My attire this season? Anything unnoticeable

·6-min read

Looking neutral can be a challenge. That’s my big take-away from LA fashion week. Did you realise it was LA fashion week? I nearly missed it. I only twigged when I saw a photo in the paper of an oddly dressed young woman holding a dog. It was from Anthony Rubio’s show – he’s a designer who specialises in dressing women holding dogs. I mean, I assume they’re allowed to put the dogs down while actually dressing. That would surely be necessary, particularly as he also dresses the dogs.

The dog in the picture – I think a shih tzu – had been assiduously scrubbed, brushed, combed and then had bits of cloth tied to its hair (fur?). It appeared still to be in shock from this process as its baffled eyes were bulging out in subtly different directions. The lady holding the dog just looked sleepy.

Sleepy must be her take on neutral. Either that or the photographer caught her towards the end of a blink. Neutral is apparently the expression a clothing model is meant to go for so as not to distract from the clothes, which are what everyone is supposed to be concentrating on. God knows it must be easy to get distracted: sitting there watching an endless line of tall women slink past while a relentless, energised sound bed booms out at conversation-precluding volume.

Not that chat would be appropriate – everyone has to focus on the clothes. I always feel sorry for those celebs forced to sit in the front row, often wearing relatively daft attire themselves, and affect interest. Haven’t Anne Hathaway and Alexa Chung given us enough? Why do we make them suffer like this? They’re not even allowed to eat crisps or shout relevant questions such as “Do you do that in a blue?” if an apt blouse should chance to trudge by.

The models don’t seem great at taking the “neutral” performance note. From watching some of Anthony Rubio’s shows on YouTube, dogs are pretty good at it, that goggle-eyed shih tzu aside, but their apparent calm might be a manifestation of PTSD caused by their recent encounters with the hairdryer. But human models, in their determination not to commit the cardinal sin of a smile, usually end up looking grumpy, haughty, depressed or stoned.

During the sixth form, it is mortifying to confess, I started wearing shiny waistcoats

In my view, that’s less neutral than a smile. The established convention of smiling for a camera, coupled with the cultural penetration of the US’s smile-driven capitalism, has made the grin so ubiquitous as to lose all meaning. Looking cross or sad is much more noticeable and therefore more likely to distract from the frocks or imply that they’re scratchy and annoying. Or indeed suggest that the model has something better to do than parade up and down in mad, scratchy and annoying clobber – for example answer some emails or ring the DVLA.

I reckon neutrality is worth shooting for. A facial expression that genuinely dissociates you from what you’re wearing is something I’d love to master. To be able to walk into a room without betraying any choices I have made because my clothes are no more my fault or my responsibility than the weather. Imagine that! Well, many of us don’t have to imagine it – we can remember it. That’s what wearing a school uniform was like – at least until the various fads for personalising it took hold.

My own take on those fads, during the sixth form, is mortifying to confess. I started wearing shiny waistcoats. I think I got away with this (in terms of the school rules, that is, rather than the fashion police) because, as I didn’t know then but have subsequently learned, it is a tradition at Eton for prefects to be allowed to wear waistcoats and the authorities at the minor private school I went to loved anything that made it feel closer to the sector’s august market leaders. I’m sure they would also have been indulgent if I’d devised a violent game involving a wall.

I look back with horror at my waistcoat-sporting phase. I was in the bleak depths of adolescence: at weekends, I took to wearing hats. What was I thinking? And, more to the point, why did I feel it appropriate to express those thoughts through the medium of clothes? There is no facial expression neutral enough to dissociate the spotty 16-year-old boy from the red and gold waistcoat and silk-banded trilby he’s put on. I must never again, I concluded soon afterwards, wear noticeable things.

My mistake had been to confuse my liking for old-fashioned conventions of dress with liking old-fashioned items of clothing. The former provided a virtual uniform for almost all circumstances from work to weddings to funerals to parties to meeting royalty, while the latter involves wearing weird moth-eaten items that make people think you’re a dick.

In light of this, I was puzzled by last week’s comments by the TV journalist Michael Crick about the demise of tie-wearing in workplaces. He described this as “sad” because “in many fields ties are still the only chance men have to play with colour and express themselves”. I’m also a fan of ties and wouldn’t mind wearing one every day, but for precisely the opposite reason. Wearing a jacket and tie absolves men of having to express themselves or show any judgment at all. It provides the perfect neutral look – bland but not noticeably so. Even those with as stunted aesthetic senses as mine find that hard to screw up.

Conversely, in the post-tie chaos that’s been my experience of the workplace, there is a bewildering maelstrom of opportunities to express and thereby betray yourself. Literally any item of your clothing can be any shape or colour, not merely the strip of cloth dangling from your chin. What on earth was Crick talking about?

Then I realised. The only alternative Crick envisaged to going to work in a suit and tie was exactly the same outfit, just without the tie. Not for him the T-shirt, embroidered jeans, neckerchief, tank top, polo neck or fringed faux-leather shacket. The tie’s little arrow-slit of self-expression having been closed off, he’s left in his white shirt and plain trousers with no way of showing his colourful feelings. Now that’s what I call neutral.