At a birthday dinner over the weekend I was introduced to this delightful party girl of a certain age whose diet for the evening consisted of chips and Grey Goose vodka on the rocks with lime. She launched straight into the praises of this marvellous gay couple she knew in the area who were mad keen on hunting, kept getting injured but didn’t care, and who she was sure I’d get on with like a house on fire. They did indeed sound like my kind of people. But it was only later, after my new friend had had a few more and she had expressed surprise at the existence of my wife across the table, that she fessed up. ‘I had no idea you weren’t gay. Those clothes. Your manner. That gaunt look…’
I didn’t mind, obviously. In fact, I totally love the idea that people still assume I’m gay after all these years because it means I haven’t totally lost my outré fashion edge. At home, I’m a terrible scruff: filthy jeans, T-shirt. But I do very much still like dressing up on occasion, be it the splendid rat-catcher outfit I got an excuse to wear out cubbing the other day, or the mauve Paul Smith trousers, floral Liberty shirt and Emma Hope ponyskin bootees I wore the other day for a TV encounter with Yasmin Alibhai-Brown and Vivienne Westwood. Once a fashion whore, always a fashion whore.
Which is why I so identified with so many of the characters in the BBC’s three-part series Oh! You Pretty Things: the Story of Music and Fashion (BBC4, Wednesdays): the high Sixties couple who’d bought all their psychedelic threads from Granny Takes A Trip and made films of themselves communing with nature and talking to trees on LSD straight from the Sandoz labs in Switzerland; the mod who modelled himself on the Small Faces and always knew he was winning when he got wolf whistles from building sites; Andy Mackay, the sax player from Roxy Music, recalling the metallic emerald jacket designed for him by Antony Price. These were eras before my time, but I was well versed in their lore. It set the standards for my own fashion experimentations from the early 1980s onwards — once I’d graduated from that awkward period where your Mum gets all your sensible clothes for you, mainly from M&S.
Boy, I’m pleased to notice, is starting to enter a similar phase. Last term, he borrowed the black leather biker jacket I spent ages tracking down when black leather biker jackets were last in (c.1988). He checked the label — La Rocka! — and was pleased to see, after googling it, that such items are now quite covetably expensive.
They’re always nice for a dad, those rare moments where, just briefly, you’re made to feel that you can still actually serve some useful purpose in life. At the same time, though, I did worry that maybe this was another case of the younger generation having it far too easy: in my day, if you were into fashion you had to suffer for your art. There was no Top Man at Oxford Circus providing instant cheap rip-offs of all the latest bang-on trends. You had to shop like a girl: hard, dedicatedly, relentlessly. Sometimes, oftentimes in fact, you’d make terrible mistakes, all the more troubling for the fact that there weren’t so many Far Eastern child-slave factories then, so clothes were relatively much more expensive.
And even when you knew you’d got it right, you’d still have to brave the scorn of squarer friends who thought you hadn’t. It was hard to keep your nerve on such occasions and sometimes you didn’t. My cropped, tomato-red, bumfreeze-cut, World Service double-breasted linen jacket with the tulip labels and my stripy palazzo pants: all it took was one unkind remark from an Oxford contemporary who hadn’t seen me since my Hacketts cords and tweed jacket-wearing phase and that was it — the ensemble stayed in the wardrobe for a whole year before I decided it was safe to bring it out again.
What they don’t realise, all these fuddy-duddy mockers, is what a debt they owe the small, dedicated band of fashion-forward heroes prepared to die of embarrassment in order that others might have something slightly more interesting to wear when that weird kit goes mainstream about five years hence. After all, if there weren’t people in each new generation prepared to mince down the street in floral-pattern jackets made of curtain material or sharp, mod-style trousers cut about six inches above the ankle, we’d still all be stuck in tabards or doublet and hose or periwigs.