How to Talk About Clothes

Due to the sensitive nature of my topic–I am going to talk about women and clothes–I feel that I must first issue a total and absolute disclaimer. It covers everything: my credibility on the topic, my indemnity should you attempt to apply anything you find below and suffer undesired consequences, and any impression that someone specifically is being described, or, worse yet, parodied herein. Nope. None of the above applies. Can’t blame me. I disclaim everything.

Let us begin with the proverbial example. The subject puts on a new pair of pants and asks, “Do these make me look fat?” This question obviously implies only two answers, “yes” or “no.” Do not use either of these answers! It is acceptable to begin a response with “No,” but you must, you simply must continue on with something that is neither precisely yes or no. “No, they look great… but the leg is too long.”

If the pants do indeed make the subject look fat and you suffer a constipation of the conscience so as to prohibit you from saying “No,” you need to be a lot more creative. You cannot ignore the question. That is a giveaway. It has all the sophistication and diplomacy of saying, “That depends on what the definition of ‘fat’ is.”

A better stall is to say “Turn around.” But you must say this almost instantly. A faction of a second too much hesitation and it is obvious that you have already made up your mind and are stalling. If you are sure that you hate these pants already, start adjusting them. As the subject turns, say “Hold it.” Then fiddle with the waistband right at the spine, or ask the subject to tug at the hips a little, to improve the fit. Then say, “Okay, keep going.”

When you get back to the front, look the pants up and down. The subject has asked if the pants make her look fat, and your mind will want to consider how fat she does or does not look. You must master this instinct. What you are looking for is anything else at all that you can complain about. Is there a thread loose on the stitching? Are the pants actually baggy around the ankles (never mind how tightly they fit elsewhere)? You never used to be able to study clothes, but when you learn to translate “Do these make me look fat?” to “Is there anything wrong with this besides how I fill it up?”, you will learn how to study clothes. If you can’t find anything else, say that you don’t like the way they fit across the back. This is the subject’s weak spot, because even with a mirror she cannot get a straight look at the back (the waistband, mind you, not the seat). But don’t use this any more often than you must; nobody is too stupid to pick up on a one-trick act.

Another good standby is “out of season.” This is better to use on clothes out of the closet, because when the subject is buying clothes, she is not necessarily shopping for this season. However, with care, it will still work. If you are more than half-way through the current season, it is acceptable to call the current season’s clothing “out of season.” Depending on the subject, you may be “out of season” if you are more than two weeks through it. You can also call something “out of season” if it belongs to the season before the current season–but the chances of anyone but you picking out something so radically out of season are almost nil, as the subject herself will tell you.

How do you even know what is out of season? Well, you’ll have a pretty good start if you can remember, in a vague sort of way, what kind of clothes the models in the latest flyers have been wearing. But if you could remember that, you wouldn’t need any advice, would you? So let’s try for some simple rules.

The most basic rule is dark = fall and winter, light = spring and summer. There certainly are exceptions–goodness me, are there ever exceptions–but if you can only remember one rule for seasons, this should be it. One good memory aid is the color of the candy. In springtime they make the Easter candy in Lucky Charms colors, and women wear those colors. In winter they make candy in Chrismas colors. Summer has Fourth of July and fall has Thanksgiving. This still isn’t perfect, but it’s a pretty good system because if you need a reminder, you eat candy.

There are two other things to remember for what is in season. (If you can’t remember any more than on rule, just skip this paragraph.) These two things are thickness and fuzziness, but they are tricky–you only have to have one of them. Now, when we talk about something being thick, we don’t mean a something like a nice lumberjack shirt. It’s more like how cards are made from thick paper and newspaper is made from thin paper. Thickness and fuzziness are for cold. If something is both thick and fuzzy, it is either winter or fall. A thick denim (not fuzzy) jacket could be spring, and a thin fuzzy sweater could be spring as well. Color makes the difference.

Be very careful not to mix up “out of season” with “out of style.” As far as you are concerned, nothing the subject puts on is ever out of style. There’s a trick to this, too. Something can be in style but “not your style.” But you had probably better avoid that one, too. “Huh! Well, you don’t know my style!” is all you are going to get in reply.

Decorations are your friends. They give you more things to talk about. Decorations can be patterns, prints, embroidery, sequins, glitter, pictures, and even zippers and buttons. Never criticize the decorations right off, because the decorations are obvious and if the subject really didn’t like them she would never have put the thing on. However, the decorations are frequently the only thing the subject is unsure about, so if you need to deep-six this piece of clothing, focusing on these details is a good strategy. Basically all you need to do is pay attention to the decorations. If you say, “I like the beading,” chances are that beaded shirt will not be worn. If you say “I like the buttons but I think they clash with the stitching,” you’ve just delivered a major blow. If you say, “Oh, look at the cute embroidery. Too bad it’s not a kitten. Kittens are more your thing than butterflies,” you have struck a blow against butterflies (unless the subject already owns several butterfly-adorned items, in which case: you blew it).

One of the most important things in talking about clothes is the order in which you make your comments. You know how stupid it sounds when somebody says “Good job” before you’ve finished the job? If you say the wrong thing at the wrong time, you will sound just as senseless. The most important thing to remember is that it always looks good when it is first put on. Within five minutes, or even less than one minute for really bad stuff, it can look intolerable; but when it is first put on, it looks good. This is just a rule. Don’t think about it.

Because of that, your openers must always be positive. When the subject is pawing through a rack of clothes and says, “Oh, look at this,” or anything else like that, you have to respond positively. Here are some good openers:

  • “Oh that’s cute!”
  • “Let me see that.”
  • “That looks interesting.”
  • “Oh, what is it?” (Note: this is idiomatic. Never ask this question to actually inquire what something is. If you really don’t know, say “What is that for?” or “I don’t know what that is.” “Oh, what is it?” is a marvelous way to get someone to tell you what they like about the item in question so you know what you are supposed to like as well. Unfortunately you cannot always use this opener.)

Openers are relatively easy. After that comes blather, which is by far the hardest part. Blather must be used when something is held up, handled, or put on. It doesn’t mean anything, it just fills up the time while the subject’s opinion ripens. If you are well-meaning and sincere, it is during this time when you might form a genuine opinion. For your own sake and for the subject’s sake, don’t. Blather is not the same as the process by which you convince yourself that this new power tool really will be a big help on your current project. Blather is almost exactly like when you say “That’s nice, dear.” All blather ever means is “I like you and I like it when you are happy.”

There are some things that you only blather when the clothing is not worn and some things that you only blather when the clothing is being worn. I am sorry to say that you will have to pick up most of these key words by listening to the subject. However, some things to get you started:

You can call something cute before it is put on, but don’t call it cute when it is being worn by the subject. You may hear some women get away with this; don’t try it yourself. You cannot say “cute” the right way for when something is being worn. “Adorable” is about the same. Something that is “cute” before it is put on becomes perky, bright, pretty, nice, or seasonal. If something looks so childish, saccharine, or stupid that you are fighting down a gag, call it “cute” while it is being worn. Keep in mind that this may seem to backfire as the subject exclaims with delight, but there is less chance that she will actually wind up keeping it. If she does, she was bound to anyway, and you have simply avoided causing offense.

Likewise, something never “looks great” until it is being worn. Until then, you “like the style,” or the color. Unfortunately if you hate the style and the color, this leaves you with little to say. If it reminds you of some other piece of clothing you despise that the subject already owns, say “Oh, that would go well with [the hideous thing].” Of course, you can’t say that if they are both the same kind of thing (e.g., both shirts). If you can’t think of anything else, say “Now I wonder what would go with that?” This takes a lot of courage to say, because it is practically an invitation to buy yet another thing, and something that “goes with” the thing you hate in the first place. Be brave. Say it. It is very unlikely that you will change her mind. She might say “Oh, it would go great with that purse we saw back there!”, but if she doesn’t already have the purse in tow, she will most likely leave this behind as well.

Remember, even if the subject seems to respond to your blather, and even credits you with influencing her choices, you are pretty much talking a fish into liking water. She is going to do what she wants whether you say yes or no; you have only a tiny effect on what she actually does, but a huge effect on how she feels about it.

When the subject appears before you wearing something, you use a slightly different set of openers:

  • “Oh, that’s nice.”
  • “Very pretty!”
  • “Cute!” (if you hate it).
  • “Turn around.”
  • “Raise your arms.”
  • “Tug it out at the bottom there.”

Then you need more blather. Comment on the decorations, if you can. If you loathe it and wish never to see it again, say “Hum, that would look better with a dark bottom, wouldn’t it?” Meaning it would look better with black pants. Presuming the subject is wearing a light bottom–but you get the idea. Say it would look better with something different. You just need to blather for a few minutes while the subject’s predestined opinion has a chance to blossom.

When the subject appears to be reaching a decision, it is time for your closer. You only get one closer. If you mistime it and have to blather some more, you can only come back to your original closer. Choose wisely:

  • “It seems a little out of season.”
  • “The sleeves should be longer.”
  • “I love the color but I don’t care for the cut.” (Or vice-versa).
  • “That would look better on [insert name of female relative (not acquaintance!)].”
  • “I don’t really care for it [with a shrug].” In plain man-speak, this translates to: “May it burn in hell for a thousand years. After that may it be dug up, spat on, beaten to shreds, and thrown on a dung heap to be roasted for another millennium.” Use accordingly.

When you get to this last stage and you need a good closer, you can inquire about the price. However, if the item costs too much, the subject would already have said so and you could have concurred and that’s the end of that. If the subject has not explicitly said that it costs too much then the item is worth whatever it is priced. This does not mean all is lost. If you ask about the price and feel the blood draining out your feet when you hear the answer, you can reply with “I guess that’s about right,” or “Well, not too bad.” You see, it is true the subject thinks the item is worth every penny; but the subject likes to get things on sale, that is, for much less than they are worth. So if it is a questionable item and you indicate that the item is worth only what it is priced at, there is a good chance it will be left behind in search of a better bargain. But remember: you can never say that it costs too much!

I realize this is all way too much to remember, so let’s review the basic principles:

It’s not your opinion that counts; it’s your attention.

The opener is always positive. The subject would not have picked out the item if it were not good on first glance.

The blather can only criticize one particular aspect of the item. When something is worn, the item as a whole represents the person wearing it. The subject does not recognize any difference between “You are fat” and “That makes you look fat (but, honey, really you aren’t!)” Therefore you may only criticize particular details of the item. Look at the shoulders, the waist at the back, and the ankles.

If you are asked a specific question about color, style, or fat-induction, answer to the positive (not fattening, good style)–but you may find something else to criticize. You must displace your loathing for one thing onto something else.

Only in your closer can you give your actual opinion, and it must be watered down.

Finally, you must be strong enough to be wrong. Sometimes the subject will really disagree with you. Other times you will get your timing wrong or commit some other middling infraction, and you will suffer scorn and derision. This is petty and childish; they are mocking you for fun, and to make themselves feel better, and to confirm that you aren’t a woman like them (even though they were the flutterbrains that asked your masculine opinion in the first place). You must be patient.

If you criticize something the subject really does love, you will more likely get a tearful breakdown than an ocean’s worth of scorn. Whatever the case, do not try to take back your opinion. It is too late. The best you can do is suggest two or three other things that you like. But basically, the wound is there, and it will take time to heal.

Also, you are not supposed to be too good at this. You are only supposed to understand a little bit–enough to realize that the subject is a fashion genius, but not enough to comprehend or surpass that genius. If you get this kind of stuff too well, let’s face it: you are not manly enough. In fact, you have lost a considerable amount of manliness just by reading this. You can redeem your masculinity by going unshaven, wearing a plaid shirt, and getting motor oil on your hands.

At no point is it necessary for you to enjoy yourself. You can understand a lot about manure without enjoying it, and this is like taking care of a prized flowering shrub. It can be unpleasant and tiring, but you are nurturing for the long haul.

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