Artisan Style: David Hockney

David Hockney Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures)
Image credit: Daniel Hartwig / CC BY 2.0

There are many artists who dress well, but few have made dressing well quite as prominent a feature of their work as David Hockney has. To look at Hockney’s portraits and figurative pieces is to encounter a host of unfailingly well-dressed subjects — the man in a pink jacket, white trousers, and penny loafers in Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures); the chic couple in Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy; the eponymous figures in Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy — each invariably as individual and well-turned-out as the man who painted them.

Well, perhaps not quite, since no one truly looks like David Hockney (though goodness knowns many have tried). Now in his mid-eighties, Hockney is still among the most stylish and influential dressers around, revered nearly as much for the colourful character of his clothing as for the quality of his singular creative output. 

David Hockney and Joni Mitchell
David Hockney and Joni Mitchell
Image credit: Fresh On The Net / CC BY 2.0

The Hockney staples are well-known: First, there is the hair. Hockney, a Yorkshireman by birth, found his signature ’do on his first trip to the US in 1961 on the eve of his twenty-fourth birthday when he saw a TV advertisement for the hair-colouring product Clairol which suggested that ‘Blondes have more fun’. Hockney, in a show of his own sense of joy and jollification, obliged by going out and bleaching his hair. The look stuck and its owner has proved somewhat evangelical about it, saying ‘I wish I could dye the whole of Bond Street blond, every man, woman and child. I don’t really prefer blond people but I love dyeing hair.’

The glasses followed not long after and also originated across the Atlantic. In the summer of 1964, Hockney had accepted a six-week job teaching at the University of Iowa. Feeling the need to look the part of a serious instructor, he stopped en route when he saw a pair of heavy round horn-rimmed spectacles in the window of an optician’s. He ditched his National Health specs in favour of this more characterful substitute and has not looked back since.

Then, of course, there’s the clothing. By all accounts, David Hockney has been dressing in a manner entirely his own for about as long as anyone can remember. When clothes rationing came to an end in the wake of the Second World War, a young Hockney and his father would visit the second-hand dealer Sykes Wardrobes to buy clothes. ‘You don’t need money for style,’ Hockney sagely advised, ‘It’s about an attitude. People dressed pretty conventionally then, but I’d pick up things to make me look a bit different and which I wore out of a sense of mockery.’ 

Dave Oxtoby, a fellow student and close friend at art school, remembers seeing Hockney walk into his first class: 

‘He was wearing a shirt with a high-starched wing collar and a black pinstriped suit with trousers that were far too short. He had on a bowler hat, an incredibly long red scarf, and he was carrying an umbrella. I turned to Norman and I said, “Look at this guy, he looks like a Russian peasant. He looks a right Boris.’

Unfortunately the nickname ‘Boris’ stuck all the way through college; the wardrobe, mercifully, has survived far longer. 

David Hockney Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy
Celia Birtwell and Ossie Clarke in Hockney’s Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy
Image credit: Daniel Hartwig / CC BY 2.0

The Hockney wardrobe staples are plentiful. His love of rugby shirts with bold horizontal stripes is well known. Ditto an affinity for sweatshirts, cardigans, baggy suits, caps, neckties, bowties, braces, and white shoes worn with mismatched socks. And all of it animated by a brightness of colour and an eclectic embrace of clashing elements that characterise his clothing choices every bit as much as it does his canvasses. As he’s aged, even his hearing aids have tended to be coloured in complimentary hues.  

As Terry Newman points out:

‘To describe Hockney’s fashion sense on a page makes his outfits sound clownish, but the true appeal of his attire stems from a relaxed casualness that is hard to pin down. Suits with windowpane checks that might seem a little brash in theory mellow on him into off-the-cuff day-to-day-wear. He enhances his clothes with easy confidence. Anyone can throw on a candy pink striped shirt, blue polka-dot tie, and tweed blazer, paired with canary-colored hair, but it doesn’t always work the way it does for Hockney.’

There is a sprightly scruffiness — a masterly, paint-smeared sense of sprezzatura — that animates everything Hockney puts on. And, frankly, it’s hard to imagine anyone else pulling off the same. 

Small wonder that generations of fashion designers have taken inspiration from Hockney’s singular style. From ’60s fashion duo Celia Birtwell and Ossie Clarke, who were the subjects of the aforementioned Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy, to Zandra Rhodes, who was a fellow student at London’s Royal College of Art, to Yves Saint Laurent, who was an ardent admirer of Hockney’s work. Not to mention Paul Smith, Vivienne Westwood, Burberry, and countless others. 

Mr B's Soulful Tees David Hockney Coney Island N.Y. sweatshirt
Mr. B’s Soulful Tees’ Hockney-inspired Coney Island sweatshirt
Image is my own / All rights reserved

More recent examples from within the world of menswear have included Rowing Blazers’ Hockney-inspired rugbies, Tony Sylvester’s AWMS Hockney 83 ‘DAFT’ sweatshirt, and Mr. B’s Soulful Tees’ Coney Island sweatshirt, which Hockney was spotted wearing back in the 1960s. 

David Hockney turns 85 this week. He has remained a vital creative force even in his later years, turning, for instance, to his iPhone and iPad as digital canvasses and sources of inspiration. As I was doing research for this piece, I came across some early self-portraits of his I had not seen, one showing his feet suspended on a boat’s edge in white shoes with colourful mismatched laces and socks, another taken in a mirror of him wearing a natty tan suit with a black and yellow rep tie. In these two images, both taken around half a century ago, Hockney seems to anticipate millions of fit pics posted on social media platforms that would take decades even to be dreamt of. With his uncanny ability to inspire designers and dressers across the generations, who knows what we’ll be nicking off him in decades to come.

David Hockney self portrait with white shoes and mismatched socks
Image is my own / All rights reserved