have just been flamed out.
Bowie’s original outfit has five arm ribbons, I believe, but I had to reduce the number to four (my arms must be shorter than his). For the placement and scale of the ribbons, I made sure the top ribbon started around my back like Bowie’s, which I thought was a great design choice (as opposed to starting the ribbon at the shoulder, my initial thought). The resulting effect is that the widest ribbon wraps around from back to arm, and I think this lends more movement.
I also made sure to stagger the lengths of the ribbons as in the original design. The second ribbon down the arm is the longest, the first (the wrap around one) is slightly shorter, and the ribbon length gets shorter towards the sleeve cuff. I made the back most ribbon long enough to cover my butt, which was also how the original look was designed, and went from there. The width of each ribbon also gets narrower towards the arm cuff, as in the original outfit. The shorter ribbon length by the hand also makes the design more functional (less stuff flapping around your hands). Getting the ribbon dimensions right and to scale while minimizing sewing (hand sewing, remember) and with minimal fabric (budget, remember) was probably the biggest challenge, but I like how they came out.
I made the arm and leg “donuts” out of scrap fabric and polyester batting (the kind you stuff pillows with). These required a couple of alterations to get the width and circumference just right.
Selecting and styling the right wig
For hair, I bought the “Crazy Wig” from a costume shop because it was the least expensive red haired wig that would work. If you put on this wig out of the bag, the hair sticks out in all directions. I used serious hairspray to style the wig into a slicked back mullet style that was a huge hit. I also sprayed dry shampoo into the wig to reduce the shiny cheapness and make it look more realistic. I removed the leg portion of a pair of nylon stockings and knotted this to make an inexpensive wig cap. Thank you YouTube for these tips! People thought the wig just came like that. It’s pretty cool what styling can do!
Make-up and nails
For make-up, I am not great at make-up. I watched a ton of YouTube drag make-up videos and taught myself how to cover my eyebrows using the purple glue stick and powder method. You need to get the glue on REAL thick. If you can’t see the purple, you don’t have enough glue. If you don’t have blonde eyebrows, you will probably need to use an orange lipstick or something to counteract the dark blue hue of the glue covered brow hair. Set everything with powder between glue applications, and make sure you are very precise with applying everything so it blends in with your skin well and doesn’t turn into a huge mess. I covered my lips with nude concealer and opted to leave my face bare other than that – that was the look Bowie went with in the video. I opted for no make-up because I didn’t want anything to compete with the outfit, but looking at the photos now I think there are many different make-up looks you could do that would complement the outfit. If I ever use this costume again, I’d like to try the gold sun on the forehead with the red tinted sides of the face look. I hope I get to do that! I already have the gold and red for it!
For nail polish, I really like the L.A. Colors Color Craze nail polish in color “Live”. It’s a sparkly silver that goes on opaque in one coat and takes almost no time to dry. I think Bowie’s nails were silver in that “Time” video, and that’s where I got the idea from. I’m so amazed at whoever his styling team was. Silver is the perfect accent color (!!!). The L.A. Colors nail polish was no more than $2 at the drugstore. I’ve since tried several other colors by L.A. Colors, to varying results. They do all seem to dry very quickly, but the other glitters I’ve tried require several coats.
In the look below, the outfit is paired with nude flats, but the final look was paired with mirror metallic gold stilettos, which is so much better (but not as comfortable). I wish I had a picture of that.
The final look won “Best Costume” at the tribute.
How are you remembering David Bowie? What’s your favorite Bowie look? Do you have a “dream costume” you’d like to make? The world rained purple while I was making this, so I knew I’d be making a Prince costume next. Stay tuned.