You may be wondering what these three things (Clothes, SAT's & Gender) have to do with each other. Hold onto your hats, because the explanation is exhilarating. Well, OK, mildly stimulating because I'm going to use the word "sex". And just to make it interesting, I'm going to start in the middle, with SAT's before I get to clothes or gender (and in fact, clothes and gender will be inextricably tied together in this discussion (although gender will come up before clothes)). So here goes. Wait, any discussion that involves clothes, gender and sex is more than mildly stimulating, which is why I'm putting the SAT stuff in here just to cool it back down to mild. OK , now here goes.

Do you remember those word questions on the SAT's (assuming you took the Scholastic Aptitude Test or something similar in the waning years of your high school experience)? Specifically, the word analogies? Well here's one to which the explanation is the whole point of this essay:
Women's Clothes: Men's Clothes as Analog:Digital
which was test speak for women's clothes have the same relationship to men's clothes as analog has to digital, although the SAT was multiple choice and you had to pick which one of the competing analogies was closest to the reference analogy (this marks the last mention of SAT, so those of you who didn't actually take the test can breath easier now). And for those of you who don't have much of a technical background, analog is continuous while digital is discrete. Clear that right up, I hope? And in this case (men's clothes), to be more accurate, digital is not just digital, but binary (i.e. has only two possible states).

But first, let me digress (not that you have much choice here since I'll be done writing this long before your objections can be noted, let alone acted upon) to a discussion of gender versus sex. You were wondering just how sex was going to rear it's ugly head, but I bet you never thought it would be in just this way. I'm a fan of narrowly defining words (when it suits my purposes, anyway) and I like to draw a difference between sex and gender. Sex refers to the dirty deed itself (as in: is sex dirty? Only when you do it right) while gender refers to the opposing (and I use that word carefully and advisedly) natures (both physical and mental) of men and women -- and only to those parts of their natures that oppose. To wit, gender refers to the difference(s) between men and women, while sex refers to the act(s) that bring them together. OK, end of digression and putting irrelevant stuff in just to keep from naming this essay clothes, a name that lacks a certain elegance and pizzazz.

So now that we have our terms defined, let's turn to discussing why I claim that men's clothes are binary while women's are analog. What I'm trying to say is that women have a whole continuous range of choice when it comes to clothes, with new categories of choice constantly being invented in Paris and other such fashion centers, while men essentially follow a two choice decision tree from nakedness to fully clothed (at least in his opinion, if not his female guardian's - you know, wife, mother, significant other). The first decision a man confronts is boxers/briefs, although most men decide this early in life and stick with the decision. So once his loins have been girded, the real fun begins. His next decision is formal/informal. These are the two choices. In formal comes ridiculously formal, which means a tux, or normal formal, which means coat and tie. In informal, there's around-the-house informal, which means the clothes he loves best but his female guardian won't let him wear otherwise, and normal informal, which means the clothes she will let him be seen in. With shirts, he must decide long or short sleeved, collar or no collar, and finally pocket or no pocket. Sniff test is optional, depending on where the shirt was when found. With pants, it's long or short. With socks, white or dark. If he's wearing a tie, bow or regular is the choice, although like underwear this choice is usually settled at a young age and consistently followed thereafter.

Within each category of clothing, color is immaterial, as he has a strict hierarchy of favorites that he will wear, depending only on availability from the laundry. How the separate pieces of clothing interact with each other is of no concern. His clothes are like buddies, and he wants to be with his best buddies as often as possible. But men also recognize that certain times and places call for certain kinds of clothes, so he will try to dress appropriately. Men just want to go down a clear decision tree path and never be confronted with a choice of more than two items so that he doesn't fall into the rock-paper-scissors paradox and not know what to wear. He wants to be confident that he made the correct deterministic decisions which is why men exude such confidence (rarely shared by their female guardian) in their sartorial choices and don't bring into consideration such externalities as "does this make my butt look big". A man knows that either it is or it isn't regardless of outer appearance, and takes pride in it either way.

On the other hand, women have a much different relationship with their clothes. Clothes are means to an end, and sentimentality only interferes with desired results. Women are trying to encapsulate both the entire nature of an event and their response to it in one clothing gestalt. This requires a clothing gradation of astonishing subtlety and amazing complexity to achieve the desired gestalt. Accessories, a word not in the male clothing lexicon, are indispensable to the well dressed woman. Women also somewhere derived the two week rule (which to a man seems nothing more than a transparent attempt by clothing companies to increase profits): a woman shall never be seen in the same clothes in a two week period. Women also pay attention to the calendar when it comes to clothing, most noticeably to Memorial Day and Labor Day, neither one of which have an intrinsic relationship to clothing, while a man will vary his decision to what he thinks the day will acutally be like, not what season he is in. Thus a woman is required to be a clothing virtuoso, trying to create breathtaking results within severe and arbitrary rules.

Still don't believe me? Consider this. A man has to decide undershirt or not, and after that his choice is crew neck or V-neck. Most men have only one or the other, so there really is only the choice to wear one or not. They are all white. A women has to factor in the color of the outer clothing to the color of the bra, and then must decide what effect she is going for and then must choose a bra and top that work together to achieve that effect. Maximum cleavage requires both a push up bra and a low cut top together to get the point across. Backless dress requires backless bra. Each choice ripples through all the other decisions which is why many women create ensembles of clothing that create the desired gross effect and then accessorize as necessary to fine tune. Casual slutty requires an entirely different approach than sophisticated sexy, which is appreciated by other women but is entirely lost on men.

I hope you now understand why only a woman would say I don't have anything to wear when she has a closet full of clothes. What she means is that she doesn't have a combination that works together to make the desired statement about how she feels about where she is to her satisfaction. A man would only say this if not only there isn't a pant or shirt left hanging up but any of the missing item in the hamper fail the sniff test, which is graded on a sliding scale according to the situation (he mentally increases the smell by a complicated algorithm that takes into account both the duration and the environmental conditions under which the garment will be worn and compares that to an odor threshold that takes into account who he will offend with the stench and who he will offend by not going). I hope you also now understand why an event being described as "casual" is enough for a man to get dressed but not a woman, who has to know the degree of casualness, some of the history of the event, and who is going to be there. You should also understand why a female guardian will question what her charge is wearing, while her male charge would never think to tell her what to wear. Since what a male charge wears is actually part of her clothing identity, it is important that not only is he fully compliant with all the fashion rules, but also that his clothes interact acceptably with hers. You should now understand why it takes longer for a women to decide what to wear, and why she can get caught in quandaries trying to decide which is the "best" outfit to wear, sometimes due to having more than two choices and falling into a rock-paper-scissors paradox (which is the "best" choice to always win?), and sometimes due to different outfits doing a better job in different areas (as in this one is more dressy (desirable) but makes my butt look larger (undesirable)). She can resolve these paradoxs sometimes by talking to another women who's fashion sense she trusts to tell her more about the outfit, and sometimes by talking to another woman who is going to the same event to get clarification on the degree of dressiness or perhaps on who else is going and thus she my determine that if they all have large (or at least larger than hers) posteriors she can give a little on trying to minimize hers. Now do you understand why coats and ties have persisted for so long while offering no functionality - men have no idea what to replace them with -- and why they are giving way not to something new but to an expansion of casual into realms that were once formal. It's just a tweak as to what constitutes casual versus formal, leaving the rest of the decision tree unchanged -- and men don't want their decision tree messed with.

In fact, the woman:man analog:digital analogy is a good starting point to understand many of the other gender differences. Needless to say it isn't that simple, but its enough to get you started. And if I ever do figure out more, I'll do my civic duty and explain it to you -- and I hope you'll do the same for me.

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This page last updated 8 September 1999.
Contents copyright Kevin Murphy 1999. All rights reserved.