MANual of Style

Lesson 6: How to Shop by Shreyas
7 January, 2010, 9:26 pm
Filed under: Basic Concepts | Tags: , , ,

If you were like me, when you were a child clothes just magically appeared, and when you had the privilege and money to shop for yourself, you really didn’t know how to go about it, and you ended up with a good number of things in your closet that nobody has any use for. That happens because shopping effectively is a skill, and it isn’t one that most parents teach their children.

Luckily, you’ve got me.

Getting What You Want

The first thing to know about shopping is that it’s kind of like hunting: You’ll do better when you know what you’re after and you plan appropriately. Whenever I go shopping for clothes, I have a list in my head (much like a grocery list) of what I’m looking for. For instance, “Socks, t-shirt (maybe lime ? maybe blue graphic to go with that sweater), and my jeans have holes in them AGAIN, I guess I should get something a little more well-made this time.” You don’t even have to be that specific: “I’ve got a date on Thursday, and none of my cold-weather clothing looks good on me any more. I need something warm and slightly dressy—maybe a heavy button-down, or a nice sweater?”

You don’t necessarily have to limit yourself to this list when you’re actually making purchases; its purpose is to guide your attention and help you remember what you actually need.

The other thing about shopping is that sometimes you don’t end up finding what you want. Sometimes it just isn’t there! That’s okay, though. Think of it as recon; later you’ll have a better idea of what you can find where.

Speaking of recon, do this. You’ve probably picked out a few stores that generally carry clothes you like in your price range (if you haven’t, think about that, and list them in your style journal, or look at Getting Started farther down the page); try and hit every one when you go to the mall and see what’s new. You might find yourself saying, “Hey, I like that thing, maybe I’ll pick one up later,” or “Hm, this season’s clothes don’t really interest me,” either of which helps you plan future shopping trips. You’ll also find, if you look around, that different locations of the same chain may carry very different inventories: I find that the H&M in Holyoke is a lot more interested in weird, attention-grabby clothes than their location in Stamford, which is more focused on basics.

The knowledge you acquire from doing all this recon is to make the finding-and-purchasing part of your shopping trip faster and easier; you can head straight to the store that’s most likely to have what you’re looking for. Make sure to jot down where you like to shop for what in your journal, and the price ranges: for example, I like to buy jeans at Target, because color and cut change, and I’m hard on jeans; shirts at Express, because they have beautifully tailored button-downs that work for me when I’m in okay shape; accessories at Guess, because there’s a lot of leather and chrome, and although they’re pricey, I buy accessories rarely enough that I can afford the splurge; and ties from my favorite local men’s boutique, Jackson and Connor, because they’re astonishingly beautiful. I don’t buy shirts at Guess, because they’re too expensive and loud; I don’t buy pants at Jackson and Connor because I wear out jeans too quickly; and I don’t buy accessories at Target because they usually look like something I bought somewhere else a year earlier.

Once you’ve found the right garment, try it on to make sure the length and fit are right. There are no hard standards for mens’ clothing sizes, so they tend to vary from manufacturer to manufacturer. Different stores also have different target customers, and the cut of their clothes reflects this: Abercrombie & Fitch makes clothes in a noticeably beefier cut than skinny Hollister, for instance, and more traditionalist department-store lines tend toward more conservative, roomier silhouettes. European lines are sometimes very skinny indeed. This means that you might be Medium at one store, Large at another, and XL at a third. Nothing is wrong! That’s just how the garment industry works. N.B.: Even if you know your size at a particular store, you should try on everything before you buy it anyway, because manufacturing isn’t perfect and occasionally stores modify their cuts, so clothes will vary slightly in size. No two shirts are perfectly identical.

Sometimes, if you look closely, you’ll notice the mannequins at various stores have different shapes to them. Some clothing stores have designed their own mannequins– not just for creepy ad campaigns like the one for Old Navy, but because their clothing is structured for a specific body type, and putting it on a mannequin with that body type improves the look of the clothes. I know I can’t shop at Hollister, for example, because one look at their slim-shouldered, skinny-armed mannequins tells me their clothing is not for me. The exception here is for stores which carry big and tall sizes; mannequins aren’t made for these, except maybe at some higher-end clothing stores which specialize in big and tall clothing. So if you’re outside of the averages, then mannequin-hunting won’t do you much good; if you’re pretty much an average dude, however, checking out the mannequin silhouettes couldn’t hurt.

Getting a good price

Much of getting a good price is timeliness and comparison shopping. If you’re looking for basics that you can get at any of several locations, like plain t-shirts or pants, check all those locations before you pick anything up and see if any of them are having a sale, or simply keep in mind who’s at what point on the price range. It’s probably possible to do this kind of research online, too, which saves you gas, time, and shoe leather.

For seasonal garments, the best prices happen just when they’re going out of season (when it starts getting warm, stores try to clear their racks of winter coats, etc.), but the tradeoff you make there is that their stock will be depleted, so the selection isn’t as good. The prices do tend to decline steadily as the season goes on, though, and they’re highest just when the weather changes and the new stock comes in, so you can balance those factors to your liking as long as you’ve got last season’s gear to keep you going until you decide it’s time to strike.

Besides the end-of-season sales, there are usually significant sales just after Christmas, and often just before it as well. Keep track of community events like sidewalk sales, too; any big promotional opportunity for a store will lead to a sale.

Finally, there’s always a sale or clearance rack somewhere in the store, which is a good place to check for things as long as you aren’t trying to get in on the latest five-minutes-old fad. They are usually in the back, or in a corner. Look for the least accessible, least trafficked place in the store. (Bafflingly, Express puts their sale racks front-and-center, which is really convenient for me; Elizabeth thinks the tactic they’re employing here is to trick guys into buying things while their better halves are poking around the womens’ section. It works for us because she doesn’t shop at Express.)

Getting good quality

For us, “good” quality means “sufficient for our needs.” I’m not going to tell you to go out and buy the very best stuff money can buy, made of only the best organic spider silk. Any ass could do that, and it’s not going to help you.

For clothes, quality is mostly a measure of durability and tailoring. Durability can be sacrificed for clothing that you don’t expect to keep for long (e.g. graphic shirts, trendy going-out clothes) or treat roughly (sneakers for gardening). Timeless staples that you treat gently should usually be more durable; you’ll pay a little more for them, but the difference between a $100 suit and a $300 suit or between a $15 sweater and a $50 sweater can be years of wear. It’s an investment.

You can check durability by looking at the seams of the article of clothing, and also assessing the strength and thickness of the fabric. If something is well-made, the seams will feel strong and look straight, and will not pucker; puckering happens when the seams are not ironed flat before sewing, and shortcuts tend to belie other workmanship issues. If there are loose buttons or hanging threads, that’s a dead giveaway that what you’re looking at isn’t made to last.

Tailoring is a different matter: sometimes the difference between an $8 and $80 white t-shirt is the tailoring. The difference is difficult to describe, but easy to pick out when you try a shirt on: two shirts that look nearly identical on the rack can create wildly different silhouettes. In the case of a designer t-shirt like this, the extra $72 is not for fancier fabric, but for a different, harder-to-find silhouette. Whether that silhouette works for you, and is worth the money to you, is entirely subjective. (I have a $60 T-shirt I bought from Jackson and Connor because it made me look 20 pounds thinner. The vanity was worth it to me, and the confidence I have wearing it is priceless.)

Getting Started

If you’re really not comfortable going out shopping by yourself, because you don’t really know where to go or what to look for, try out Elizabeth’s ‘rule of three’ technique: Go out shopping with a stylish girl who likes you and a guy friend whose judgement you trust. Your girl friend’s job is to find clothes for you to try on; your guy friend’s job is to tell you when those clothes make you look silly. This is time-consuming, and you’ll probably get dragged all over the mall because window shopping is a big-deal recreational activity for many American women, but you’ll end up with a few new clothes, and more importantly, an idea of where they came from. After one or two such trips you can start just going back to the places where you successfully found things you liked. Of course, many men simply hate shopping; in that case, inviting some friends along may make the ordeal much more palatable, and hopefully these tips should also help ease the pain.

Special considerations

7-10% of men are red-green colorblind, which makes choosing clothing which looks flattering difficult. If you’re colorblind, try to bring someone with you when you go shopping regardless (at least, when looking to buy non-monochromatic clothing. Red-green colorblindness can affect the perception of shades of colors too, so it’s not useful to only stay away from red and green clothing.) Of course, it’s a good excuse to strike up a conversation with an attractive salesperson, as well: “Excuse me, but I’m colorblind. Can you tell me how this shade works on my skin?”

Stay tuned for our special Saturday post.


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[…] demonstration of silhouette On Thursday, we talked a bit on price and how to shop. One of the inevitable questions that comes up during comparison-shopping is “Why would I buy […]

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