David Bowie as Thomas Jerome Newton, ambitious humanoid alien
New Mexico, Summer 1975
Film: The Man Who Fell to Earth
Release Date: March 18, 1976
Director: Nicolas Roeg
Costume Designer: May Routh
Tailor: Ola Hudson
In the spirit of Earth Day, let’s check in with The Man Who Fell to Earth. Only David Bowie could have truly played the idealistic humanoid alien who makes a desperate voyage to Earth in order to gather the technology to save his drought-ridden home planet, only for his ageless character to succumb to the materialistic pleasures offered by the sex, drugs, and capitalism that characterized American zeitgeist in the ’70s.
Our eponymous humanoid falls to Earth in the mountains of New Mexico, from where he stumbles into the fictitious town of Haneyville. Set to the tune of Louis Armstrong’s meandering “Blueberry Hill”, he barters his gold ring at a local pawnshop once its aging owner verifies his identity via a British passport that christens him Thomas Jerome Newton, adding another twenty dollars to his growing bankroll. (The passport retains Bowie’s January 8th birthday—indeed, had he been born on Earth, the taciturn, hardworking, secretive, and determined Newton would be the quintessential Capricorn—but reassigns the year to 1946, one year before Bowie was actually born.)
Not that time matters in the world of The Man Who Fell to Earth, as the narrative spans decades but the overall look never shifts from the summer of 1975 when visionary director Nicolas Roeg helmed the production on location in New Mexico.
“Conceptually daring, experimental, avant-garde – epithets that could equally well apply to the 1976 sci-fi cult classic The Man Who Fell to Earth, its idiosyncratic director Nicolas Roeg, or its leading man, the Thin White Duke himself, Mr. David Bowie,” wrote Desmund Huthwaite for The Rake‘s tribute to the movie.
I saw The Man Who Fell to Earth for the first time about a year ago, about a month into our collective quarantine when the offerings of the Criterion Channel provided much-needed escape. After my first viewing, I felt both overwhelmed and underwhelmed, my initial thoughts akin to “well… that was different.” Despite what I perceived as my own lukewarm reaction, I found Newton’s saga, Bowie’s presence, and Anthony B. Richmond’s breathtaking cinematography sticking with me as I kept replaying parts of the movie until ultimately rewatching it and appreciating it considerably more just before it left the channel at the end of the month. Now, that‘s a powerful movie experience… and you’ll never be able to hear Ricky Nelson’s “Hello Mary Lou” the same way again!
What’d He Wear?
Thomas Jerome Newton makes his boots-first landing in the Ortiz Mountains in northern New Mexico, dusting up his black oiled leather work boots, before ultimately making his way to the edge of Fenton Lake… about a hundred miles northwest on the other side of Santa Fe National Forest. Newton’s heavy apron-toe boots are derby-laced with seven eyelets.
Perhaps not the most climate-friendly layer for a summer in New Mexico, Newton arrives wearing an olive brown coarse woolen coat. This hooded coat shares many characteristics of the classic British military duffel coat (also spelled “duffle”), though it lacks the duffel’s characteristic toggle fastenings, instead closing with dark brown woven leather buttons.
Original Montgomery, the oldest surviving company chosen by the British Admiralty in the 1890s to make the first duffel coats for the Royal Navy, currently offers the “London” coat with a flat collar and removable hood, similar to Bowie’s screen-worn coat, though the London coat still has the traditional toggle-front, which was designed to be more easily opened and closed by glove-wearing seamen.
I have read suggestions that Bowie’s screen-worn coat was made by Gloverall, the UK brand that took the duffel coat from military to mainstream in the 1950s. Even Gloverall’s site includes mention of The Man Who Fell to Earth though without specifically citing the coat as one of their own, commenting that “Newton’s choice to use such a popular, uniform coat marks him as both anonymous within the crowd (helping him to blend in) while also part of ‘in crowd’ at the time that happily rebelled against conventionality and stereotype.”
Newton’s knee-length, double-breasted coat has four parallel rows of two buttons each, each row connected via a short strap with a button on each pointed end. It buttons up just shy of the neck, where the presence of a short loop suggests an additional button rigged on the right closes at the top. The set-in sleeves are finished at each cuff with a squared tab with two stacked buttons to close.
Around the coat’s Prussian collar, a hood buttons in place with two 4-hole plastic buttons on the back and one on each side of the front and a drawstring to adjust the hood’s fit.
When Newton arrives at the Haneyville pawn shop, he removes his coat to use as a makeshift pillow, revealing charcoal waxed canvas coveralls that zip up from crotch to neck.
These coveralls have two low-slung open-top chest pockets above the elasticized waist and slanted hand pockets positioned just below it. The raglan sleeves close with squared single-button cuffs. Underneath, he wears a plain white cotton crew-neck short-sleeve undershirt.
Newton wears a pair of silver-framed sunglasses with squared lenses throughout The Man Who Fell to Earth.
The design is relatively simple, though they have become so enduringly linked to David Bowie’s image that they inspired the “Thin White Duke” frame in Etnia Barcelona‘s limited edition Bowie collection that celebrates the stylish rock star’s legacy. Given its exclusivity, the Bowie collection sold out quickly, though you can still echo the style with frames like the Ray-Ban RB3857 Frank (via Amazon or Ray-Ban) or the budget-friendly SOJOS alternative (also via Amazon).
Years later, after finding success and revealing his true nature to Mary Lou (Candy Clark), he layers the coat over one of his many white long-sleeved shirts—buttoned to the neck—as he walks out to the pier he built extending from his luxury home built on Fenton Lake.
“David wanted a look that was very simple; as a man coming from another planet, he thought he should wear things that wouldn’t stand out or attract attention to him,” recalled costume designer May Routh in a retrospective interview with Dazed. “So he had to look really quite ordinary—until you realize he has orange hair, at least!”
In addition to The Man Who Fell to Earth being Bowie’s major screen debut, it was also the first movie credit for now-prolific costume designer May Routh, whose credits now also include Being There, My Favorite Year, Ronin, and Reindeer Games. Routh recalled working with Bowie to be an uncommonly pleasant and collaborative experience:
He was so helpful, especially in designing the special effects costumes. At the time I didn’t realize it was anything special, I thought all actors were going to be like him – big mistake!
The outfit Routh designed for Newton’s arrival translated from sketch to screen with almost perfect alignment, executing her vision of a “dark olive green duffel coat, dark grey jumpsuit, [and] black lace-up combat boots.”
During an interview with SciFiNow, Routh recalled that the coat was director Nicolas Roeg’s idea, which she initially found to be “weird, because funnily enough in America they don’t really wear them and when I found one it was actually olive green, which was for us quite strange because we thought they would be beige. But they were all things like that, that just threw you off slightly.”
How to Get the Look
On the surface, there is very little about how Thomas Jerome Newton is dressed that suggests he’s an alien… until you catch a glimpse of the orange hair or that weightlessly wiry frame under the layers of his warm duffel-style hooded coat and coveralls.
Newton’s appearance for his arrival transcends time (like the rest of The Man Who Fell to Earth—and, indeed, David Bowie himself) as a functional and surprisingly fashionable hard-wearing outfit that has become a lasting look in Bowie’s legacy of offbeat style.
- Olive brown coarse wool modified duffel coat with button-in hood, 8×2-button double-breasted front, straight flapped hip pockets, and 2-button tab cuffs
- Charcoal waxed canvas coveralls with two chest pockets, two hand pockets, zip-up front, elasticized waistband, and squared 1-button cuffs
- White cotton crew-neck short-sleeve T-shirt
- Black oiled leather 7-eyelet derby-laced apron-toe work boots
- Silver square-framed sunglasses
Do Yourself a Favor and…
A side profile of David Bowie wearing Newton’s hooded coat would be used on the cover of his 1977 album Low.
I don’t hate anyone. I can’t.