Costume Designing for David Bowie, an Interview with May Routh
By Valli Herman
For two young Brits, the sci-fi drama “The Man Who Fell to Earth” offered career-altering firsts.
The 1976 film was David Bowie’s first dramatic role. It also was May Routh’s first position as Costume Designer after some years as an assistant.
The news this week of the death of the iconic English singer, actor and fashion icon had particular resonance for the British-born Routh, who expressed some amazement that her first costume design project has remained so prominent in her career.
Released in 1976, the film cast Bowie as an alien, a role he’d established in his music, including the 1969 album “Space Oddity” and in 1972, “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.”
In “The Man Who Fell to Earth,” Bowie brought his ethereal grace to the role of Thomas Jerome Newton, a humanoid extraterrestrial who builds a high-tech empire to build a return spaceship to save his drought-ravaged planet. Yet he’s caught up in earthly emotions and conflicts that threaten his return home.
The film shot in New Mexico in Albuquerque, Artesia and the White Sands National Monument in Alamogordo. Routh has indelible memories of working with Bowie, including a moment when she saw him in their quarters in the Albuquerque Hilton.
“Hair and makeup had taken all rooms on the first floor. He would go from one room to the other. He was wearing a pink, blue and gray plaid cowboy shirt. He got pink-tinted sunglasses that he wore with this amazing orange hair. While he was in the room, he picked up a policeman’s hat with a visor. The orange hair, pink sunglasses and this amazing face with a policeman’s cap on top–it was amazing how it worked together. It was just magic,” Routh said from Los Angeles where she now lives. “When we were in New Mexico, people were astonished by his image. There weren’t many locals with bright orange hair.”
Despite his avant-garde looks, he was the consummate professional.
“I remember he was astonishingly beautiful and amazingly easy to talk to and be with and run ideas by. And he would help you with a design,” said Routh. “I have never met anyone quite as sympathetic.”
Bowie’s embrace of unconventional modes of dress on stage and off aided the costume design process, even when Routh was working with unusual materials such as spun foam.
“He’d say, ‘This is a good design, but I think it would be better if we cut it this way.’ He had worked with so many different kinds of designers by then,” she said.
Director Nicolas Roeg also gave Routh input. “He said to me, ‘Make sure that when you see him on his other planet that he is wearing their most valuable thing.’ I asked, ‘What is that?’ Well, it’s water. So I did some drawings and made this costume made out of tubes that looked like lace,” she said. The hooded silvery costume–and the cat eye contact lenses–add to his alien allure.
Routh also said Bowie brought a type of minimalist influence from the English mime artist, Lindsay Kemp, who taught and performed with the singer in his Ziggy Stardust concerts in 1972.
Though the costumes for “The Man Who Fell to Earth” have likely been lost to history, or Routh supposed, dropped at the Albuquerque Goodwill after production wrapped, that hasn’t stopped historians from contacting her, asking for clues as to their whereabouts.
In 2013, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London staged a touring exhibition, “David Bowie Is,” the first retrospective of the icon’s career, including excerpts from “The Man Who Fell to Earth.”
Routh got a clearer picture of the superstar she dressed when she saw the exhibition in London.
“I was amazed I had no idea who he was when I worked with him. I’ve discovered, upon seeing all this, how incredible he was. I wish I would have known him. I suppose I would have been a total bore who wanted to hang on every word,” she said.
The V&A exhibition also included photos by Brian Duffy, Routh’s boyfriend when she attended Central Saint Martins. Duffy, a fellow fashion design student, became a fashion and music photographer and worked with Bowie from 1972 to 1980 on five photographic shoots, including the famous Aladdin Sane imagery. A selection of those shoots, and the Aladdin Sane contact sheet, remains on the site at Duffyphotographer.com.
Routh’s long and fruitful career continues, but her brush with Bowie’s brand of fame had unexpected outcomes.
“It’s always embarrassing that it was the first film I ever did–and the one that’s gotten the most attention,” she said. Routh also designed “Being There,” “Splash” and “Ronin,” but it’s her work with Bowie that has been immortalized in books and the documentary, “Watching the Alien,” which is included with a special-edition DVD of the movie. The 24-minute documentary doesn’t include footage of Bowie, but does have input from her and Brian Eatwell, the production designer who became Routh’s husband.
Routh also contributed her recollections to the book by Kevin Cann and the photographer’s son, Chris Duffy, “Five Sessions,” which documents the five different photographic shoots that came to represent some of the most creative periods of the pop star’s career.
The V&A exhibit also allowed Routh to appreciate how Bowie’s art made him a pioneer in LGBT rights. She recalled a particular video in the show. “He walks toward the camera as a man and is held in that position as his face changes with makeup to a woman. . .showing the mixture of gender roles. I suddenly realized how extraordinarily brave he was. He was tilting at windmills and able to do things with great style so that people all followed him.”
Some of those who followed him–from Madonna to Lady Gaga to fashion designer Dries Van Noten–tapped into the timelessness of his style, even the outrageous Ziggy Stardust. His ever-evolving on-stage style continues to illustrate the power of costume.
Yet the story isn’t over. Bowie revisited his role in the off-Broadway production “Lazarus,” which he co-wrote as a sequel to the 1963 novel, “The Man Who Fell to Earth.” The musical joins up with Thomas Newton decades later where, drinking gin alone in his apartment, he utters, “I’m a dying man who can’t die.” His art, his image and his message, however, live on.