David Bowie in Historical Costume


We were shattered to hear of David Bowie’s death on January 10, 2016. He was an artistic icon, and his music, fashion, and art touched all of us deeply. We hadn’t featured him on Man Candy Monday, thinking that his biggest film roles (such as The Man Who Fell to Earth, 1976) were set in contemporary times, but clearly we were mistaken. So, upon his passing, let’s take a retrospective look at those sometimes small, but always, like the artist himself, exquisite and delightful roles with David Bowie in historical costume.


Just a Gigolo (1978) – Paul Ambrosius von Przygodski

At the start of Bowie’s ‘Berlin’ period, he was, appropriately enough, tapped to play this Prussian officer returning home after World War I. As the title implies, he works as a gigolo, and his madam is none other than Marlene Dietrich, in her last film (although the two didn’t meet on set; they were filmed separately because Dietrich didn’t want to travel). Unfortunately, the movie was a flop, and Bowie said later, “Oh well, we’ve all got to do one [bad movie] and hopefully I’ve done mine now.”
David Bowie in "Just a Gigolo," 1978

David Bowie in "Just a Gigolo," 1978


The Hunger (1983) – John Blaylock

Quite possibly one of the most perfect vampire films ever (according to Trystan, our resident expert), The Hunger is mostly based on a Whitley Strieber novel of the same name that posits vampires as an ancient race who crave companionship, in addition to blood. The always elegant Catherine Deneuve plays the vampire, and her companion at the outset is David Bowie … then complications ensue. While the film is set during the contemporary era (and begins with an AH-MAY-ZING intro of Deneuve and Bowie at a nightclub picking up victims as the band Bauhaus plays “Bela Lugosi’s Dead”), we get flashbacks to when the couple first met. Bowie’s character was an 18th-century cellist, so we are treated to these delicious images of David Bowie in historical costume. If you’re wondering why this outfit is so perfect, even though it’s just for a brief scene, well, that’s because the film’s costume designer was none other than Milena Canonero, who had already won an Oscar for the 18th-century costumes in Barry Lyndon (hmm, wonder if it’s a recycled costume?). The movie also features a gorgeous lesbian seduction scene between Catherine Deneuve and Susan Sarandon, so if you haven’t seen it, look it up and watch ASAP!

David Bowie in "The Hunger" 1983 David Bowie in "The Hunger" 1983


Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983) – Maj. Jack ‘Strafer’ Celliers

’83 was a banner year for David Bowie on film and surprisingly, these were all somewhat historical costume movies. One of his most lauded performances was in this World War II Japanese prison camp film. The New York Times review said: “Mr. Bowie’s screen presence here is mercurial and arresting, and he seems to arrive at this effortlessly, though he manages to do something slyly different in every scene. The demands of his role may sometimes be improbable and elaborate, but Mr. Bowie fills them in a remarkably plain and direct way. Little else in the film is so unaffected or clear.”

David Bowie in "Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence" (1983)


Yellowbeard (1983) – The Shark

This was a big, silly, pretty dumb movie written by Monty Python alum Graham Chapman and starring all of his friends, including fellow Pythons Eric Idle and John Cleese (both of whom admitted later that the flick was one of the worst they’d ever done), plus Marty Feldman, Cheech & Chong, Madeline Khan (pictured in decent stays for a pirate flick), and yep, David Bowie made an uncredited cameo. This was costume designer Stephen Miles only full “designer” credit, but he’s been part of the costume and wardrobe staff on everything from The Madness of King George (1994) to Cranford (2007) since then, so hey, something good came out of this.

1983 Yellowbeard


Labyrinth (1986) – Jareth, the Goblin King

Alright, this isn’t a historical film, but for some of us (ehem, Sarah), this movie came out at a critical point in our development. And really, who can deny that David Bowie is ideally cast as the very-tempting-bad-guy-in-tight-pants? We could make something up about how Jareth’s costume echoes 18th-century and Regency men’s fashion through a 1980s lens, but really, we’re too busy goin’ dance, magic dance!

David Bowie in "Labyrinth" 1986


Absolute Beginners (1986) – Vendice Partners

Now he’s literally the Man Who Sold the World, all slick and selling out in this 1950s musical. As fast-talking, sharp-looking Vendice Partners in this ironic turn, David Bowie plays an ad exec with a great song-and-dance scene. Bowie also contributed excellent tunes to the soundtrack.

David Bowie in "Absolute Beginners" (1986)


The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) – Pontius Pilot

Almost unrecognizable in Martin Scorsese’s controversial Biblical story, David Bowie utters the damning line to Willem Defoe’s Jesus, “Unfortunately for you, we don’t want things changed.”

David Bowie in "The Last Temptation of Christ" 1988


Basquiat (1996) – Andy Warhol

This was pretty brilliant casting on painter/director Julian Schnabel’s part. Who other than David Bowie could better capture Andy Warhol’s coolness with warmth and humor (and not just because the two artists had met before Warhol’s death in 1987).  To add extra realism, Bowie was allowed to borrow Warhol’s wig, glasses, and jacket from the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, PA. Warhol’s director Paul Morrissey said of this performance, “Bowie was the best by far. You come away from Basquiat thinking Andy was comical and amusing, not a pretentious, phony piece of shit, which is how others show him.”

David Bowie in "Basquiat" 1996


The Prestige (2006) – Nikola Tesla

An interesting cameo and another feature with David Bowie playing a historical figure. In this Victorian mystery, an illusionist tries to figure out a rival’s secret, and partway through, is convinced that one of Tesla’s inventions can help. Joan Bergin’s solid costume design transforms David Bowie into a careful resemblance of this portrait of the older scientist.



What’s your favorite role with David Bowie in historical costume? How will you remember the artist?

20 Responses

  1. Lady Hermina De Pagan

    I was able to see Mr Bowie perform in the 3 Penny Opera back in the 90’s. He illuminated the stage. I also saw him in concert back in the 2000’s. He still had the raw sexuality and power that marked his early career.

    • Sarah Lorraine

      I regret not going to the Bowie concert in my hometown back in the mid-90s. My friend went and two things happened:

      1) She was dancing by the side of the stage and he looked over at her. She made finger guns at him and he made finger guns back at her;


      2) She somehow managed to break her arm at that same concert and so the stage crew picked her up and took her backstage where DB came to see if she was ok.

      Lucky bitch.

      • Susan Pola

        remember seeing the Hunger. Excellent vampire film. But want to view his others. Back to ‘The Bulge’. Could never figure out why Sara in Labyrinth didn’t ditch her bratty brother and ‘make out’ with Jareth.

  2. Stephani

    Oh Labyrinth! He made a silly song so sexy, while keeping it silly. Every time I watch it I’m like “dang it Sarah, get the heck out of the way. You have no idea what to do with a man like that!”
    And of course I adored him as Tesla in The Prestige.

  3. Charity

    Ah Jareth. Lovely character in a silly film.

    I didn’t like “The Prestige” — but I loved his Tesla.

    He will be missed. :(

  4. Alyxx

    My favorite acting performance of his is still his Broadway Elephant Man. Just brilliant. No costume.
    “I think my head is so big, because its so full of dreams.” Indeed.

  5. Lady Hermina De Pagan

    Ah the “bulge”. At the concert I saw he started to simulate acts of self love mid-song. That image has been part of my private happy memory collection for years.
    As for Labyrinth, I recently re-watched the movie and all I wanted to do was smack Jennifer Conelly silly for bring such an annoying twit. I would have stayed with Jareth and let the rest of the world go hang.

  6. mcetiquette

    I have to go watch The Hunger now. The only thing that can annoy more than period inappropriate clothing in a period movie, is period inappropriate music. So looking at David Bowie placed in the 18th century holding a viol? May just be sexier than watching him as Jareth.

  7. brocadegoddess

    Even as a young girl (I was 9 when Labyrinth came out) I knew Sarah had made the wrong choice.

  8. phlegmfatale

    OMG- the historic photo from The Hunger– did Bowie “dress right?” I never noticed that. Watched this movie last week.
    *le sigh*

  9. Laura Lovett

    I will never stop missing Bowie. Labyrinth and his music have had a huge impression on my life. 2 of my favorite pieces of music are his. “as the world falls down” and “peace on earth/little drummer boy”, that he did with Bing Crosby.

  10. Kristina

    One of my favorite Bowie songs is “Under Pressure.” It’s an example of collaboration working right, not least because both Bowie and Freddie Mercury had outstanding voices. And, yes, Bowie could wear a historically-influenced outfit like nobody’s business. Of course, he is one of those artists who have very unsavory incidents in their histories — in his case, statutory rape (and, yeah, I know that a LOT of rock musicians were guilty of that in the 1970s, but that doesn’t make it right). Since I like some of his music and performances (Labyrinth, IMO, is perfect ’80s guilty-pleasure cheese) but do not in any way consider myself a major fan, I don’t find that this seriously detracts from my enjoyment of his work. :-) Weirdly, I tend to be far more judgmental of the celebs that I really like; I feel disappointment and anger when they behave stupidly or immorally.