The Man Who Fell to Earth: David Bowie’s Table Tennis Whites
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
WARNING! Spoilers ahead!
Today is World Table Tennis Day! For nearly a decade since it was established, WTTD had been celebrated on April 6 until the ITTF Foundation announced that it would be moved this year to April 23, to mark the birthday of Ivor Montagu, founder of the International Table Tennis Federation who organized the first World Table Tennis Championships in 1926. History buffs may also recognize his name as Ivor Montagu was also recruited by Soviet intelligence during World War II, at the same time that his older brother Ewen Montagu was developing the famous Operation Mincemeat on behalf of British intelligence.
Among the many movies that feature table tennis—or ping-pong, if you prefer its onomatopoeiac nomenclature—is The Man Who Fell to Earth, Nicolas Roeg’s surreal science fiction drama based on Walter Tevis’ 1963 novel of the same name. David Bowie stars as the titular Thomas Jerome Newton, a humanoid alien subject to an isolated life in government captivity.
Years of torture and experimentation crushed Newton’s idealism into a cynical disillusionment, furthered by a tragic visit from his one-time love Mary Lou (Candy Clark). After a final romp fueled by guns, sex, and martinis, the two play a few sad rounds of table tennis in a room wallpapered—and scattered with leaves on the ground—to resemble a rustic outdoor scene. She tries to convince him to stay on Earth, despite their mutual admissions that they’ve fallen out of love.
What’d He Wear?
There’s something comical about the two pathetic figures decked out in tennis whites and colorful visors to play a few meaningless rounds of table tennis. On the film’s 40th anniversary, costume designer May Routh recounted to Dazed that “at one point they’re playing ping-pong and it was just working it out so that his visor cast a green light on his face—just things that, as a viewer, you never really think of but they’ve been thought out.”
Unlike the usual sports visors that typically consist of just a crownless band encircling the wearer’s head, Newton’s white visor cap has two straps that cross over the top of his head. The long, curved visor itself is green translucent cellulose acetate, trimmed in white to match the rest of the cap.
Newton wears one of his usual white cotton piqué shirts, designed with a plain front (no placket) that he wears buttoned at the neck, even when some of the buttons below it are undone. The shirt also has a semi-spread collar and very short sleeves, more resembling those of a T-shirt than a polo or button-up shirt.
Newton wraps a white belt around the bottom of the untucked shirt, allowing the hem to “skirt” out. The belt closes through a squared single-prong buckle. To complete the look, Newton wears white cotton flat-front shorts with a mid-thigh inseam.
Apropos the athletic context, Newton wears white CVO-style deck sneakers with white ribbed cotton crew socks, rolled down to just cover his ankles. The shoes have white canvas twill uppers with white cotton laces through five sets of silver-toned eyelets, and a dark blue “foxing strip” trims the tops of the white rubber outsoles.
I’ve seen “CVO” described as meaning both “Circular Vamp Oxford” and “Canvas Vulcanized Oxford”, the former referring to the overall shape while the latter relates to the canvas uppers and vulcanized rubber soles. These qualities make them popular for activities like sports or sailing, with the canvas uppers both lightweight and durable for lots of movement while the soles provide extra traction.
Originating in the 1930s when Sperry developed siped soles for the seagoing Top Siders, this style has been popularized over the decades by brands like Converse, Sperry, and Vans, with Bowie’s screen-worn sneakers looking most consistent with the current Sperry Striper II model.
Newton wears a white sweatband on each wrist, made of terry-cloth toweling cotton to absorb sweat.
What to Imbibe
Newton’s initial meeting with Mary Lou in that New Mexico motel room years earlier introduced him to gin, which would be established as his kryptonite as he descends into the alcoholism that wrecks his spirit.
While that’s not much of an endorsement, there’s something charmingly incongruous about the pair drinking martinis during their table tennis match, presumably mixed from the Gordon’s gin and Martini & Rossi extra dry vermouth seen on a side table, and garnished with a lemon twist.
How to Get the Look
The tradition of wearing all white for tennis dates back to the Victorian era, as the colorless materials were best for reflecting sunlight when playing outside. Despite the rustic wallpaper surrounding them, Newton and Mary Lou are conducting their informal game indoors, so he’s likely sporting all white to entertain himself… after all, what else is there to do when spending years in enforced isolation?
- White cotton piqué short-sleeved shirt with semi-spread collar and plain front
- White cotton flat-front shorts
- White belt with squared single-prong buckle (worn outside of shirt)
- White canvas 5-eyelet CVO-style deck sneakers with blue foxing stripe and white rubber outsoles
- White ribbed cotton crew socks
- White visor cap with crossed-top crown and green translucent visor
- White terry-cloth armbands