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Caitlin on Changing Fashions

18 July, 2011

Written: Sunday, July 17. 2:07 pm. Alexandria, Virginia

Today I went shopping with Miss Allison. I enjoyed her company and we found some nice pieces, but the shopping experience was draining. Shopping for women’s clothes is a completely different activity than shopping for men’s clothes. A fact that few, if any, men truly grasp. It’s not in and out for women. The only thing my Midwest mind can compare it to is hunting, it requires craft, knowledge of yourself and your environment, and a fair amount of cunning.

Here is where men have it simple: the all-shop one-stop. Standardization exists in men’s clothing. There are three basic looks: casual (t-shirt , Hawaiian shirts, and jersey’s paired with jeans or shorts), work-casual (Polo and Oxford shirts paired with khakis or trousers) and formal (suits coats, sport coats, dress shirts, dress slacks) and there you have it. Within each class there is little to no variation. The color spectrum is, also, fairly uniform with few articles deviating from the standard black, white, gray, and blue. The flamboyant man may step outside the norm and purchase an Oxford in red, purple, yellow or—gasp!—pink, but other than a Clint Eastwood spaghetti western how often do you see them in a pink shirt with piping and a ruffled front?  Men can go into most any store and find what they need to purchase because sizes, cuts, and colors all meet a socially understood pattern. A suit is always a suit, a t-shirt is always a t-shirt, and a thirty waist is always a thirty waist. This is why men so easily go in, grab something off the rack, check out, and go home. This is also why they tend to have no fashion sense; when most decisions have already been made, it’s easy to forget about or ignore the few decisions you have to make. Get in, get out, convenience.

I am still a bit out of my depth when it comes to shopping in the women’s department. Which is why, when we entered the first store, which by-the-bye did not carry a full selection of women’s apparel, I found myself overwhelmed by the myriad colors, patterns, designs, cuts, styles, and inconsistent sizes and completely incapable of answering Allison’s first question: So, what’s your style? The answer to this, though once quick to figure and easy to articulate, came out as a halting, “I don’t know.”

Let me break this down for the men. As a male you go into the store to purchase a t-shirt. Either you get one with a design, without a design, or with a pocket. You know that if you have a paunch you should avoid the athletic fit and if you’re skinny you don’t buy extra-large White Castle shirts. Now, as a woman, I go in to buy a t-shirt. My first choice is the same as yours, design or no design. Simple. Well, not so much because the choices are just starting. Say I find a cute graphic tee. My first consideration is the sleeves. Does it have sleeves? If not then I should get a medium because I have small, teenage breasts and a large will hang loose around the sternum because there isn’t enough up top to hold the material in place properly. But, this shirt as an elongated V neck so it will emphasize my flat chested status, the other one in my size has a deep scoop neck, again showing off what isn’t there. (And boys, this isn’t just a transitioning issue. If you have a small chested girlfriend ask her how she looks in a scoop neck. On second thought, don’t; she’ll punch you in the neck and ask how you look in a bruised trachea.) Now, let’s say I find a shirt with a rounded neckline and no sleeves in medium. I try it on and, lo and behold, my flat stomach now looks like I’m carrying a sumo wrestler’s twins. Have I gained weight? Nope. But apparently a medium in this brand is the same size as a small in this other brand. Are you beginning to see the complications? Because that’s just a small segment. If I wanted I could go into sleeve length and styles. You know, capped sleeves for thinner arms, three-quarter length sleeves for thicker arms (note how they aren’t described as athletic for women), or how once you find a shirt that fits the shoulders it might hang too loose in the midriff and too tight across the chest, or how a shirt that flatters your flat tummy is too narrow for the broad-shouldered (a term which never would have applied to me as a man). Oh, and don’t forget to throw frills, sequins, patterns, and prints into the mix. And that’s just to buy a t-shirt, boys! Think of the complications involved in skirts or worse still dresses which join the multiple combinations of both the upper and lower body into a hellish conundrum of Gordian Knot proportions. Choice after choice, option after option. Slowly I turned; step by step, inch by inch. It’s enough to drive any sane woman mad. Did you ever wonder why your girlfriend or wife drags you along only to hide in the changing room and refuse to show you the piece? It’s because she needs an alibi for when the police come around asking questions about a fitting room attendant whose backside was violated with a hanger after bringing your gal one too many cap sleeved, size extra-small-mediums with a deep V neck and large, gaudy floral prints.

Despite the complications we did manage to find some nice pieces: a flared, khaki-colored skirt, which will help create the illusion of a defined waist line; a light, almost heather gray pair of slacks with white pinstripes, great for accentuating long legs and flared nicely at the bottom for heels or boots; a stone brown, cap sleeved peasant blouse with a floral pattern, very hippie-chick chic; and a waist length, short-sleeved, black cardigan with a delicate floral ruffle, also done in black to avoid gaudiness. And we only had to stop at two stores to meet the day’s fashion goals. Pretty damned fortunate.

Now, extreme thanks go out to Allison and her patience with a newbie shopper and her sharp eye for the rare quality-style-price combo. Without her, a two and half hour trip would have been all day and not nearly as successful. And thanks are also due to my sister-in-law, Casey, without my first excursion with her and her primer in fashion I would never have had the courage to go shopping with someone else.

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