Aladdin Sane at the Salvation Army

(Object is an essay series exploring the meaning of clothes, jewelry, make-up, and accessories.)


"Everyone here wants to sleep with you."

Two months into my first year of grad school, I was at my first actual Halloween party since maybe middle school (I didn’t get out much in college, whatever, shut up). I was dressed as Aladdin Sane: full lightning-bolt makeup, ruffled shirt, my girlfriend’s leggings. The news about everyone wanting to sleep with me came from Franke, a poet in my year whose introversion was so deep that it often worm-holed inside out and exploded as inappropriate extroversion (I mean, the dude once brought a jug of liquor to a writing class.) In other words, the line could easily have been a joke at my expense that I am still too dense to recognize. Half the battle of being a graduate student was figuring out which insecurities to take seriously. But at that party and at that moment, it was exactly what I wanted to hear. I raised my hand and tried to point to the whole room at once. “I accept!” I said to him and everyone.

I lost my David Bowie virginity decades after just about everybody else. It happened in college, by accident, via the soundtrack to The Life Aquatic. It’s not that cool of a story except that it was electrifying to hear Seu Jorge’s mournful acoustic cover of “Life on Mars” in Portuguese rub elbows with Bowie’s original “Queen Bitch.”

Later that year, my father asked me whether I actually liked Bowie or just listened to him ironically. A fair question: my parents knew me then (and probably still know me best) as my high school self, who was unabashedly and unironically in love with nü-metal. Like, I owned Godsmack albums on purpose. Even so, I didn’t have the guts to quite commit to a metalhead look. Aside from some unfortunate hair gel and JNCO jeans decisions, I wore the 00s straight white guy uniform: New Balance sneaks, t-shirts with words and/or dragons on them, and cargo everything. Utilitarian and baggy: default clothes for a default guy who wanted to be wanted and didn’t know how to say so.

So no, I didn’t listen to David Bowie ironically. I listened deliberately, enjoying the way he clashed with my previous self. He ushered in a series of infatuations with musical heartthrob waifs: Patrick Wolf, Owen Pallett, Andrew Bird, Zach Condon; I was in college. The sludge of double-bass pedals and drop-tuned guitar washed away in a tide of ukuleles and synths and violins and glitter. I went hippie rather than glam: shoulder-length hair followed by a soul-patch. But still, my clothes were more about concealment and fitting in than anything else, and my idols were men who had found a wardrobe that was outlandish, surreal, and performative bordering on vain.

I got into grad school on the last day of the last month of the acceptance deadline. Some guy had decided at the last minute to attend Cornell instead of Michigan, thereby scooping me out of the waitlist and dumping me into a pool of real writers. I was a small fish in a small pond full of big fish. Some of my peers had books out already. Some already had successful careers in other disciplines. Many were a decade or more older than me. Workshops were full of straight-up good writing. Meanwhile, I tried to feel like I deserved to be there. I submitted my buttoned-up little poems about floorboards and fireplaces, the emotional content always oblique, always mediated by images rather than revealed by them. They received polite, buttoned-up feedback in return. But then the Bowie costume happened. For the rest of the year, people talked about the costume in a way they didn’t talk about my writing.

I’d cobbled the costume together from the Salvation Army thrift store across the street from my apartment. The big finds were a faux-snakeskin jacket and a yellow satiny blouse with ruffles that went on for days. My girlfriend at the time helped assemble the rest of it: she administered the aerosol hair dye, the face-paint and makeup, and loaned me the leggings.

Could I have dressed up as Aladdin Sane had I been single? Could I have walked into a party full of near-strangers wearing tights and makeup if I hadn’t been firmly partnered? I want the answer to be yes. I’d like to be the anchor for my own masculinity. But I haven’t really dressed up for Halloween since we broke up.                

The image of Ziggy Stardust I held in my head as I rifled through the women’s clothing racks at Salvation Army, and the image of him I have now, is neither timid nor oblique. He is bleached and vivid, wearing the goofy red mullet, the silver circle stamped on his forehead, the jumpsuit that’s half-Star Trek and half-kimono, the bare chest underneath. Not androgynous so much as transcendently sexual.

For me, the “starman” is a fantasy of escape and return: to escape my boring poetry and return with something resplendent; to escape the heavy masculine anxieties of my adolescence and return transfigured and alien and actually, publicly sexy.

And it worked for a minute. I walked into the party, and everyone knew who I was supposed to be.

(David Ward teaches writing classes at the University of Michigan, where he once upon a time received an MFA in poetry. He’s been published, but not often or recently. He’s excited to write about David Bowie, but feels a little weird that he’s used Bowie’s death as an occasion to write about his own life. Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars is his favorite album, because obviously, but Low and Hunky Dory are close contenders. Next costume: Goblin King.)

Photographs by Caitlin Joseph