What are your tits made of, dear?” bouffanted Gary Glitter asks Leigh Bowery, festooned like a sadomaso Christmas cracker in epaulets, face harness, and lightbulbs. “Willpower more than anything,” Bowery deadpans, powdered bits of belly sticking out of his corset to form a makeshift décolletage. Taken from a late-’80s chat show, this moment is just one of the eye-popping artifacts in Charles Atlas’s remarkable moving-picture-book tribute to Bowery, the late fashiondesigner-cum-performer who pushed the New Romantic penchant for lunatic masquerade into new heights of artistic ambition.
Bowery’s style transcends the snarky clubland clobber of contemporaries like Boy George (who plays him in Taboo and is interviewed in Legend). His creations went beyond mere drag into something nameless and terrifying. The getups incorporated abstract face-painting, complete headlessness, sequined masks, pickaninny gingham playsuits, bondage gear, distended stomach prostheses, Nazi regalia, and wax lips affixed to cheeks via safety pins. Even his own flesh became costume: He modeled for Lucian Freud, sans apparel. Himself a Bowery collaborator, Atlas deftly adapts the signature free-form chroma-key of his dance videos to the strictures of the biodoc. Atlas allows Bowery’s genius to retain, in the words of one admirer, “a big bundle of contradictions,” not unlike his shocking designs themselves.