DAVID COGGINS ON THE PERILOUS ART OF GIFTING
A gift can be elegant or humorous, provocative or reassuring, extravagant or practical, long coveted or a great surprise. There are countless worthy gifts. But the gifts given by men to women usually share one quality: They were purchased at the last minute in a frenzy of chaos and bad planning. This happens despite the fact that the occasions for presents almost invariably arrive at precise intervals — birthdays, anniversaries, holidays. So, why does a wide swath of the country’s men wait until the last possible moment? Why is it so difficult to figure out just what to get the dearly beloved? And while they’re pondering this, most men also ask themselves: Didn’t this happen last year too? Yes, it did.
The giving of gifts is a conundrum because men feel it should be as simple for them as it is for women. For a man, a bottle of good scotch is rarely wrong. A definitive overcoat, a bamboo fly rod, a Leica of any vintage, a velvet dinner jacket, a first-edition Evelyn Waugh, the complete Criterion DVD collection, a pair of handmade shoes, maybe a vintage Citroën. See how easy it is to shop for your man?
Meanwhile, women’s trends, as we know, fluctuate with the seasons. Women tend to devote considerable time on their own and consulting the fashion oracles, deciding what’s worthwhile in a given season and what won’t stick. Now men, who have never cracked WWD and do not know who is currently designing for Céline or even what color, precisely, mushroom is — these men, emerging from the hibernation of fashion ignorance are expected to run through a boutique and select the pitch-perfect Dries van Noten skirt? No, the man will wait, paralyzed in fright, until the last possible moment when he usually lurches toward whatever captures his uninformed eye. Hopefully, this doesn’t happen in the swimsuit department.
And what of sizes? A man’s sizes are usually simple, like medium. When they’re more complicated, a tailor kindly keeps your measurements on file, even if that tailor is in Hong Kong. I recently tried to buy a shirt for the woman in my life and confidently knew her size to be a 4. “Would that be a French 4 or an Italian 4?” the sales associate politely asked. I would have thought she was an American 4, but that just underscores the point. This is what drives men to keep their fingers crossed — and their receipts.
A woman is rightly alarmed when her man is struck with momentary inspiration and tries to assess contemporary fashion on his own. Sweetly ignorant, he steps into the breach and may return with something that might look more at home on a 1980’s supermodel. Susceptible to grand gestures, he does not fully appreciate the power of understatement or the flattering strategies involved in your carefully chosen wardrobe.
Savvy women take control of the situation and steer their men to dependable sources who can be trusted to herd them toward the season’s best offerings, in appropriate size and color, no less. But there is the danger that the man will rebel against these strictures. He may decide that he shall select a pair of shoes entirely on his own. He may return with something that is more his idea of fun than yours, which is to say, something wildly impractical that is more at home in an Ibiza nightclub than strolling through the West Village green market.
Women, though often prescient and impeccably knowing, have blind spots of their own. They may resort to giving a man clothing that corresponds with his hobbies. It’s better to avoid clothing for a man that suggests what he likes to do on his days off, or what team he supports. A tie adorned with an angling theme does not have the impact of, say, a fly-fishing trip to Montana. If he likes baseball, forget the cap; tickets to the game will do, preferably between home and first base, thank you.
There is also the curious case of the gift that implies a long-held resentment on behalf of the giver. The man who’s at home in deeply conservative attire may find himself staring into a box containing a dress shirt in searing hue, a tie that might be euphemistically described as experimental, or, worse, novelty suspenders. “I thought it would be a nice change,” you might hear, “You could use a little loosening up.” This is dangerous ground. A man rightly feels that his birthday is not the occasion for such an unsolicited dose of enforced self-improvement. In fact, he’ll likely take special pleasure in exchanging it for yet another white dress shirt and dark blue tie. Yes, the giving of gifts is complicated, but during the holidays, let’s agree upon this: Cashmere goes a long way, and jewelry even further. If inspiration fails, vintage champagne fills any vacuum. And you can share. BG
DAVID COGGINS, who considers the difficulties of gifting in this issue, is a regular contributor to the magazine. His work has appeared in Art in America, Esquire, Interview and The Wall Street Journal. He is currently working on a book for Taschen.