Clothing enabled the role-play that drove experimentation in his song writing. Bowie was rarely just Bowie: he was Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, the Thin White Duke -- personae that charged his work with a blend of shock and vitality.
If other rock stars of his era embodied a single look for life, Bowie channeled the chameleon, shifting his appearance with the ease of a chord change.
His adroit transformations -- each somehow heralding a new zeitgeist, from the 1970s breakdown in gendered clothing, to the 1980s money-mad power dressing -- were puckish. They were provocative. They made what he did a form of performance art, which is one reason why Bowie worked with long-time collaborator Japanese designer Kansai Yamamoto on getting them right.
In this way they were much more about self-expression than they ever were about moving large quantities of vinyl.
In the mid-1960s, aged just 17, for his first TV appearance a then mod-inflected Bowie billed himself as the 'Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Men with Long Hair' -- as his was, at least for the time.
By the new decade Bowie was messing with the codes of machismo with abandon.
His first wife, Angie Barnett, encouraged him to wear the "man dresses" he had made for him by London tailor Michael Fish, and wore on the cover of "The Man Who Sold the World."
"Got your mother in a whirl / She's not sure if you're a boy or a girl," as he would sing in "Rebel Rebel."
"As long as he remains a boy, I can't see any harm in it," his mother remarked at the time.
But Bowie's style was much more than the upsetting of social norms. Each album saw him abruptly define a new fashion of his own making.
Ziggy's alien was glam overboard: Alice Cooper make-up meets Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange jumpsuits, via a haircut at the Evelyn Paget ladies' hair salon on Beckenham High Street in suburban south London.
Then came the knotted top and piratical eye-patch -- an accessory Bowie would be caught happily wearing even in candid, off-stage shots, the style visionary temporarily half-shuttered.
But before a then not-so-fast fashion had a chance to react, Bowie had given the platform boot to his sequined creations in favor of the Duke's stark German Expressionism: slicked back hair, open-neck shirt and blazer, the proportions all just a touch theatrical; a look you could almost take home to mother, especially if she was a Sally Bowles fan.
Pierrot and what Bowie jokingly called "cyber clown" were looks he would try out later in his long relationship with the dressing up box, but none of his styles would ever stick around for long.
And that was perhaps the point of David Bowie's lifetime in fashion: he was never a touch-point in men's dress in the way that a Steve McQueen or a Cary Grant might be.
Few men would seek to emulate his look. But they would find inspiration in his sartorial spirit, in his fearless readiness to try anything, to use clothing replete with reference as a means to say something -- about yourself, about the world at large -- even if what was being said was never conveniently subtitled.
It'd be easy to say Bowie's position gave him license to toy with extremes that, frankly, would never have worked at the bank or on the building site. This is true. But his example nevertheless helped reveal to men that, even within the straitened confines of the classical male wardrobe, there is always room to make it your own. Fashion may be "big and bland", "loud and tasteless" and you may have "heard it before", as Bowie sang. But that, he says, is all the more reason to go your own way.