Its October, its autumn, I’ve just been paid, so its time for the not-quite annual ritual of Buying the Special Wax to try to make my waxed coat waterproof again. Today I matched it up with buying a Cap, Flat, Cold Wet Days for the use on, to add to my ever-normal set of hats. Proper broad-brimmed hats are better of course but get mangled if you carry them in a bag or pocket. So caps can do for days when a Non-Hat-Wearing-Day turns into a Hat-Wearing-Day. And for not annoying the person standing or sitting behind you at a football match.
The trouble with this as a plan is it meant going in to clothes shops. And not just supermarket-like clothes shops such as Marks and Spencers or Primark – which are bad enough – but posher ones in Regent Street or thereabouts. And going into clothes shops is a Bad Idea. It is stressful and unpleasant. Well, for me it is anyway, and I’ve found this to be true of other men over over the years. Lots of us hate clothes shopping. Its boring, embarrassing, and expensive all at the same time. And I think I know some of the reasons why. And at the bottom of this post I will Reveal All, so in the unlikely event that any upmarket retailers are reading this they will find out the Twenty Top Things they need to do to Sell Clothes to Blokes.
Why don’t Blokes like buying clothes? Its not that they hate all shopping as such. Most of them like buying toys, especially shiny and expensive electronic ones. All readers love bookshops. I like buying food, because I like food. Its fun. The truth is the typical Bloke doesn’t like buying clothes because of their power to embarrass him if he gets it wrong. So he needs to play safe.
NB we’re talking about Blokes here, not men. All Blokes are men, though not all men are blokes. A Bloke is a bit like a slightly downmarket or dishevelled Chap. He’s certainly a fully-grown man, and most likely middle-aged (though some men can be blokes in their twenties and a few manage it in their teens, the bloke down the pub who had his twenty-first birthday on Friday has probably been a bloke for years.) A bloke is the opposite of a Flaneur. His clothing is about display, but its controlled low-key display, and unless he is given to committing acts of random cultural criticism on double-decker buses or in bars, be probably doesn’t realise that it is. Your Bloke doesn’t go clubbing much. He prefers pubs. He is almost certainly not gay, and if he is he is very certainly not loudly camp. A Bloke is not a mod, a hippy, a skinhead, a punk, a goth, a rude boy, a skateboarder, or a member of any other distinctly clothed community. Maybe he used to be, but he’s not now. And he no longer knows the rules of choosing clothes as they apply to people like himself.
Its not that the Bloke has no sense of style. or no aesthetic judgement. He just knows that choosing clothes to wear in public is not the place to exercise it. Its too risky. He may have a well-developed sense of style and beauty when applied to cars or garden design or football, or even – lets not fall for stereotypes – a well-turned sonnet or an elegant mathematical theorem. But that sense of style is no help choosing clothes. The clothes you wear send messages about you. They mark you out as a member of one or another social group. Not just all those skinheads and goths and whatever – they have it easy when they dress themselves – for people in general clothes mark fluid boundaries between all sorts of social categories, and it is important to appear to be in the ones you want to appear to be in, and not in ones you don’t want to appear to be in. Being a sophisticated member of our complex metaculture, our Bloke knows all this, even though he might not think about it very reflectively.
He also knows that free market capitalism is great at selling things. They want your money, and if they think they have a product you will want they have ways of making you buy. But for some reason this system breaks down when selling clothes to Blokes. The moment a Bloke walks into, or even past, a clothes shop he is bombarded by messages telling him that he is not part of the target market. The advertising and marketing all seems to be directed at women, or teenagers, or gay men. None of the male models in the ads look at all like him, or like anyone he knows, or even like anyone he would want to be like. Most of them are much younger, thinner, and better-looking than him. The few who are older are all dressed as if they are in a Celebrity Pro-Am Golf TV show and posing as a sort of extra in a romantic fantasy targetted at older women. The younger ones look repulsively smarmy and over-groomed and not at all like Blokes at all. The pictures of the women are alright, if a bit pink and frilly, but most Blokes don’t want to be seen in public staring at thirty-foot-high photographs of mildly well-known actresses wearing nothing but frilly knickers and a bra (Yes, whoever put that ad up at the entrance to the Tube in Euston station, I mean you!) The whole atmosphere of a clothes shop tells the Bloke that what is done in this place is not meant for him.
And it is vitally important that your Bloke thinks he is part of the target market for whatever clothes he is being sold. He knows that all clothing choices he might make will appear to others to be trying to be one kind of person or another – and he doesn’t know which. He can’t trust his own sense of style because these things are social. It what goes on on in other minds that counts. He is being forced to speak a foreign language without a dictionary and if he gets it wrong he will be laughed at.
But he doesn’t know for sure where the boundaries are, or even what the groups are. Maybe he used to when he was sixteen (though I didn’t), when you were perhaps either One of Us or One of Them and dressed accordingly but he doesn’t know now. No-one ever told him what the rules are. He’s not on speaking terms with the Fashion Police. (who he thinks, if he thinks about htem at all, are all women or gay men, and certainly not Blokes themselves.) So when a Bloke buys clothes he needs to be reassured that they are the kind of clothes people like him wear.
This is not lack of imagination or some atavistic herd instinct. its a sophisticated and realistic strategy for surviving and prospering in the modern world.
Its vitally important at work. The Bloke knows that the universe of work is divided into those jobs that you will never get unless you turn up to the interview in a suit and tie, and those you probably won’t get if you do. And he knows which is which. He knows that once he is at work his boss, his workmates, and the general public will judge him by what he wears. These things matter. Turn up at an office in a pale grey suit when everyone else is in dark grey and you will be read as making a statement, whether you like it or not. Have shorter or longer hair than anyone else, and people will assume things about you.
Its also important in social life. The Bloke also knows, or thinks he knows, that women will judge him by appearances, and that matters very much to him indeed. But he does not know the rules by which they will judge him. He cannot work out what clothes he is supposed to wear fronm his own knowledge or taste. So what he has to do is work out what his peer groups are and dress himself in the same general manner as the rest of them. (But not exactly the same as anyone else because that’s Bad and Wrong.) And that’s difficult, because society is complex, and changing, and everyone moves in sets of different interconnecting social circles.
So when a Bloke hits on some style of clothing that seems to work socially he sticks with it. And he sticks with it until he notices that no-one else is wearing it any more, so it is starting to look like a statement, than he drops it and is forced to find another.
Maybe that’s why some absurd clothing styles stick around so long then change so fast.
The first man to wear a top hat was mocked in the street. But he stuck with it, and then some other fashionable young ment took it up , and after a while it must have been worn by enough smart young chaps to have started seeming normal, to blend into the background. As soon as that happened it passed a tipping point, Blokes could wear it without standing out in a crowd, and the fashionable moved on to something else. That nonsensical piece of performance art became popular, and stuck around for a century or more.
Then all of a sudden in the late 19th century the top hat was replaced amongst office-working Blokes all over the English-speaking world by the Fedora – also known as the Trilby in its black felt manifestation – which was originally a woman’s fashion, worn on stage by the characters of those names. Except of course in the City of London where they adopted the Bowler at that time. Which was a hard hat designed for coachmen of a generation earlier. That is as silly as if merchant bankers and insurance traders in 2010 were to start wearing 1960s visorless motorbike helmets, and to keep up the habit for the next seventy years.
As for ties (neckties that is) they are ugly, uncomfortable, unhygenic, impossible to keep clean, and fiddly to put on. A complete waste of of time, money, and caterpillars. They were a minority perversion in the late 19th century, but in the first decades of the twentieth they spread throughout the world, and for a hundred years they have been neccessity for any middle-class man who wants to be taken seriously at work. In the 1970s it looked for a while as if we were growing out of our collective compulsive obsession with the vile slimy strangling things but they started to come back in again. Maybe they aren’t as ubiquitous as they were but about half the men you see going to work in London still wear them.
Some fashions last longer. The ordinary white cotton long-sleeved shirt open at the front with a row of buttons on the right and buttonholes on the left has been around for wll over two hundred years since we got the idea (and the cotton) from India. Collars became stiff in the mid-19th century, turned down rather than up at the end of it (presumably to accomodate those grotesque ties) and permantly attached round about the Second World War. But basically its been the same for half of modern history, apart from minor details of cut and finish which Blokes don’t notice (but still worry about getting wrong)
As an aside, this is a reason why one of the most cruel and even dangerous things a woman can do for a Bloke is to tell him he looks good in something. The problem is, he might believe you, and then he will wear it four days a week every week for the next twenty years. They will stick with what works, and they think the women have Secret Knowledge denied to Blokes.
Its no help to say that a Bloke should wear what he likes, or what makes him feel good about himself, or that he should use his clothes to express his personality. He probably feels most comfortable either stark naked or else in old jogging bottoms and baggy jumpers, depending on the weather. He knows perfectly well that the clothes he thinks look good are no guide to what looks good on him. Depending on his age, inclination, and deviation of choice, the clothes he likes looking at are likely to be something like frilly knickers, stockings and suspenders, battledress, Darth Vader’s helmet, American football gear, a big black cloak, skin-tight black leather, or complete nudity. If he dressed to express his personality he’d probably be locked up.
So how do you sell clothes to Blokes? Basically you have to make the process as quick and simple as possible, reassure him that people like himself wear clothes like that, and reduce the possibility of embarrassment.
Here are some hints:
How to Sell Clothes to Blokes
1) The layout of the shop ought to be visible through the window, so the Bloke knows where to go before walking through the door. No posh window displays obscuring the view, just plain glass so he can see what he is letting himself in for.
2) The shop floor must be arranged by category of clothes, with all the jackets in one place, all the shirts in another, and so on. Not by manufacturer, or brand, or colour, or designer, or season, or priceband, or style. A bloke buying a shirt wants to go to the rack or shelf containing all the shirts that are for sale in that shop, choose one as quickly as possible, and get out. He neither knows nor cares what the logo on the clothes is. In fact thinking about it embarrasses him. (If he does care, then he is not at that moment behaving like a Bloke. This is possible – Blokishness is a socially-constructed role, not an innate ontological neccessity)
3) You must use Bloke Logic rather than Fashion-Victim Logic when categorising the merchandise. Things are to be shelved near to things like them, so they are easy to find. Socks go near shoes, not underwear. Blokes have no concept of the difference between accessories and clothes. So belts must be placed next to the trousers, hats near the coats, gloves and scarves near the woolies. Shoulder-bags, however designer and leatherette they might be, don’t count as clothes at all, they are luggage and go with the suitcases. And backpacks, which are also luggage, not sporting goods.
4) It goes without saying that all goods should be clearly marked with price and size.
5) And they should be on racks more than shelves and never in bins or boxes – Blokes want to read what it says on the outside and pick up the thing they want, not leaf through heaps of clothes looking for labels.
6) On the other hand, eschew egregious packaging. Shirts do not need cardboard stiffeners, clips over the cuffs, and two different kinds of pins to hold them in shape in a bag. (I’ve even seen it on T-shirts)
7) Just show the clothes. Don’t waste space on dressed dummies, artistic little displays, or point-of-sale frippery.
8) No large advertising posters showing models wearing the clothes. Honest Blokes will realise that they don’t look like the male models and don’t have a chance with the female ones. Self-deluded Blokes will kid themselves that they are and do. Neither helps the buying process. Also male models, by definition, look far too gay for the average Bloke. Any man good-looking enough to attract female customers will be off-putting for straight men. And no-one wants to look at ugly men. So display no ads for mens clothing in the shop. And if there are pictures of men in ads for womens clothing, put them where they can’t be seen from the men’s department.
9) Shop assistants should be female. Blokes don’t want to talk to other men about clothes. Ever. Ideally they should be young and good-looking as well, but that always works selling anything, not just clothes. If there are any men there they must be at least middle-aged and casually and unfashionably dressed. The last person a Bloke wants fiddling with his clothes is a good-looking young man half his age wearing clothes that make him feel cheap and shabby.
10) Don’t go up and greet Blokes or ask them if you can help them. They do not want to be approached. It only embarrasses them and makes them less likely to buy things. They are nervous enough as it is – if they don’t have the courage to approach you to ask you a question they will hardly be likely to welcome you into their personal space.
11) Blokes don’t want to be fawned over (except possibly by fantasy girlfriends in private).
12) Avoid calling Blokes “sir”, it sounds obsequious and creepy to them and raises their discomfort level. If the shop assistant calling them “sir” is much younger than them it makes them feel old, and if they are the same age or older they think it sounds fake, or sad. The social atmosphere of a shop that sells to Blokes should be egalitarian.
13) Don’t use little scripted sales patter. No “have a nice day” or “would you like to buy one of thesem, they are on special offer?” Just tell them the price and say “thank-you” and every possible opportunity.
14) If customers do ask for help, avoid touching them. Or their clothes. Blokes are British, dammit!
15) Never, ever tell them they look good in something, they won’t believe you and it will only embarrass them. Feel free to politely tell them when something is not right – even if they ignore your judgment, they will respect your honesty.
16) No tricks to extend “dwell time” and force customers to take circuitous routes around the shop. A Bloke in a supermarket who is forced to walk past the chillers on the way to the booze aisle may well impulse-buy a pork-pie, a block of cheese, and some orange juice to kid himself he’s on a healthy diet. A Bloke forced to spend too long in a clothes shop looking for what he wants won’t impulse-buy anything. He is more likely to panic and walk out and you have lost a customer.
17) At least some of every category of clothing must be available in plain black.
18) Sell shirts with button-down collars. Yes, you know they went out five years ago, but Blokes don’t.
19) Some of every category of clothing has to be sold unbranded. No visible logos or labels. Its just another thing to get wrong. There are blokes who will avoid wearing any visibly branded clothing because they know it defines them as the sort of person who wears that brand of clothing and they don’t know who that sort of person is. So fear sets in once more.
20) No cafe or coffee-bar in the shop. Its a clothes shop, not a bookshop, the Bloke wants to get away as soon as possible. On the other hand it helps to have a pub clearly visible through the window, so the escape route is well signposted.