A few years ago, when I was a rookie fashion editor, myself and the team would have to spend weeks on end, twice a year, visiting designers’ showrooms and looking at their latest creations. Much of what they displayed was, of course, delightful, and we would coo and praise accordingly. But there were always a small handful of labels – it would be mean to name and shame them here – whose success we found unfathomable. An enthusiastic public relations assistant would show us the latest collection, and we'd be lost for words. Who on earth could create a pair of shoes like those and think that they were either lovely or wearable? We would try to hide our sniggers and conjure up a compliment that didn’t sound too insincere.
After years of practice, we came up with two that fitted the bill. The most popular adjective we used, which usually left the PR thinking we’d liked what we’d seen, was "very brave”. As we stared in awe at a shoe made from multicoloured crocodile skins, embossed with gold snakes and topped off with oversized white leather tassels, the words “very brave” seemed fitting.
The other phrase, more appropriate when confronted with the creator of the controversial item, was, “Wow, the collection was just… so… so you.” If paired with a warm smile and a firm handshake, the designer usually looked pleased to hear this.
Fashion compliments don’t always travel well, though. What makes sense in the UK doesn't always translate so well in Italy. A former colleague of mine, after watching a show by a big Italian label featuring lots of Aran knits, flowing tweed coats and chunky shoes, kissed the designer on both cheeks and cheerfully told him the collection was “very Midsomer Murders”. When she tried to explain what the show was about, the designer looked a little puzzled. “Can you please send me the DVDs?” he asked. “We must watch these.” Weeks of angst followed as she wondered what the big fashion house made of the boxset she’d sent of DCI Tom Barnaby solving endless mysteries involving old ladies found dead at the bottom of their timber-framed staircases.
The reason I mention this is because the word “brave” can be, as demonstrated above, a double-edged sword. Brave, when it comes to clothes, can be something quite admirable; but it can also be something wholly awful. There’s a fine line, for example, between someone dressing like a dandy or dressing like a dick. While reading a second book of photographs by the artist Peter Schlesinger – a former lover of David Hockney who photographed the bohemian arty party set of the Sixties and Seventies – I was struck by a picture he’d taken in 1970 of Hockney sitting with Cecil Beaton in the latter’s Wiltshire conservatory. Hockney is seated in a wicker chair with his signature mop of peroxide hair and oversized round spectacles, wearing a pastel pink tweed suit with a big baby blue and brown windowpane check, a brown silk tie with large pink spots and one brick red sock and one emerald green sock. Beaton, meanwhile, is clad in a moss green corduroy suit with a knitted waistcoat teamed with an extravagantly tied lime green silk cravat and matching socks, all topped off with a large-rimmed brown fedora. How marvellous they both look, I thought. Yet imagine the comments from my friends if I wore either of those outfits today. In fact, imagine the sarcastic comments if I only adopted the mismatched socks. Everyone would just put it down to early-onset Alzheimer's.
I suppose what makes brave commendable with dressing is when it feels genuine rather than contrived; when it’s part of the personality rather than instead of a personality; when it’s a symptom rather than the cause. Hockney’s love of colour, shape and convention-breaking was represented in his work, love life and – last and least – his wardrobe. Despite his arresting attire, when Hockney walked into a room it was his success as an artist not the colour of his socks that struck you first.
Strangely, as Hilton Als writes in the foreword to Schlesinger’s book, the world was a much more open place when his photographs were taken than it is today. You didn’t need to be so brave back in 1970 to nip out for a pint of milk in an array of mismatched rainbow hues. In 2016, unless you live in Florence or fashion show tents, you may feel a little self-conscious in an overly eccentric ensemble; you might even find one of the Esquire team coming over and telling you how brave you look.