Shopping in ZARA clearly gives a very distinctive experience. The Spanish high-fashion brand opened its first store in Budapest in 2004. Very tellingly, the shop is located in the most visited, prestigious down-town shopping area. The inside design and atmosphere of the shop creates the feeling that the quotidian by-passer suddenly drops into the distinct world of catwalks and fashion hotspots. The huge white walls, the clear airy spaces where clothes of limited serials are lined up by the walls surely recall the air of fashion shows. This is made even more suggestive by the dominant presence of supermodel-looking regular customers who are strolling around with their perfect bodies dressed in the latest fashion, in perfect make-up, all reserved and cold, as if they came alive and stepped out suddenly from the windows of the shop itself. Stepping into the shop thus raises strangely ambivalent feelings of attraction and alienation, as you are fascinated that this world is suddenly available for you everyday woman, yet being turned down at the very same moment for never becoming more than a temporary visitor in it.
However, it was only more recently that I discovered another ZARA phenomenon that left me even more intrigued: the ZARA men! Never did I notice until a few weeks ago that the store has a men’s section, an entire floor in fact. Similarly, never did I hear any of my male friends ever talking about shopping in ZARA. No wonder: the male section is a realm of its own. Located on the top floor of the three-level monumental store, it gives women no chance of incidental encounter. Men seem to have little interest in women here, the only passion is fashion itself. So no fear of sinning in ZARA, unless it’s a sin of consumption. The male customers go to their floor without even looking at you. Indeed, from my own limited experience flirting in ZARA is impossible. The men who shop in ZARA seem to be faithfully wed either to those idyllic supermodels or to each other, and definitely have no interest what-so-ever in us earthly women from the lower shop grounds. Their pent-house is in its place – at the top – and seems to keep the mysteries of the men’s preferences.
The whole business of men’s fashion and shopping is surrounded with a cloud of ambiguities. While men often claim that their clothing is only about being “comfortable” and “cheap,” men’s clothes and shoes often cost more than similar items for women. No women’s clothes shop can compete with the air of the tradition of man’s tailors. Even in politics, while women are surveyed closely for the cost and etiquette of the costumes and dresses they are wearing male colleagues seem to avoid these questions by wearing all-black faceless but multi-thousand-Euro suits. Finally, for God’s sake, so many male fashion designers literally rule the world of fashion, for both men and women.
Being intrigued by such inconsistencies between the common belief of men’s indifference to fashion and the obviously flourishing costly business of men’s clothes me and my friend decided to explore some of the consumerist habits of men, asking some of our male friends to tell us about on their shopping habits and clothes.
Respecting the need for diversity of the interviewed “sample,” we asked men whose occupation varied from students and NGO activists to such professionals as journalists, corporate company workers, and company owners. All of them are in their late 20s, the majority grew up in larger cities and have extensive traveling experience. No man refused to talk about clothes, though several of them emphasised that it was the first time in their lives they have talked about male clothes.
When is it Time to Shop?
One of the major emphases that ran like red-thread through all men’s comments is how clothes, fashion or style is nothing that men spend time on. It is something that happens without men’s considerable effort, without distracting them from more important, exciting, useful or interesting things. In fact, it is something that happens often without their participation. The majority of men choose to go shopping when they absolutely have to.
Mr. White: When old things are getting really too old, then I go to buy new ones. Usually in every six months or so… Shopping stresses me. I end up trying on millions of things and I get stressed too much. I cannot shop for more than an hour and then I get really fed up with it.
Mr. Brown: I don’t shop very often. I usually buy my clothes when I go home to B. every six months or so. Then my mother tells me that she thinks I need new clothes …Then I go and buy new ones.
Mr. Pink: I wouldn’t say that I am an emotional buyer, and I wouldn’t necessarily go shopping if didn’t have money. But I am willing to spend my earnings. Last time I needed things specifically for certain events. E.g. When I am going out and I don’t think I have anything suitable, I would go to a shop and buy a whole set, shoes, pants, ties, shirts, everything that I would need. But it’s never regular and I never go to a shop just to look around.
Mr. Blonde: Generally I don’t enjoy shopping. I try to spend possibly very little time with shopping. Because it doesn’t in any way make me feel better. I usually go once or twice a year.
Mr. Orange: …But sometimes I feel consciously that I need new clothes…
What Does it Mean When Men Say “Comfortable Clothes”…?
Without much discursive analysis it became clear, that when men say “comfortable” they actually mean EVERYTHING from nice and easy to wear and wash to good-looking , fashionable, fitting, stylish, appropriate, sexy…God knows what! One thing is obvious: emphasising comfort is manly, interpreting it, however, is a matter of personal preferences…
Mr. Blue: Everything should be COMFORTABLE. Ok, the outlook is important to a certain extent, but I mainly choose clothes, that look comfortable. If something isn’t comfortable, I wouldn’t wear it. For example when I was 16 me and my friend decided that we hate tight jeans, because they are really uncomfortable. We called them crocodiles, because they are eating your balls. So I never wear jeans. Maybe there are some wider jeans, which are not eating your balls, but…
Ms. B: Is anything else that would be important, for example the colour or the style? Something that you would never wear?
Mr. Blue: No, the colour doesn’t really matter; most important is that it should be comfortable. If it’s comfortable I would wear anything. ….But I wouldn’t wear pink. I have very comfortable pants, grayish, greenish, very dirty, with spots. And they are very comfortable.
Ms. B: But why would then pink affect being comfortable? Why wouldn’t you wear same pants in pink?
Mr. Blue: If it was pink, it would confront my eyes all the time. I would simply feel ashamed. There are some limits for the comfort principle, and also not looking funny. For example I wouldn’t care if my trousers have holes, but I wouldn’t wear pink.
Man’s Best Shopping Friend…
While it is a universal debate whether friendship between men and women is possible, in our interviews the absolute majority of men have declared women to be their best shopping companions. The “she ‘ is almost self-explanatory…
Mr. Blonde: I try to have SOMEONE with me for a second opinion. SHE….
Mr. White: I always had good women in my family who could understand my taste and opinion so I never had to go and do shopping for myself…. So I told my mother, get me something black.
Mr. Orange: Usually women, and especially the mother takes a more active role in dressing a man, so you use women more often as a reference for clothing. Women can discuss it much more and trust their companion. There are prejudices in society that women have to know about clothing.
Mr. Pink: There are people who I trust more than others, like my sister. No, not my friends. For example I have a friend who always dresses in these military uniforms. So no, I wouldn’t trust him about this.
Mr. Blue: I have a girlfriend, and she shops for me. Before that? I went with my sister, because I trust her choice.
How Does Men’s Style “Happen”…?
According to our interviewees men and clothes seem to exist in parallel realities. Thus the clothes seem to miraculously land in men’s closets, then again, by pure chance, are picked up out of it and put on their bodies, which apparently couldn’t care less about what they are wearing. However… have you ever tried to convince a man to wear something he doesn’t like?
Mr. Blonde: My style? But I don’t really have a style. I mean I don’t think that myself. I would wear anything I like. Basically I would wear anything. If I don’t like something it doesn’t mean that it’s not my style.
Mr. Orange: I sometimes find them helpful, the posters. But otherwise I would never buy these male magazines, just to see what’s in, you know… I don’t follow these fashion things. But yes, for example I do notice that people wear some kind of sweater, and it is this and that style, and it might appeal to me. So maybe if I like it, I might find something like that, but basically it is not crucial. … Current trends, that’s important… probably. But you know I don’t really think about what’s this summer’s style or something like that.
Mr. Brown: It’s more a decision to dress in a particular way. I wouldn’t say I have a particular style, but I wear suits, ties, and shirts in the office. I made a particular decision to wear shirts even outside the office. I also made a decision that I won’t wear jeans, so I don’t. I decided to switch because I think that clothes give me more confidence. Wearing shirts and ties give me confidence at work. Also I try to wear them outside work, to bring more seriousness to my outside behavior.
Mr. White: Of course, I try to have a style. But I am not fanatic about it. I try but certain moment I get bored of following a style, and then I don’t really care….. This? I got myself from a trendy anti-fashion shop (emphasis added). If I look for clothing, I usually go there, because it’s easier to find there, what I like. Yes, I don’t know, it’s just easy to find there the clothes I like.
Mr. Blue: I suppose I have, yeah, because I wear certain types of clothes. For example I wouldn’t wear a leather jacket, or these very shiny colors. I suppose I have a style. But I am not really picky.
Why Pink Has the Shape of Big Boobs…?
Ms. B: Do you think that there are typical male/female colors?
Mr. White: It depends on where you are. Some kind of men would wear pink and purple. I have my range of colours, and I like the same on women. But some colours bother me more on men than on women. But when I see a man dressed in pink I think he is superficial trying to get attention through the clothes. Women don’t give attention to their clothing consciously (emphasis added); it’s been imposed on them in a way. For them it’s an entertaining hobby to match colours and fit their figure to the clothes. In men its more of a rebellious thing, to dress fleshy, with more girly colours. It doesn’t bother me. When I meet men overly sensitive to fashion, I find their personalities rather dull, like compensating for something dull. For women it is the same.
Mr. Blonde: No. Well, actually, yes. Like very light pink. Although I do have some pink, but very dark pink, some other nuances of pink are more for women.
Mr. Brown: I have certain male friends like that, who follow fashion too much. And usually I joke with them. Like…. especially if they buy these brand new clothes. I ridicule that they are too much into it. Not girlish types, they just want to be fashionable.
Mr. Blue: Pink shirts are very gayish, maybe from my Balkan background…. And I don’t really support women wearing pink either. The colour is just very disgusting. I don’t know if there are manly colours. But ok, pink [showing the shape of the big boobs with both hands] is definitely womanish. For women it’s different, because women can decide to go crazy, and wear it, but for man, it’s definitely a statement about sexual orientation. There are certain colours that are more easily worn by women than by men, e.g. bright colours. It is very difficult to imagine men with these colours. Let’s say men could be experimenting, but they wouldn’t go that far.
So, What is the Meaning of Clothes for Men and for Women?
Mr. White: There is a pressure to show that you have a proper socio-economic status. Men have this breadwinner pressure, where they have to show their status. Male fashion is more about belonging to a certain group of values, or socio-economic group. A man can be satisfied with wearing a suit, it doesn’t have to be exciting, as long as it’s an expensive suit that shows that he has a good job and can afford it. In female fashion there is more tribute to the body. For men it’s less related. Women use clothes to decorate themselves, and play with their beauty.
Mr. Blonde: The meaning differs of course. But it also depends on the surroundings, your company. In some cases your friends, can stimulate you to buy more clothes…But not me. I’ve never picked up habits from my company. Neither did my male friends. But I know some cases, when girls in a company dress fancier, and then she, my friend picked up that habit as well. I heard them complaining about spending too much on shoes, because of their friends doing it as well.
Mr. Orange: Women should experiment with clothes, not wear the same. But I wouldn’t say there are rules for women/men.
Mr. Brown: Men are just not interested in talking about clothes. It never comes to my mind, I don’t try consciously to hide it. If someone starts the conversation I would give my opinion. With men it’s always about telling that you look like shit. Clothes are what you make fun of, but never discuss it. If I was homosexual I would think more about men’s clothes because people dress a lot to please the other sex.
So last week sneaking into the distinct realm of ZARA’s top floor we discovered young men shopping with their girlfriends, middle-aged women buying shirts for their men, mothers looking through the pants section, girls checking out the accessories, and sporty looking men choosing suits for occasions… The poster models suggest an inappropriate ideal of the “man-who-knows-what-to-wear” and seemed to confuse the men who came to ZARA actually hoping to be told what to wear. Similarly, as female models from the lower floors, male models provoked insecurities in both shopping genders. While the phenomenon of the ‘ZARA man’ was destroyed for us for good, the interviews showed a remarkable persistence of many gendered myths about clothes and shopping.