The Man Who Fell to Earth: David Bowie’s Black Suit

David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth

David Bowie, on location in New Mexico during production of The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)

Vitals

David Bowie as Thomas Jerome Newton, ambitious humanoid alien

From New York City to Artesia, New Mexico, 1970s

Film: The Man Who Fell to Earth
Release Date: March 18, 1976
Director: Nicolas Roeg
Costume Designer: May Routh
Suits by: Ola Hudson

WARNING! Spoilers ahead!

Background

Today would have been the 75th birthday of David Bowie, born in London on January 8, 1947.

Though he’d made a few screen appearances earlier in his career, The Man Who Fell to Earth was Bowie’s first prominent leading role. Adapted by Paul Mayersberg from Walter Tevis’ novel of the same name, Nicolas Roeg’s avant-garde cult classic transcends the trappings of traditional science fiction to spin the yarn of Thomas Jerome Newton, an ambitious if naïve starman who “fell to Earth” on a mission to bring water back to his home planet… only to fall even farther, seduced by the materialistic capitalism of 1970s America and all of its celebrated hedonistic indulgences of sex, television, drugs, and booze. (Not to forget forever changing my once-wholesome associations with Ricky Nelson’s “Hello, Mary Lou”.)

The daring surreality of The Man Who Fell to Earth extends to the setting, spanning decades as indicated by the on-screen achievements and the aging of Newton’s cohorts, though Roeg intentionally removed references to the passing of time, rooting all action to appear in the world of 1975, when production had commenced that summer in New Mexico.

My first viewing had initially left me feeling both overwhelmed and underwhelmed, and I’m ashamed to admit that I could muster little response aside from “huh… that was weird.” Yet, I noticed that it was sticking with me hours, days, and even weeks later, to the point where it was distracting me during a rewatch of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. A second viewing reinforced the power of this haunting movie, centered around David Bowie’s idiosyncratic presence and supported by a talented supporting cast that includes Candy Clark, Rip Torn, Bernie Casey, and Buck Henry, the prolific comedian who also died two years ago today on January 8, 2020. 

May Routh's costume design sketch for Thomas Jerome Newton's black slubbed silk suit.

May Routh’s costume design sketch for Thomas Jerome Newton’s suit, described as “black slubbed silk” in her notes. (Source: The Huffington Post)

What’d He Wear?

In Men of Style, his volume for which Bowie himself graces the cover, author Josh Sims writes that the performer’s style during his Thin White Duke phase was “informed by German Expressionism, Cabaret, perhaps the jazz greats of the 1940s and 1950s — their boxy suits, braces, loosened ties, trench coats, fedoras — and cocaine use.”

Bowie rotates through a unique wardrobe that ranges from the functional to the futuristic, though his signature black suit is arguably his most frequently worn outfit.

Crafted by prolific designer Ola Hudson to flatter Bowie’s famously slender frame, the suit harmoniously unites Bowie’s neoteric style with the otherworldly character he portrayed. Costume designer May Routh recalled in an interview with DAZED that the collaborative star had been eager to create “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.”

After “falling to Earth” in his hooded duffel coat, Newton debuts the slim-fitting black silk suit that would reappear throughout The Man Who Fell to Earth. The shine of the slubbed silk in certain light suggests the archetypal shiny “space suits” of sci-fi, though Routh explained to The Huffington Post that “everything he wore was soft so the clothes didn’t injure him.”

David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth

The slubs of Newton’s black silk suit shine under the artificial light of Dr. Bryce’s living room.

Like the humanoid alien that Bowie portrays, Newton’s black suit may look mostly conventional at first but paying attention to the details shows plenty that distinguishes it.

Shaped with front darts, the ventless jacket closes with a single button positioned at Bowie’s waist. Each cuff is also decorated with a single button, though these are purely vestigial as there’s no split or vent at the end of the sleeve to even suggest functionality. The breast pocket is jetted—rather than welted—which works with the jetted hip pockets to present a minimalist appearance.

David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth

Note the distinctive details of Newton’s suit, such as the jetted—rather than welted—breast pocket and single-button closure.

The suit’s matching trousers rise high to where they’re fitted (sans belt) around Bowie’s natural waist, which has a shallow split in the center back as though to be worn with suspenders. Styled with reverse-facing pleats that add elegant dimension through his hips, the trousers have a full fit through the legs to the plain-hemmed bottoms.

David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth

The most obviously offbeat aspect of Newton’s wardrobe in these scenes are his black patent leather platform shoes, defined as such by the chunky, flat-bottomed black soles that flare from about an inch high under the rounded toe-box to raised several inches at the heel. These platform shoes are shaped like ankle boots with a zipper closing up each ankle-high shaft, finished with straps that cross over the vamp and buckle closed over the top of the back. Newton wears them with black socks.

David Bowie and Candy Clark in The Man Who Fell to Earth

Mary Lou carries Newton to his hotel room. Note that, as she sits him in bed, she’s unfastened his platform shoes, revealing the buckle over the straps that is typically covered by the break of his plain-hemmed trouser bottoms.

Newton’s wide-brimmed black fedora is the first aspect of this outfit that we see on screen, as its dramatic silhouette marks his entry into the home of harried patent lawyer Oliver Farnsworth (Henry). The black felt hat has a wide black grosgrain band around the base of its tall pinched crown, working with the wide self-edged brim to suggest the fashions of the ’40s that had reportedly informed the Thin White Duke’s image.

David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth

Forty years after the film premiered, Routh explained to DAZED that “because David was so thin, I got all his shirts for size 18 boys. And he wanted things like Viyella, which in America they call brushed flannel, so that they were all very neat and fitted.”

For his arrival at Farnsworth’s home and the check-in at the New Mexico hotel that fatefully introduces him to Mary Lou (Clark), Newton wears a gray melange shirt with a substantial point collar. The plain, non-placket front has seven pearl two-hole buttons that he tends to fasten up to the neck, a practice colloquialized as the “air tie”. The shirt also has a breast pocket and single-button cuffs.

David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth

Masked in the shadow of his wide-brimmed hat, Newton discusses his plans with Farnsworth.

After amassing his early fortune, Newton checks into an Artesia, New Mexico hotel as “Mr. Sussex” but quickly faints and collapses from the effects of the elevator. Working as an attendant in the hotel, Mary Lou desperately picks him up and carries him into his room, attempting to revive him. She evidently pulls off his gray shirt, hangs it in his bathroom (with the manufacturer’s tag faintly visible, to aid any eagle-eyed readers who hope to ID it), and allows Newton to rest, stripped down to his plain white cotton short-sleeved undershirt tucked into his trousers.

David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth

Newton awakens in his room, stripped down to his undershirt, trousers, and unfastened boots.

Newton’s initial meeting with Farnsworth outlines his plan to secure nine basic patents that would elevate his leadership of the aptly named World Enterprises, allowing him to fundraise for a substantial water supply that could save his draught-stricken home planet. Amidst the vignettes of his bustling to build this fortune, we see Newton chauffeured in the back of his limo wearing a dark indigo shirt, similarly styled as the gray shirt with the cream plastic buttons again fastened up to the neck and over the mitred barrel cuffs.

David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth

As Newton begins his work with Dr. Nathan Bryce (Rip Torn), we see him again wearing his black suit and an “air tie” shirt, this time in plain white but otherwise similarly styled with its point collar, plain front, and button cuffs. (When introducing Dr. Bryce to the orb, he pulls on a pair of black leather gloves.)

Rip Torn and David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth

Before Dr. Bryce discovers his true identity, Newton wears a tan shirt with a brushed texture that suggests it’s one of the Viyella shirts that Routh had sourced on Bowie’s request. The shirt has the same ’70s-style long point collar as his others, but differs with its front placket and two chest pockets, each with a pointed flap that closes through a large golden translucent plastic button echoing those up the placket.

David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth

David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth

Bowie filming the finale on location in Los Angeles, photographed by Terry O’Neill. Only his upper half is clearly visible on screen, though this behind-the-scenes shot gives us a great look at the details of his distinctive platform shoes.

Released after years of painful experiments while in government captivity, having failed his mission to save his family and planet, and having lost his few friendships and relationships on Earth, the seemingly ageless Newton falls into an alcoholic depression by the movie’s end. He meets with Dr. Bryce at Butterfield’s Restaurant on Sunset Boulevard, proclaiming that he can’t be bitter toward his betrayal as he would have likely taken the same actions. We hear the strains of Artie Shaw’s 1940 rendition of “Stardust” (no mention of “Ziggy”) as a waiter decides, “I think maybe Mr. Newton has had enough, don’t you?”

Newton’s back in the black suit he’d worn while building his initial success, draped in the same black-and-white herringbone tweed overcoat he had worn in earlier scenes. The knee-length coat has broad notch lapels with sporty “swelled edges”, a welted breast pocket, and flapped hip pockets. The fly front closes over three large black buttons, and the back is split with a long single vent. The sleeves are set-in with plain cuffs devoid of buttons, straps, or vents.

As he did when debuting the suit at Farnsworth’s home, Newton wears another wide-brimmed fedora, albeit in a brown felt with a narrower black grosgrain band. His shirt is also brown, a darker chocolate-hued Viyella that he wears with the brown translucent buttons fastened to the neck.

David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth

A broken, alcoholic Newton meets with a contrite Dr. Bryce.

A constant of Newton’s appearance throughout the movie is his reliance on a pair of silver-framed glasses with rounded hooks that secure behind each ear, carried in his jacket’s breast pocket when not on his face. The tinted photochromatic lenses are responsive to light, echoing “transition lens” technology and serving to protect Newton’s contact lens-covered eyes, which are extremely sensitive to X-ray light.

Despite how much attention has been paid to Bowie’s status as a style icon, I don’t believe that it’s been widely shared or determined who made these frames. The only external clue may be the simple etchwork over the temples, though even this might be too general for any definitive identification.

David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth

What to Imbibe

Initially, Newton doesn’t drink anything but water, to the point that Mary Lou jokes “boy, you’re really hooked on water, aren’t you?” Gin becomes Newton’s gateway to his eventually all-consuming alcoholism after Mary Lou talks herself into a G&T, pouring Beefeater gin and White Rock tonic together over four cubes of ice with a slice of lime.

David Bowie and Candy Clark in The Man Who Fell to Earth

G&Ts fuel Mary Lou’s first night with Newton, appropriately scored by Jim Reeves’ “Make the World Go Away” as this new spirit introduced to Newton’s life will eventually be one of the factors that distracts him from his mission on Earth, preventing him from saving his home planet, and—by extension—making his world go away.

This venerable highball had emerged in popularity by the early 19th century among British officers in India, who found their gin ration to be useful when ingesting their otherwise unpalatable tonic water, which was recommended at the time for its quinine to act against malaria.

Newton eventually also develops a taste for white wine, specifically the Tyrolia that Mary Lou picks up for him from Wightman’s, but Bryce later confirms that Newton’s preferred drink is still “gin, neat—no ice, right?”

The Gun

Some behind-the-scenes shots and portraits taken of Bowie on location in New Mexico portray him in costume, aiming a pistol that shares some visual characteristics with a longslide 1911. A closer look reveals the weapon to be a BB gun… more specifically, a Marksman Repeater that fires “.177-caliber” BBs.

Indeed, the foundation of this air gun resembles a classic 1911 pistol, and the weight of its heavy metal frame could certainly fool a non-firearms expert into thinking it was a more lethal weapon. The Marksman is loaded by tipping up a loading port at the front of the barrel and charged by pulling back a metal piece that clamps over the back of the frame, similar to racking the slide on an actual pistol.

Behind the scenes on The Man Who Fell to Earth

Bowie aims the Marksman BB pistol while on location in New Mexico, photographed by David James.

This is not the same blank-firing nickel-plated Webley revolver that Newton and Mary Lou would introduce to their debauched romp.

How to Get the Look

David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth

David Bowie, on location in New Mexico during production of The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)

Black suits aren’t typically recommended for business, but if your business is changing the landscape of global technology solely to fundraise a mission to transport a vast water supply back to your home planet… embrace your inner alien!

  • Black slubbed silk suit:
    • Single-button jacket with notch lapels, jetted breast pocket, straight jetted hip pockets, vestigial 1-button cuffs, and ventless back
    • Reverse-pleated high-rise trousers with plain-hemmed bottoms
  • Solid-colored long-sleeve shirt, buttoned to the neck
  • White cotton crew-neck short-sleeve undershirt
  • Black patent leather side-zip platform shoes with ankle straps
  • Black socks
  • Black or tan felt wide-brimmed fedora with black grosgrain band
  • Silver-framed glasses with photochromatic lenses

Do Yourself a Favor and…

Check out the movie and Walter Tevis’ novel.

The Quote

Bitter? No… we’d have probably treated you the same if you’d come over to our place.

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