Saturday, January 13, 2007

Sheepish In The Wolf's Clothing Section

Last weekend my wife and I went shopping for new clothes for me. I should rephrase that as – my wife dragged me to the nearest clothes store, kicking and screaming (in fact ‘bleating’ may be the mot juste here). We don’t go shopping very frequently and the few times we do, it serves to remind us of the fact that we have antipodal views on what, where, when, why, how, how much, and any other possible criteria associated with (a) choice of items and (b) the process of shopping. Long ago (when I was single) in my small and cozy little world, there was not much to think about when it came to buying new clothes, and decisions were fairly easily taken the few times I needed to take them. The most agonizing decisions for me those days revolved around which white shirts I should buy and how many of them I should buy on this shopping expedition (i.e., this year). I used to be happy in that world ... but then in my wife's big wide world of several thousands of choices in matters sartorial, life is not so simple. Apparently, apparel is a complex affair. And according to my wife, I have the dress sense of an aardvark.

We've been married for a decade now, but know each other over two, and have gone shopping together for (my) clothes, several times over that period. Has anything changed over time? Well, yes. I am less reluctant now, to experiment with pinks or with checked patterns, than I used to be. But I draw the line somewhere, and she knows that. Differences are quickly aired and understood. Sometimes even this is redundant – a twitch of my upper lip, when shown a disagreeable sample, is enough, though I may nod with hastily mustered vigor while making some positive-sounding noises. We have learnt to conclude these sessions at the optimal level of happiness averaged out across both of us. We emerge from the store pleased with what we have achieved together as opposed to walking to the parking lot quarreling over my quirkiness. To give you an example of how this works – we settle for the bright red paisley patterned shirt once in 5 years, and that works for both of us.

While getting in and out of trial rooms (the part I hate the most) and at various other times in the shopping ‘experience’ when I'm by myself for small slices of time, I can't help reflecting on yet another truism about men and women: that men aim to be as consistently recognizable as possible at every appearance, while women aspire to present the most vividly unexpected apparition each time. Over the years, I have developed more and more conviction in the belief that I've found the key to this whole gender thing – my own version of 'women are from Venus and men are from Mars' (I hope I got that right). It is about consistency and variety … about the excitement, versus the insecurity, of change.

It is as though men are saying "Look, this is me - the same old me you knew yesterday and the day before that, and the same me that will be with you tomorrow and the day after". Men want to impress upon you the fact that they are consistent and steadfast. They want to provide security through the assurance of no-change, and make you comfortable by making everything about themselves predictable – to the point of being boringly so. Hence they lead structured, orderly lives and their wardrobes are full of white shirts and gray trousers neatly organized in a row. Deviations from normal plain white would be to the extent of cream / light blue / light gray / yellow shirts; some pin-stripes and some different collar styles or cuff styles perhaps, to break the monotony.

Women, on the other hand, seem to be saying "Hey! Guess who this is – it's me! Today's me. Not the woman you knew yesterday, not the one you knew the day before. Which do you prefer? Well it doesn't matter because I can be all of those and more." Women want to enchant you by presenting a variety of expressions. They want to surprise you with a refreshingly different look each time, hinting at the excitement of change. There are two sides to this message if you can read between the subliminal lines: (1) If you don’t recognize me, then good – I can be ‘the other woman’ and in fact be all the other women (2) If you do recognize me, then perhaps I’m looking different because I’ve moved on? You need to woo me all over again! And this is not just about clothes – it is more holistic: it is about the appearance per se. The range of tools available to a woman to do this is ... well almost infinite! I could go ahead and talk about different styles of clothing, make-up, hair styling choices etc. but this would only expose my abysmal ignorance in these areas (I referred to moisturizing lotion as make-up some time back and got an earful) and would confirm my stereotype. I'd rather ’fess up to it in so many words, than indulge fecklessly in malapropisms of a language I do not understand.

To summarize: Men provide an image of consistency and predictability to women because they believe it keeps women secure and comfortable, and women present an image of variety and unpredictability to men because they believe it keeps men excited and in anticipation. If you want to test this out, try telling a woman that she’s predictable to the point of being boring, and a man that he’s inconsistent and unpredictable (caveat: don’t try this at home). Then try the reverse. Tell me what you get.

P.S. In case you’re wondering why we never go shopping for her clothes and you want to tell me what a chauvinist you think I am, let me take that hit up-front and meekly accept all of it, rather than present my (typically male) PoV and hopelessly try to explain why that is an even more challenging experience for me. What I do enjoy is shopping for things for her when I’m traveling, but that’s an entirely different story …


Enchantelope said...

Let me understand this....You point out that your wife...wants YOU to experiment with colors and patterns in YOUR clothes...also, you seem to have noticed that she herself likes trying new things in the apparel domain. Lastly, you state that you yourself prefer wearing white shirts all the time (or something like that). From these three points you hypothesize that A) women do this so that men will woo them all over again and B) "women present an image of variety and unpredictability to men because they believe it keeps men excited and in anticipation."

This is a totally testable hypothesis...try looking at women who are not in a relationship and are not aspiring to be in a relationship. I know many such women as many of my friends who are women and currently very happy with their single status. I find that these women are just as likely to be experimental with their wardrobes as other women.

The other thing when you claim that is
C)"Men provide an image of consistency and predictability to women because they believe it keeps women secure and comfortable"...but to reinstate..your wife...wants YOU to experiment with colors and patterns in YOUR clothes..
so even without generalizing to all men...perhaps you should think that providing this "image" is unecessary at least in your relationship.

In the same vain...those women you were talking about in B if they would be interesting to know to what extent they are right about what men want...I think you would be more qualified to state that than A for example.

While I think that in a certain mainstream culture women do tend to have and seek more variety in their clothing and such than men..this is not something inherent in women but a result of that society in which they have been brought up.

Lastly, I just want to say that I appreciate your commenting on my blog. This comment attempting to make a friendly criticism...sometimes tone is difficult to if it sounded belligerent anywhere I am sorry. I am not upset while I write it and I hope you will not be upset when you read it.

HyperActiveX said...

Whoa Enchanté! Thanks for your comment, but this is not a term paper on gender stereotyping! This is just a blog post I wrote in a lighter vein, when in frivolous mood. (Hence categorized under “Oblahdi Oblahda” – a euphemism for “Blah Blah” – and not under “Impressions and Insights”.) And while your comment is indeed vigorous (if not vehement) in tone (if not in content), rest assured that it is not seen as belligerent and that no offence has been taken. On the contrary, I am pleasantly surprised to note that the tripe I spew can draw some studied and meaningful responses. That said, let me take the debate further and ‘defend my position’ :) ...

First, this has nothing to do with the single status (or otherwise) of men or women. It has to do with how men and women see themselves – whether in, or out, of a relationship. You seem to be an observant reader – you must have noticed that I talked about my days when I was single (when I didn’t have anybody to re-assure or provide a sense of security to) and even then had the same attitude to clothing. It’s got more to do with how I see myself (single or not) i.e., as someone who is consistent and predictable, emitting signals to that effect in everything I do (not necessarily to a female target audience, though my blog post has put that spin on it – that part is in jest).

As far as my relationship is concerned, you're right – my wife does not need additional re-assurances of security, and the fact that she’d prefer for me to wear bright batik prints and Hawaiian shirts is an indication of that. Again, my continued preference for plain light colored shirts has more to do with me (and my self-image of consistency) than with her (and her finding me predictable to the point of being boring). In fact I may venture to speculate that my wife might even want me to turn just a tad bit funky and surprise her with behavior that is uncharacteristic of me? (Hmm … gotta think about that – side note to self.)

Back to your comment – re: the question pertaining to your point B) ... I do tend to believe that most women like to experiment with their image frequently, suggesting a probabilistic (as opposed to deterministic) approach to signaling what others may expect of them. They’re saying: When it comes to me, expect the unexpected – don’t assume I can’t be this or that, or that I can’t do this or that. They want to indicate that they see themselves as free agents who’re not bound by pre-ordained / normative constraints of who or what they should be. Again, not necessarily aimed at a male target audience – and not necessarily restricted to work or play settings. When I say ‘experiment’ I don’t mean that they don’t know what they want or that they are fickle-minded or indecisive. When I say ‘experiment’ I mean they are adventurous and do not hesitate to try a different look every day. The way they dress impacts (or, alternately, reflects) their state of mind, the way they feel about themselves, their lives and their relationships with people and the world at large. I know several women who find going to a salon and/or shopping for clothes / shoes to be therapeutic (in some cases it’s their gateway to ecstasy). While this may be anecdotal and not substantial enough to build a thesis on, it is certainly suggestive.

As regards your comment on this not being inherent to women but more of a socially conditioned pattern … I can only pose some questions – where did that socially conditioned pattern come from? Why is that pattern one way for men and another way for women? Why does an average man have about 3 pairs of shoes (one black, one brown and one sporty) and an average woman about 30? I may exaggerate to make my point, but if you go beyond the hyperbole, you might find this to be valid in most contemporary societies and cultures (with the exception of highly repressed communities where women are denied varying degrees of freedom including, but not limited to, the moral right to own 30 pairs of shoes). For a moment let’s agree that it’s not a genetic thing … so then, why did we get to be like this? Was it purely by chance? Was it because of some social / anthropological accident of evolution? Or did several thousands of years of male dominance force women to seek variety in appearance and men to seek consistency? On the other hand, if it turns out to be a genetic thing after all, then Q.E.D. – the matter ends here.

To my mind, arguments against my seemingly sexist hypothesis could be mostly of two kinds – either: (a) that my observation (that men and women, in general, have a markedly different concept of dressing) is fundamentally flawed or (b) my observation is more or less correct, but the reasons I am attributing to it are fundamentally wrong, prompted by a misplaced sense of chauvinistic humor typical of men.

If your argument is in the (a) category (which it may well be – I’ve had some off-line comments from other readers to that effect), perhaps we should conduct a simple survey of the range of men’s vs. women’s wardrobes (including footwear). You can test this out by quickly polling a cross-section of people across different demographics and psychographics, whom you know well enough to ask questions about their dress sense. Maybe this should even expand in scope to include the range of cosmetic and other personal products and fashion accessories available for men and women. Next time you’re out shopping (in any market-place in the ‘free’ world), visit the men’s section and then the women’s section, and take a quick count of what’s on offer. Rather, of how many different kinds of things are on offer, in each section. Let the results speak for themselves.

However, if your argument is in the (b) category, then I can only remind you once again that my blog post is meant to be a joke, not a Ph. D. thesis. But that needn’t stop a serious social scientist from making a doctoral submission out of it!

Enchantelope said...

Oh and I forgot... I meant to respond to your "where did that socially conditioned pattern come from?"
I was going to quote you some of Susan Brownmiller's book Femininity...if you get the time you should read it will give you a more thorough answer to that question. But in short...I think your "most contemporary societies and cultures" thing was key..contemporary being the word to's a matter of history and colonization. According to Brownmiller the Victorian era marked the turning point for which gender was more 'experimental' in their attire and the way I see it the Metrosexual movement might make a change in the future.

But on a lighter note...there is a musical play called the Scarlet Pimpernel(about how a bunch of English men trying to assuage the French Revolution) and there is a song in it called The Creation of Man...If you are not already should watch's
and the lyrics can be hard to understand so this page might help...

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