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The Rustle of Tissue Paper

Joan Juliet Buck's Art of Giving

A few years ago, a beautiful, tall blonde friend of mine had lunch with a man she had just met. They preambled through their histories at the old San Domenico, enjoyed each other’s company, drank a very fine wine. The man was very rich, and my friend was, at that point, anything but. He suggested they prolong the magic moment with a spot of shopping. Intrigued, she agreed. He sat and sighed with pleasure while she tried on blue-chip dresses. She emerged from the dressing room in a sublime Valentino; a Lanvin was great, an Oscar de La Renta even better. “You look perfect,” he said. It was fairy-tale time.

Tom Ford Purple BagIn the mirror, she saw herself, exalted. She tried on the Valentino a second time. She didn’t have the bank account for the dress, but surely this was not about what she could afford but about a wild, giddy gift. He kept choosing more clothes for her to try on, the most expensive things in the store. At the end of a long afternoon, he bought her a dress. It was a fetching dress, a pretty dress; it was a two-hundred-dollar dress from a young designer. The fairy tale had gone budget. They left. She never saw him again.

He’d positioned himself as savior, benefactor or Santa Claus, but it turned out he was just playing dress-ups with a brand-new human doll. She’d been hooked into a Cinderella fairy tale and then put back in her place by the fire. The tale of a man who dangles rich prizes in front of a woman only to hand over a cracker-jack favor is a common one, and not unique to New York; it’s been told by everyone from Balzac to Gregor von Rezzori to Candace Bushnell. In movies, the man always comes through, most gratifyingly in 1990’s Pretty Woman, where Richard Gere tells the salesman he is going spend an obscene amount of money and hands Julia Roberts his credit card. In 1939’s Midnight, a penniless Claudette Colbert awakes in the Ritz to streams of porters bearing boxes and trunks full of heavenly new clothes from an admirer who paid for her suite, though he has no designs on her. His intentions are pure: He just wants her to seduce his wife’s lover.

In real life, men are cautious. That’s why it’s called real life, and that’s why we go to the movies for vicarious lack of caution. Or did. But there’s no glamour in exploding cars or aggressive robots off their meds. And now, instead of movies, we watch long-form TV fiction, a triumph of American culture, but it only shows us meth-lab couture: hoodies and wife-beaters, waitresses in shorts, policewomen in down vests, lawyers in sensible suits, zombies and vampires in old clothes. But this isn’t about movies. It’s about women buying clothes for men and men buying clothes for women, a process where caution is so necessary that it is best to follow ironclad rules.

After years of misadventures with gifts, and clothes and men, I have learned a great deal. The first thing is that the gift of clothes is a form of warfare. This holds true whether it is a man or a woman hurling the gift. Giving a romantic partner anything that will cover 75 percent of his, or her, body is a declaration of imminent invasion. It says: “I want you” and “You will wear this because you are mine.”

Even if both parties think it just says “I think you’d look good in this,” the implication is “I think you’d look better in this than you usually look,” which leads to the deadly imperialism of the makeover—“I want you to look like a lady/I want you to try and look hot/I want you to look like my mother/I want you to look like my ex-wife,” or, from the woman: “I want you to look like a success/I want you to look like a star/I want you to look important/I wish you looked a little hotter/Now what can we do about the hair?” Giving a complete outfit is the gateway to a prison of reproach: The message begins, “If you wore this, I’d like you better,” rises to “This will take the Midwest out of you,” goes on to “This is the way you have to dress, always!” This escalation ends, often, with “I gave your old stuff to Housing Works” or “Your taste made you look like a hooker [either sex] from Boca.”

There’s the annihilating “I bought it in a smaller size,” which means “We have to discuss your intake of alcohol and carbs.” The most generous gift—say, a whole wardrobe of certified big-name clothes handmade in Europe by people in labor unions, or six men’s suits from Tom Ford—is either the crushing “I have the money to turn you into a trophy” or the guilt-inducing, soul-sapping “I could barely afford this. See how much I am willing to sacrifice for you?”

Clothes talk too much and too loud. Sometimes, we want the message of a gift to be muted, even partially unintelligible. Any businessman could tell you the first rule of The Art of Giving: It Is Better to Sow Excitement and Confusion Than to Reassure.

Unless you are already married and sharing everything, as designated in the prenup, the gift of clothing should hover at the pre-sexual, noninvasive level of accessories. This is the reason that stores are set up so you enter through the gift shop. This is the reason handbags are such a growth industry. The French call the whole roster of things that are not actual garments colifichets (ornaments). Men can adorn women with wildly expensive objects that do not comment on the women’s bodies or attempt to hold them hostage to gratitude. Bags follow the second rule of The Art of Giving: If the Gift Covers No More Than 15 Percent of Your Body, It Is Safely Neutral, Nonaggressive and Pure. This rule does not apply to jewelry, which will be discussed at another time.

Maison Francis KurkdjianBags are not the only accessory that is safe to give and to receive. You might have noticed, with some disappointment, the brisk traffic in black cashmere turtlenecks, fine Italian socks, sweaters, shirts, nightshirts, mufflers, scarves, shawls, perfume and cologne hurtling between what used to be called courting couples and are now simply known as daters. From the modest yet pricy bottle of Fracas to the makeup pouch, credit card holder, all the way up to the Goyard tote, these are noncommittal objects. Because no one wants to declare anything in the early stages, first-floor traffic is brisk in department stores. It’s sobering, but it’s the price to pay for being solid citizens. Rappers, hoodlums and men in the construction business who deal in cash are more generous, but then you have to do what they tell you to do. It’s a choice.

Which leads to the conclusion that those who are wildly generous live outside the rules. And if you are a wildly generous type who only wants to cover your honey in immeasurably divine finery, you are going to be perceived as dangerous. That’s the third rule of The Art of Giving: Do Not Alarm Your Prey with Too Much Bounty. Give only what will make no impact, soon run out or is likely to be forgotten in a taxi.

Every time I have broken the rule, I have paid the consequences. Never ever buy a man a coat, even a duffel coat. I have twice committed this error, each time giving in to the entreaties that went “It’s winter,” “I used to have one when I was 12,” and “It’s cold out there at dawn.” I had to hear grown French-men begging for coats from their schooldays. How could I not give in? It was sweet, as if they were begging for teddy bears or chocolate bars. The duffel coat is not particularly expensive and was never, thank god, cashmere; but this does not mean it is innocuous. Both times I gave in, bought the bulky object and presented it, only to see the relationship it was supposed to serve dwindle and die. I’d acceded to demands, I’d been lavish. This could be proof that I was following a secret agenda or had close but hidden ties to the Sicilian construction business.

The safest option is to give what you are wearing yourself. The first thing I ever received from a man, on my fifteenth birthday, remains the best. It was a red flannel waistcoat identical to the one he wore the evening of the day he kissed me on a stone wall in Ireland. It said, in the most respectful way, “You are me.” He grew up to be a great theater director, and I did not, but I’m sure if I had tried, I could have. Other things got in the way.