When David Bowie Met Judith Frankland & Steve Strange

When David Bowie Met Judith Frankland & Steve Strange

02/12/2021    

A hat nestled at the bottom of a wardrobe for over 40 years reveals the tale of how the ‘Ashes to Ashes’ music video came to be

For the original basis of this article please see Shapers of the 80s .

 

A still from David Bowie’s ‘Ashes to Ashes’ music video, released in 1980. Judith Frankland is shown standing behind Bowie’s left shoulder, wearing the hat (lot 155A)

 

One evening in 1980, London’s fabled ‘Blitz’ nightclub was blessed by a visit from the king of cool: David Bowie. He arrived unannounced with his PA ‘Coco’ (Corinne Schwab), causing ripples of electric excitement as the news began to spread amongst the revellers. And the purpose of their visit? To scout the crowd of cutting-edge fashion kids to cast as extras in Bowie’s next music video: ‘Ashes to Ashes’. The song would go on to become no.1 - and one of Bowie’s greatest hits. Working the door was a fresh-faced young man by the name of Steve Strange, who would later become the poster child of the New Romantic movement. Steve was wearing a full-length black Victoriana-style ‘wedding’ gown from the 1980 Ravensbourne college graduate collection of his friend, designer Judith Frankland. He caught Bowie’s eye immediately. Steve recalls in his autobiography: ‘We managed to sneak them into the club the back way to avoid a fuss and usher him upstairs to a private area. David himself was charming and asked if I would join him upstairs for a drink when I had finished on the door. I wanted to go straight away, but, annoyingly, I had to do my job first Word soon spread like wildfire that David Bowie was there. He was probably the reason most people at the club had got into pop music in the first place. He was the one person that everyone there would cite as an influence, even more important than punk’.

 

Bowie at the Blitz Club, 1980, with Russ Williams, John Lockwood and Andy Bulled.
Photograph: Tommy Crowley via Shapers of the 80s Archive

 

 

 

Above left: The finale ‘bridal look’ from Judith Frankland’s graduate collection: ‘Romantic Monasticism’, shown at London’s Café Royal, 1980. The collection was inspired by the nuns in ‘The Sound of Music’. Worn with lace-veiled headdress by Stephen Jones. Steve Strange wore the gown to the Blitz the night he met David Bowie, and subsequently wore the ensemble (together with the hat Judith Frankland is shown here wearing) in the ‘Ashes to Ashes’ music video. Photograph above left: Niall McInerney via Shapers of the 80s Archive. Photograph above right: Richard Law via Shapers of the 80s Archive. Centre: Judith pictured with Stephen Linard, photo courtesy of Judith Frankland

 Judith Frankland wearing a similar style hat (possibly lot 155A), c.1980. Photo courtesy of Judith Frankland

Impressed with Steve’s personal style and Judith’s designs, Bowie asked him to appear in his next video, to which the answer was an awe-struck ‘yes’. He also sought advice on make-up that evening, and Steve recommended Richard Sharah for the job. Steve further recalls: ‘[Bowie said] “I’d like it left to you to pick the clothes you are going to wear, and to choose three other extras for the video.” This was the most important moment of my life’. With no hesitation, Steve rallied three of his friends (who were also at the Blitz that night) to appear in the video: Judith Frankland, Darla-Jane Gilroy & Elise Brazier. Judith further recalls the magical meeting that evening: ‘In a wonderful twist of fate, Steve was resplendent in my black wedding outfit that night and was chosen straight away…Bowie did see George O’Dowd but as I remember he was wearing his big leather jacket look that night, so he was out. I was invited, as was Darla, up to the table where David and Coco were sitting and offered a glass of champagne. Darla and I were both dressed in a similar ecclesiastic style, Darla in her own black outfit with white collar’.

A still from ‘Ashes to Ashes’. Left to right: Steve Strange, Darla-Jane Gilroy, Judith Frankland & Elise Brazier.

Judith continues: 'We were asked to take part for what at that time was a decent sum of money for penniless, decadent students (£50). We were told Coco would call us the following day with the details. I woke the next day thinking I’d dreamt it and you know I guarded that communal pay phone on the landing like a rottweiler until she did: "be outside the Hilton the next morning, Thursday", she said, at some ungodly hour, fully dressed and made up the same way I had been at the Blitz, and to get the coach to a secret location’.

 

On location: left to right, (probably) director David Mallet, Steve Strange, Darla-Jane Gilory, Judith Frankland & Elise Brazier. Photograph: polaroid snapped by a crew member, July 1980, via Shapers of the 80s Archive

 

The videoAshes to Ashes’ was co-directed by Bowie and David Mallet,  and filmed on the 3rd July 1980 at Pett Level, a stony beach on marshlands about six miles east of Hastings in East Sussex, known to Mallet since he was a boy. The drama of waves splashing against a towering cliff proved the perfect setting. At the time, it was the most expensive music video made, costing an eye-watering £35,000 (about £151,000 in today’s money). The whole dreamscape was enhanced with effects from the then novel Quantel Paintbox to create a visual enigma, echoing a distant past, yet suggesting ‘nostalgia for the future’- in Bowie’s own words.

 

A still from ‘Ashes to Ashes’: Bowie is centre, flanked by the ‘Blitz kids’ selected for the video, including Steve Strange, far right. The bulldozer can be seen in the background.

In ‘David Bowie: A Life’ author Dylan Jones writes: ‘The filming was interrupted at one point by an old man walking his dog, looking for driftwood. Mallet asked him if he wouldn’t mind moving, and pointed out Bowie sitting outside the catering van. "Do you know who this is?" he asked. Sharp as a tack, the old man responded with, "Of course I do. It’s some c*** in a clown suit."' Sometime later, Bowie remembered, ‘That was a huge moment for me. It put me back in my place and made me realise, “Yes, I’m just a c*** in a clown suit".'

David Bowie in his iconic ‘Pierrot’ or ‘Clown’ costume designed by Natasha Korniloff with hat by Gretchen Fenston. Make-up by Richard Sharah.

Judith Frankland remembers the day of filming for the video: ‘When we arrived at the beach near Hastings [not Southend, as Strange reports], the crew was set up and David Bowie greeted us dressed in the pierrot outfit he would be wearing. He coached us for a few minutes on the words we were to mime and then the day was spent in what we Lancastrians call sinking sand, sloppy sand, and the further out we got on the beach the messier and sloppier and muddier it was. I wore flats which was a wise choice. Then we were up and down that field with the bulldozer and every time we had to do a take it had to back up and the field got muddier. The bulldozer wasn’t that close but if he’d stepped on the gas we would all have been gonners’.

 

Judith Frankland pictured far right wearing lot 155A, estimate £200-300

 

We were finally told we had all “done well” and set off in the coach straight from the shoot to Hell [Strange’s Thursday club-night with a sacrilegious flavour] – well, home first to get freshened up. Steve dropped off his very muddy wedding dress and Hell was a rowdier night than usual. Steve brought one of the labourers from the bulldozer site with him and dressed him up in a Modern Classics suit. The poor guy was disturbed by it all, to say the least. We’d also been asked to go to the Ewart Studios in Wandsworth that weekend to shoot another scene – the kitchen with Major Tom in the chair and us providing the chorus. This involved an explosion behind us four as we faced the camera. We were told to duck out and run after we had mimed our lines or we could be hurt. This was difficult in a hobble dress, so I hoisted it up as high as I could and got ready to run. Quite a sight for the superstar sat behind me! Health and Safety would be all over that now…May I add that at the studios David Bowie joined us mere mortals in the canteen. Yummy. What a nice man he was, well he was to me, very kind and patient with us all’.

 

A still from the ’explosion’ scene in ‘Ashes to Ashes’. Judith Frankland can be seen wearing lot 155A, second from the right.

 

Judith recalls: ‘The wedding dress was the reason Steve and I got close. He called me up wanting to buy pieces of the collection. He also bought a jacket he wore on the cover of Fade to Grey and gave me a credit on the sleeve. That dress, all sand, sea and mud, ended up in the bottom of Steve’s wardrobe. It had a stand-up collar that was caked in his make-up. Never wore it again though he got some money off the video people to get it cleaned. The veil also got squashed in his wardrobe’. And what became of the hats? The whereabouts of the Stephen Jones lace-veiled headdress is unknown, but the chiffon and taffeta example survived…

Judith cannot recall where the hat ended up, but she has confirmed that it is indeed the hat she is wearing in the ‘Ashes to Ashes’ music video. In the video, the hat appears to be of a much wider silhouette - this is due to the taffeta bow originally standing wide and ‘wing-like’ - the corners of the bow have since been lightly stitched down (these can easily be unpicked). Judith muses: ‘It was possibly crushed in my wardrobe as I was as bad as Steve was with my frocks’. Judith recalls how her sensational black wedding dress had returned from the seaside video location covered in mud and make-up and vanished into the recess Steve Strange called his wardrobe, never to be seen again. She adds however: ‘That hat would never have stood a chance of surviving if it had stayed with me and not been given away’.

 

Left: former Blitz Kid Judith Frankland in her latest voile and taffeta creation, 2021. Right: lot 155A

 

And to whom was it given? Sometime not long after filming the video, it was passed on to Roz Corrigan - a close friend of Judith’s flatmate at the time - and part of the same buzzing social scene. A favourite, she recalls wearing the hat regularly during the early 1980s, including on the eve she met her future husband. Roz recalls: We were at a house party and met when we both snuck out to the garden for a wee. I actually didn’t remember I was wearing the hat that evening, but my husband does - he remembers me walking around the party with my own ladder, and every now and then I would stand up on it and preach.' They have been married for over 35 years. And for all that time, the hat has been nestled away in her wardrobe, a treasured trinket from a wildly fun youth. And now, this rediscovered fragment of fashion history is once again in the spotlight and starring in our upcoming ‘Passion for Fashion’ auction on Tuesday 7th December, when the next chapter of its extraordinary tale will begin.

Steve Strange sadly died in 2015, however he perfectly summarised the stardust which touched all who came into contact with David Bowie on that fateful night at the Blitz in 1980, helping create the magic of the ‘Ashes to Ashes’ video: ‘It seemed like a very long day for a three-minute film. I was delighted when I was handed my wages of £50 by a member of the production team. I didn’t tell them, but I would have paid them to have appeared in a video with David Bowie’.

 

Post-auction edit:

Judith Frankland’s hat attracted international interest on the day, achieving £700 hammer. It was purchased by Mr. Michael Reason, Australian collector, Bowie fan and long-time admirer of Judith’s work. Mr. Reason states: ‘Thanks so much for the opportunity to purchase this fabulous and amazing hat, coming from such an iconic video which has meant so much to me ever since I first saw it in the late 1980s. As a gay teen growing up in a small town in Tasmania, it enthralled and enchanted me and seemed to offer so much possibility: a world of magic and mystery. I'm so excited to be the custodian of this wonderful piece of fashion and cultural history’

 

With thanks to Judith Frankland & David Johnson of  Shapers of the 80s

 

Passion for Fashion

Tuesday 7th December, 1pm

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Monday 29th November - Friday 3rd December: 9:00am-5pm

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