David Bowie Dressed by Kansai Yamamoto

The English singer was strongly influenced by 'kabuki' theatre and charged the Japanese designer with creating his costumes in the 1970s.


WordsClémence Leleu

David Bowie and Kansai Yamamoto, 1973. Photograph taken by Masayoshi Sukita.

A wide-leg jumpsuit made from black vinyl with white stripes, a white cape covered in kanji, and a blue, black and red costume, an adaptation of the loose-fit trousers worn by samurai… David Bowie‘s stage outfits were marked by the extravagance the androgynous artist adored, and were also strongly inspired by Japan. This stands to reason given that the man behind these costumes was Kansai Yamamoto.

‘David was a true vanguard—he was making waves in the musical landscape of the time. His energy resonated with my own desire to venture out into the world’, the designer explained in an interview with The Cut magazine.


Blurring gender boundaries

The two men met in 1971 after the Japanese designer’s first runway show overseas, which featured models imitating movements from kabuki. The singer was impressed by what he saw and contacted Kansai Yamamoto, asking him to take charge of the outfits for his UK tour in 1973 and the US tour that followed. This was when the bond between the two men was captured by photographer Masayoshi Sukita.

However, David Bowie’s encounter with Kansai Yamamoto was not his first foray into Japanese culture. In the 1960s, he studied dance with Lindsay Kemp, a British dancer and performer whose work was influenced by kabuki. With their intricate costumes and strong make-up, onnagata, male kabuki actors who play women on stage, resonated with his passion for intertwining genders. He also borrowed the hayagawari technique from kabuki, which involves a rapid costume change on stage. 

Bowie also gave a nod to Japanese style in his song ‘Ziggy Stardust’

‘Ziggy really sang, screwed-up eyes and screwed-down hairdo

Like some cat from Japan, he could lick ’em by smiling

He could leave ’em to hang

Came on so loaded man, well hung and snow white tan.’


In 2012, Masayoshi Sukita released a collectors’ edition of his photographs of David Bowie in the book Speed of Life published by Genesis Publications. More information can be found on the photographer’s website.

'KABUKI' stage costume by Kansai Yamamoto for David Bowie, 1973. Photograph taken by Masayoshi Sukita.

© Kansai Yamamoto, Inc

© Kansai Yamamoto, Inc

© Kansai Yamamoto, Inc

'WOODLAND Creatures in white cloak' stage costume for David Bowie, 1973. Photograph taken by Masayoshi Sukita.