Shop like a man

| Staff Writer
Illustration by Ryan Davis

Ebenezer Scrooge. Terry Crews’ character from “Everybody Hates Chris.” Mr. Krabs. On their face, these characters are Cheapskate Embodied, whether that’s rooted in frugality, their miser nature, or pure greed. However, to me, they also embody a kind of male cost-consciousness mythos that has stood out to me both in media and in my own life: the Male Shopper. 

At its extremes, the Male Shopper looks like a greedy animated crab with a pirate’s laugh; in everyday life, it’s closer to Steve Carrell’s character in “Crazy Stupid Love,” the archetypal Dad Who Bought Three Pairs Of Good Jeans In 1990 And Never Looked Back. It’s an inclination toward saving, a reluctance toward spending, and when spending, it’s the vigor with which quality and longevity are considered. It’s “buy cheap, buy twice”; it’s “we have food at home.” 

There’s nothing masculine about being penny-wise, but the first paragraph of this article would have taken me twice as long to write if I had challenged myself to think of woman scrooges. (You try it: name three. I’ll wait.)

In the cultural imagination, frugality is tied up in a simple apathy for aesthetics, a placement of function over fashion. There’s a sense that to buy something that will last, you have to sacrifice style; that if you’re not consuming on the regular, you must not have a sense of style to maintain. It’s no surprise that spending intentionally is gendered, when people who present as feminine are expected to be aesthetically pleasing as a rule, at any cost. I have spent a lifetime of rage on blatantly and unintentionally sheer white shirts, strapless pieces with no support to keep them up, and of course, the plight of the pocketless pants. Why should the mainstream market for women’s clothing prioritize comfort, longevity, versatility, basic functionality? You’ll buy it anyway. It’s pretty.

Men’s clothing brands, on the other hand, while not necessarily always being better quality, at the very least market toward and value the appearance of comfort, durability, and functional efficiency. A 2012 Lee commercial reminds viewers that “Guys don’t spend more on jeans than women do. Guys don’t settle for less than a comfortable fit. When guys wear Lee,” the voiceover assures, “they don’t have to settle at all. Lee gets guys. That’s why guys get Lee.” You may have seen the machismo in Duluth Trading Company’s advertisements for workwear and underwear on the basis of comfort alone, gruff voiceover and all. And while it’s not men’s clothing, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the masculine swing of hyper-economic grooming products, like a recent Old Spice commercial for 2-in-1 “Gentlemen’s Blend” shampoo and conditioner, tagline: “Men Have Hair Too.” 

It’s not that women’s clothes aren’t ever expected to be comfortable, but there’s a sense that a brand can get away with discomfort for women’s fare. The Female Shopper isn’t expected to check the stitching, to feel for the quality of a material, to try it on in the dressing room not only for fit but for function. And if she does, it seems fast fashion giants and mainstream ready-to-wear clothing companies have done the math and determined that a failed function assessment will not preclude an eventual sale, if the aesthetic is right. In fact, it’ll guarantee more and more future sales, as itchy sweaters are tossed to the side and flimsy dresses float to the back of the wardrobe.

I’m not a minimalist, not by any stretch. You don’t have to sacrifice style to spend less and more intentionally, because style is not predicated on quantity. The fashion-function dilemma is manufactured — it’s lucrative to believe that the key to developing your style is to buy more rather than buy better.

Shopping like a man isn’t about turning your wardrobe into a cost-benefit analysis. It’s about reminding yourself (as I often must, as a habitual filler and abandoner of online shopping carts) that clothes aren’t just things to look good in, but things to feel good in, hopefully for a long time. Our corporate overlords have deemed this to be a masculine trait, and I’m leaning in, hard. 

I won’t say things aren’t changing. Brands like Culprit are now leaning into selling “LadyBoxers,” splashing ads across YouTube: “Let’s face it: guys boxers are the best, but they’re not made for women,” the wine-drunk spokesperson dishes. “Ladies, isn’t it time we got our own boxers?” Shopping in the men’s section, or whatever section will get you good quality and deep pockets, is more common than ever. The rise of dadcore gives me particular hope, even as fast fashion churns out thin, cheap mockups.

But if the contents of my abandoned shopping cart are any indication, we have a long way to go. So when it comes to fake pockets and see-through white shirts — when it comes to advertising that’s all aesthetic and no substance, when it comes to brands who don’t care to invest in clothing that’s comfortable to wear — I’m pinching my pennies. I won’t sacrifice my style and I won’t buy what won’t last. In the absence of woman scrooges, I’m picking up the mantle. (That’s one name you can add to the list: I’m still waiting on two more.)

Sign up for the email edition

Stay up to date with everything happening at Washington University and beyond.