Where we part ways is where fashion stops looking smart or sexy and starts being about trends that make you look daft
Women don’t dress for men. Or rather, most women don’t dress for men. Certainly not solely for men. (If women dressed solely for men, a lot fewer women’s clothes would be sold.) Instead, like men only more so, women dress to be attractive, stylish, smart, comfortable, fashionable, warm, cool: a thousand considerations go into your choice of outfit before the notion of whether it’ll be appealing to men, or a particular man, crosses your minds. If indeed it ever does. And that’s as it should be. And we understand it. We get it. We’re not thinking about impressing you either, as we button our shirts in the morning. (Clearly not, you say, observing the foxed collars, the missing cuff buttons, the greying, fraying fabric). So you dress for the occasion, the weather, the whatever. You dress for yourselves and often — strange to us chaps, perhaps, but incontrovertibly true — each other. Nevertheless, many of you, most of you I’d say, like to think that we think that you look something more than just presentable, just as we’d hope you might think the same of us.
And there are certainly outfits or items on which our conception of what makes you look good and your conception of what makes you look good overlap. You know them without my typing them, but I’ll do it anyway: tight tops, short skirts, high heels. Yes, we are tragic, simple creatures. As I say, you know this.
What you may not know is how deeply, deeply sceptical we are about so many of the other clothes and looks you like, and might even think we like. Can I use the word “kaftan” now? Is it too early for “flatforms”? Shall we save “jeggings” for later?
Where we part ways tends to be where fashion gets more complicated, more conceptual, artier, weirder; where it stops being about looking smart or sexy, or being practical or warm and starts being about adhering to specific trends or ideas, even when they make you look daft. Blogger Leandra Medine was on to something when she came up with the title Man Repeller for her website, which details the clothes that women love and men hate. There are codes in menswear too that you can’t read, tiny details that escape your notice but which mean something to us. Your codes tend to shout louder but they’re still befuddling to men. Like a giant neon sign written in esperanto: we can see it clearly, but we don’t understand it. And it looks silly. Even those of us chaps who keep up to speed with the comings in and goings out of womenswear (and these days we are not few) and who can admire a dress as a beautiful thing in and of itself find the following words mostly unwelcome, at least when they describe clothes worn by women in the real world: “directional”; “fashion-forward”; “on-trend”. To men — men who’ve heard these phrases at any rate and perhaps even dimly understood them —these are euphemisms for “brave”, “ridiculous” and “what on earth is she wearing?”
Here, then, are ten more trends that you may imagine us chaps are entirely as enthusiastic about as you are. In which case I’m afraid you imagine incorrectly.
Have you ever noticed that many of women’s greatest style icons, from Audrey Hepburn to Sofia Coppola to Alexa Chung — birdlike little things with snappable limbs who dress in diaphanous blouses and tailored trousers and flat shoes one day and floaty little printed sundresses and kitten heels the next — are not generally quite as popular with men as women who seem barely able to dress themselves at all, from Marilyn Monroe to Kate Upton? Ever wondered why that might be? As it happens I’ve interviewed Sofia Coppola. She’s a fascinating, talented, intelligent woman. It’s also an attested fact that she has incredible taste in all things. On the day I met her she was wearing a boy’s beige cableknit sweater from the children’s department at J.Crew. I find this somewhat offputting in a 42-year-old woman. Ditto berets, capes, ballet slippers . . . anything that looks like it was designed for a precocious Parisian schoolgirl.
This is not a word we men would use to describe ourselves or each other, so it’s hard to see how it can be a compliment when applied to a woman. Mannish girls, like girlish men perhaps, are inspired by another famous Hepburn: Katharine, with her trouser suits and her shoulder pads and her Bryn Mawr bark. Don’t get us wrong, we love Katharine Hepburn so much we dress like her. Which doesn’t mean we think you should. Ditto Diane Keaton in Annie Hall , with her waistcoats and her ties. The fashion word for mannish, of course, is androgynous, which you may think sounds très chic and sophisticated in a Helmut Newtonish kind of a way. Thing is, you say “androgyny”, we think “young David Bowie”. Believe it or not, not every one of us finds the young David Bowie irresistibly attractive. (Oh, all right, but not as attractive as an actual woman.) Interesting sidenote: the current exemplar of mannish is the writer Donna Tartt, in the news at the moment because of her new novel, The Goldfinch . I bow to no man in my admiration for the miniature Mississippean’s mordant fictionalising. Her austere personal style is more of an acquired taste: white dress shirts buttoned to the chin, three-piece suits, brogues. Basically what I wear when I’ve got a really terrifying business meeting.
3. Kooky like SJP
Women think this word is charming, men think it is irritating. Men are right. Kookiness has many manifestations but in fashion terms to my mind it means only one thing: Sarah Jessica Parker. Now again, SJP as you will insist on calling her is not dressing for men, she’s dressing for herself and other women who understand her complicated sartorial semaphore. Fine. But forgive us for thinking she looks two buttons short of the full frock. When we saw her on Sex and the City , prancing about Greenwich Village in a tutu and pop socks and a crop top and a characterful hat, we thought that was part of the joke. We didn’t realise that actually her character’s wardrobe was quite tame compared to the mad fancy-dress pantomime enacted daily by the actress in real life: all those headache-inducing prints and wildly mismatched spots and stripes and hats and batty shoes. Frankly, we can’t see all that much difference between SJP and that other contemporary icon of madcap you-have-to-laugh feminity, Grayson Perry.
4. (You don’t have to get it) Hipster
A sister to the kook, the hipster fashionista is cooler, less obviously bonkers, but still mostly baffling to men, with her thick-framed glasses, her asymmetrical hair, her trucker’s tattoos, her retro thrift-store finds (you say “vintage”, we say “jumble sale”), her anti-fashion fashionability. Just as SJP is queen of the kooks, so the hipster icon remains Chloë Sevigny, another woman I happen to have met (I used to get around a bit) at a party in Los Angeles. On that occasion she was wearing a man-sized dinner jacket over a sheer bodystocking, her hair pulled back tight, and she was droll and cool and beautiful. Does this mean all women will look droll and cool and beautiful in a man-sized dinner jacket over a sheer bodystocking? Not really, no.
. . . which, to us chaps, is just another way of saying: hippy. Which seems to translate as: gladiator sandals, kaftans, gypsy skirts, embroidery, batik (whatever that is), jangly ethnic jewellery, unnecessary plaits and a knit-your-own Mulberry satchel. Looked amazing on Sienna Miller at Glastonbury in 2007, looks deranged on primary school teachers and trainee solicitors and off-duty community support officers in 2013.
6. Grown-up Eighties
The fashion decade that women will simply not allow to die. It’s not so much the Madonna Material Girl Eighties we’ve a problem with — although it’s semi-offputting that you keep bringing all that up, all those bangles and batwing tops and bodies and leggings and jeggings and now Prince Harry’s girlfriend’s comes out in a scrunchie. No, it’s more the bizarre ongoing fetishisation of the Margaret Thatcher style: the pussybow blouses, the blazers, the deliberately schoolma’amish handbag, which to us is entirely unflattering, not to mention borderline sociopathic. Which brings us to . . .
7. Thrift-store chic
A relative of the Mrs T trend, though homelier, less businesslike, Granny is the confounding fashion for young and youngish women wearing clothing that would look more appropriate in a comfy chair at a care home in front of Countdown : twinsets, tweed jackets and cardigans, crocheted woollen shawls and dreadful, dreadful orthopedic-style shoes. That look is particularly troubling even to me, and I sometimes write for women’s fashion magazines.
To men, this implies trainers and replica football strips and — to quote Arctic Monkeys (it’s OK, the singer used go out with Alexa Chung) — tracky bottoms tucked in socks. To you it’s a Ralph Lauren spread of luxurious casual, clothes suitable for boating off Cape Cod or brunching in the Hamptons. So: drawstring trousers, linen shirts, espadrilles? In England, on a wet Wednesday? Really?
9. You say sexy
Earlier I said we like the obvious stuff, the miniskirts and micro tops, the hotpants and underwear as outer garment. And that’s all true. I stand by it. But then there’s the stuff that we’re constantly told is sexy but is actually just a bit perturbing: leopard print on anything other than a leopard. Excessively complicated lingerie. Satin and lace. Velvet. Thongs. These things have their place. It’s called Spearmint Rhino.
10. PC (practical and comfy)
Having said all that and made my gender sound hopelessly dull and square, I think it’s worth pointing out that we will take any of the above — any outré idiosyncrasy or gratuitous silliness, we’ll even take your word for SJP — over straightforward, boring shapeless safety. Smocks and tunics. Woollies and slacks. Loose fit and comfort pants. These do not, for the red-blooded male, conjure images of wanton sensuality. Similarly, “volume” and “billowing” and “layering”. And of course, the least sexy word, perhaps the least sexy thing, in the language. Ladies, I give you: “fleece”.