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Words by Dr Michael Peppiatt, author, critic and art historian

Were they bright red, breaking on two-tone shoes, or criss-crossed in loud golfer's check? Were they unexpectedly formal, hind parts of a bespoke suit, or baggy plus fours with argyle socks? Were they ever tuxedo trousers before they metamorphosed into summer slacks or shrank into jaunty pre-war Riviera swimsuits?

They were all of these and many more, since Mr Pablo Picasso changed the way he dressed as often and as radically as he changed the way he painted. He was as instinctive a dresser as he was an artist, replacing one look with another every time something in his life or his fantasy prompted it. Many of the artists around him dressed quite conventionally, above all when success caught up with them. There was Mr Georges Braque in his cool white scarf, Mr Henri Matisse plumply avuncular in a waistcoat while sketching a nude, or Mr Wassily Kandinsky as formally attired as an old-school banker. Mr Salvador Dalí, it's true, put on a show, with the twirled mustachios, the fur coats and silver-topped canes. But Mr Picasso wasn't putting on a show. Whether dressed for the opera, disguised for a bal masqué or simply clowning about, he was always himself - or one of his many selves.

Picasso changed the way he dressed as often and as radically as he changed the way he painted

"Only superficial people do not judge by appearances," said Mr Oscar Wilde - bless him! And I look forward to one day reading some learned thesis on how artists present themselves to the world and why. Mr Francis Bacon dressed in later life like a successful gangster, an upper-class, English Al Capone in tight, perfectly cut double-breasted suits with subtle stripes and threatening black leather coats, also tight, with epaulettes. Frivolous? I'm not sure. Everything he wore had its meaning for Mr Bacon, and you can even find the clothes he loved - particularly rainbow-hued silk shirts and desert boots - in his pictures. Is it merely anecdotal that Mr Alberto Giacometti invariably worked in a tweed jacket and tie, however caked in plaster, paint and clay they became? I don't think so. Challenging accepted vision every day in his Montparnasse hovel, Mr Giacometti clung to whatever shreds or threads of normality he could find.

The last time I bumped into Mr David Hockney, he had just stepped out of his West End tailors. They were making him a new suit, he explained amiably, and the scales fell from my eyes. That immediately recognisable look Mr Hockney had so cleverly crafted over the years, from bright caps and stripy shirts to odd socks and comfortably baggy suits, was part of a carefully orchestrated show, mirroring his unstoppable rise from pop art icon to cultural grandee.

Style, they say, is the man. So how did Mr Picasso, the master artificer of the 20th century, choose to project himself? Did he limit himself to this look or that? Did he decide at a certain point to wear his trousers wide with a crease so sharp (like his friend, the poet Mr Jean Cocteau) that they could cut a Camembert in half? Of course not. He was a creature of infinite fantasy and infinite change. And having just looked through a few scores of photos of the maître at different moments in his long career, I can attest that he virtually never appeared before the camera in the same garb twice. Catch him if you can. During his early years in Paris he would be in vaguely artisanal dress, dark overalls and donkey jackets, occasionally spruced up by a broad-brimmed hat or Romantic lavallière. Then without warning he appears in clunky gaiters or, bizarrely, in an army uniform he had borrowed from his co-cubist, Mr Braque. These were early days, but it was already clear that Mr Picasso enjoyed not just dressing but dressing up.

At this point Mr Picasso was still seeking recognition. But as he outraged then entranced the rich by his challenging imagery, he transformed his own appearance from dangerous iconoclast to cuddly lounge lizard. Out went any trace of dungaree and sweater and in came the perfect suit and tie, hatted and hankied, with just a hint of waistcoat and a cuff-linked sleeve. This was Mr Picasso's so-called "Duchess" period, when all the aristocratic and moneyed doors opened to him and he, totally self-aware and totally self-promotional, dressed for his new role in life.

But once he proved his ability to look - more or less - like the nobs who paid high prices for his pictures, he realised he no longer needed to reassure them. After all he was now sufficiently wealthy and well established to lounge at the back of his chauffeured Hispano-Suiza in his underwear if he cared to. "I want to be rich enough," he once declared, "to live like someone who's poor." To him that meant messing around freely and eating in shorts in the kitchen and not giving a toss if an important dealer or collector dropped by. In a trice he went happily from top hat to beret and espadrilles, from three-piece to no-piece (or almost), since his life was now focused either on the studio, the bed or the beach.

Even so, the love of dressing up remained. Mr Picasso always found something to clown around in before the camera, whether it was a huge false nose, a lugubrious deerstalker or the magnificent Indian headdress Mr Gary Cooper had given him. As Mr Picasso grew older he wore less and less, often sporting no more than a Mediterranean tan and swimming trunks. But by then he was the most famous and most photographed artist in the world, and so instantly recognisable he no longer really needed clothes.

Picasso Black and White, a retrospective of Mr Picasso's work from 1904 to 1971, runs from 5 October to 23 January 2013 at Guggenheim New York. guggenheim.org/new-york

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