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January 05, 2007

Guys -- Who Picks Your Clothes?

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

The biggest fashion faux pas for men is to let their wives select their clothes.

So said ex-Gucci designer Tom Ford as interviewed in the 4 January Wall Street Journal's "Personal" section (see sidebar).

He might have a point.

I know a number of guys who hate -- no, make that loathe -- shopping, even (especially?) for themselves.

I'm in the opposite camp. Although I can't say that I love shopping for myself (especially if I must buy a certain item for a special occasion), I never let other people buy clothing for me. That's because I'm really fussy. The last successful outsider purchase was a necktie my mother got me about a dozen years ago.

And what about my wife?

I'll ask her opinion regarding items I'm leaning towards buying, but where I'm not quite certain. A recent example was a waterproof hat. I don't usually wear hats with brims, so I checked with her to find out if I looked okay wearing it.

I also check with her on items I'm more sure of to find out if she really hates the thing; if she hates something, she won't allow me to wear it when I'm with her.

True, one could argue that she "selects" some of my clothing, but a more correct take is that what she does is veto, or "negatively select" -- I'm the one who does the initial screening.

Okay guys. What about you? And gals -- are you the fashion arbiter for the husband / boyfriend? Fess up, everyone!



posted by Donald at January 5, 2007


I hate shopping. But I know what I like. My wife knows absolutely nothing about clothes. Zero. However, if she did, it would be a source of contention, since though I hate shopping I do know what I will and will not wear and the first category is small. I rely on the Internet, rare forays to Filene's Basement on State Street in Chicago, and gifts from my female relatives. For shoes -- thrift stores. I have weird feet. Buy shoes that are already broken in spares me a lot of pain.

Posted by: Lexington Green on January 5, 2007 11:24 PM

A Filipino girl loves to dress her man. It's her way of putting her mark on you.

My late wife, a Filipina, wanted to make a status statement, so she dragged me to Nordstrom's. She had always hoped to marry a lawyer, but she got me, an musician and artist, instead. She did her best to make me look like a lawyer at social occasions. This was a qualified success.

My girlfriend, also Filipina, is a penny pincher, so she outfits me from Costco's. You get four shirts at Costco for the price of one at Nordstrom's. The fabric does not have as high a threadcount. You wear the stuff half as long and then throw it away. The Karaoke Queen just bought me the same shirt for the second time.

On my own, I shop like a man... I go to the store knowing exactly what item I want to buy and I make a beeline for it. My idea of shopping is a trip to Sam Ash for guitar strings, or to Harley-Davidson for a new pair of jeans.

"You're paying a lot for a label," says the Queen.

So, I've been completely refurbished by the Queen. She's done me up in office worker regulation uniform... sports shirt and khakis.

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on January 6, 2007 8:57 AM

I pick out my own clothes. In fact, I'm VERY picky.

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on January 6, 2007 9:18 AM

When I was married -- decades ago -- my husband offered to completely outfit me from head to toe. No one had ever done this before. Off to the store we went and spent a couple of hours trying things on, considering, discussing, and finally leaving with one complete set, including coat and hat.

Some time later we were going somewhere, so I put on my totally new finery, stepping smiling in front of the mirror, and realized that I was dressed exactly like his mother.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on January 6, 2007 11:50 AM

This reminds me, very dimly, of the advice of "Dress for Success," a tome of the mid-1970s that enjoyed a considerable vogue. The book's central claim was that dressing was about demonstrating your place in the social hierarchy; and, for those embarking on a corporate career, was about dressing to show your power quotient, or something along those lines.

The book explicitly advised against letting your wife or girlfriend dress you for work, as she might have agendas that clashed with the ethos of power dressing--to wit, dark (black, if you could pull it off), expensive, well-tailored suits for men. You were at more of a risk if your wife was aware of male fashion trends, which were often hostile to the essentially conservative principles at the heart of the book. My wife, who is quite fashion-conscious, exemplifies this threat perfectly.

Fortunately, I own my own business, and rarely have to see clients, so it doesn't matter if I make a few concessions to my wife's fashionista taste. But when I'm on the road, working with clients or professional allies, I still dress for success--dark, conservative, and as well-tailored as my physique allows. And since I went through a business crisis a couple of years ago, where I had to play authority figure in the office, I've pretty much stuck to power dressing even on home turf; it seems to reassure the staff in some way.

Hierarchies...go figure.

Posted by: friedrich von Blowhard on January 6, 2007 12:31 PM

Some time later we were going somewhere, so I put on my totally new finery, stepping smiling in front of the mirror, and realized that I was dressed exactly like his mother.


I bought a lot of clothes for my ex, after c-a-r-e-f-u-l-l-y vetting style preferences. He hated shopping; I love it. Not for sport: for the hunt. I am the Queen of the Deal, and all of my exes have been the beneficiaries of this. As such, I function more like a wardrobe stylist on a shoot (I do scut work, director/client has final say) or a personal assistant than style arbiter.

My rule of thumb for happy clothes buying, as w/ gift giving in general, is to give w/o attachment. Once it's out of my hands, it's out of my head.

Posted by: communicatrix on January 6, 2007 1:28 PM

I'm a Bill Belichick when it comes to fashion. Dress down down down. If my wife shopped for me too much, she'd want me to put on shirts instead of hoodies, new pants instead of holey blue jeans, colored socks instead of white ones, etc. I like to dress to my sense of social class and my fashion roots are blue jeans/white t-shirt with some variations.

Posted by: raymond pert on January 6, 2007 3:17 PM

I have a reverse set of questions, Donald.

Does your wife asks for your opinion on her dresses? Do you buy parfumes as a gift to her, without asking what's her favorite? And the underwear - have you ordered an especially intriguing bra from Victoria Secret for her?

Posted by: Tatyana on January 6, 2007 3:20 PM

I wrote about two aspects of this just recently as it happens. First, my Mom's attempt to give me clothes for xmas. Her success rate is maybe 20%, but it hasn't deterred her from trying.

And second,
my own struggle with formalwear. I mostly hate shopping for all clothes, but getting help is always a mixed bag. There's only one person whose suggestions I really trust, but even then I try to keep in mind that just because something looks good doesn't mean I'll necessarily wear it.

Posted by: claire on January 6, 2007 4:51 PM

I'd almost never* let a girl dress me, not because of my particular way of dressing, but because there are basically two components to your appearance: 1) social signaling, and 2) pure visual aesthetics. The average girl doesn't get how guys relate to each other, so she wouldn't as equipped as the average guy to choose clothes that signal whatever status the guy wants to signal (power suits, baggy jeans & Timerblands, what-have-you).

More, males are better on average at visuospatial tasks (this is the most pronounced sex difference in cognitive ability), so they can better imagine a look in their minds, manipulate it, add or subtract things, etc. ahead of time, as well as plan changes in their mind as they're putting it together. Males are vastly overrepresented in all areas of visual art & design, partially due to the much higher mean visuospatial ability. So the average female won't be as equipped to put together an aesthetically interesting or pleasing look as the average male.

*If the female really understood me and was an accomplished artist or designer, then of course I'd trust her. But such females are rare indeed, much more so than males I'd trust.

Posted by: Agnostic on January 6, 2007 5:27 PM

Tat -- Okay, here goes: (1) yes, she will usually ask if I'm at the store doing my bored-husband-with-glazed-eyes thing; (2) never; (3) never.

But if she's browsing a store and I happen to see a garment that strikes my interest, she'll often try it on and then buy it. She claims I'm good at selecting clothes for her.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on January 7, 2007 12:54 AM

I may be the only gal here who doesn't buy her own clothes -- my husband buys almost all of my clothes. He has the uppity, superficial job and acquaintances, not me, and thus cares about the image and impression I make on these people.

When we socially engage, he chooses everything I wear (as well as preps me with names, expected conversation, etc.) I merely perform. The gap between my inside and outside is so wide that what I wear does not remotely resemble who I am or what I feel.

The unstated assumption is that clothing mimes the interior life, particularly aspirations. I find this assumption dubious.

Posted by: Kris on January 7, 2007 5:38 AM

Here we go, Donald. Hers is a model behavior on this issue, for all sexes.
And kudos to you, for 2)no and 3)no. [never say never...]

Posted by: Tatyana on January 7, 2007 8:21 AM

Going shopping is like hiring someone. One does it to solve a problem and only when there is no good alternative.

Posted by: Jonathan on January 7, 2007 1:06 PM

I think "can dress himself" is a pretty basic requirement for a mate.

Posted by: Moira Breen on January 7, 2007 2:17 PM

My mom used to buy my shirts. Then my sisters took over. (My momentary wife never did). Recently my niece got me a great shirt. If I live long enough, maybe by grandnieces and dranddaughters can take over.

Posted by: John Emerson on January 7, 2007 2:18 PM

The secret to good dressing? An athletic frame. You could put a XXX flour bag on Brad Pitt and he'd look great. On me?...not so great.

Posted by: ricpic on January 8, 2007 12:30 PM

I know at least one case where a stay-at-home wife got her Computer Techie husband some business suits to wear instead of letting him continue to go to work in his usual geek attire, and lo and behold he soon after started moving up the corporate ladder.
It's just common sense really, which geeks often lack.

Posted by: James on January 8, 2007 2:12 PM

Guys who don't pick out their clothes must not have a thrift store near them. I just got back with a Perry Ellis black wool Balmacaan, plus two pairs of corduroy trousers and a seersucker shirt from Brooks Brothers. Total price: twenty two bucks! I shop there all the time these days, my natural male aversion to shopping having been overpowered by my constitutional cheapness.

Posted by: Brian on January 8, 2007 4:00 PM

My girlfriend does a lot of the picking, I do most of the vetoing. I am absurdly conservative in my dress - left to my own devices, my closet would be an unbroken sequence of black or dark navy slacks and blue shirts for work, with an unbroken set of Wranglers(yes, to both "Are you a Texan" and "Are you skinny", the two standard prerequisites for wearing Wranglers) and shirts which incorporate some (dark) shade of blue or green as the primary color for casual wear. She knows this, and so can 'expand' my tastes into something resembling a reasonable variety, without violating the conservative rules.

Left to her devices, I would dress like a mid-to-late '80s Banana Republican when casual, so our styles of men's clothes are at least vaguely compatable. Since prior to her influence, my casual wear was all jeans and striped golf shirts, 'averaging' our tastes is a vast improvement on the status quo ante.

Her clothes I don't pick or make recommendations, and I try to avoid commenting or being asked my opinions. I am useless at picking women's clothes, except at the very basic level of knowing what colors 'work' on her. Flattering curves is a mystery to me, since I don't have anything like them. (6', 135-140#)

Personally, I think the primary male fashion faux pas is failing to screen his clothes past a sympathetic female - the average male has no aesthetic sense. For someone like our hosts, who actually have aesthetic sense, it makes sense for them to pick their own - they know the 'rules' and how to pick stuff that doesn't look like they would rather be either bowling or programming a computer.

On perfume and underwear, she is as conservative as I would be on outerwear. She wears one(1) brand of perfume or one(1) type of scented oil. As to lingerie, the primary criteria she has are comfort and machine-washability. In return, her preferences for my underwear are limited to "yes" and "clean". I've thought of making some selections for her, but I'm still strategizing the approach.

Posted by: rvman on January 10, 2007 2:05 PM

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