Why clothes make a terrible gift.

The language of style.
Dec. 16 2005 5:36 PM

No, Really, You Shouldn't Have

Why clothes make a terrible gift.

Illustration by Nina Frenkel. Click image to expand.

Deep in the darkest recesses of every closet, there lies a stack of neglected holiday clothes. Not the festive, sequined numbers women don for the office Christmas party. I'm talking about garments acquired during holiday gift exchanges, presents received with forced smiles and feigned exclamations only to be shoved to the uppermost shelf. These are the neckties decorated with golf balls or Christmas trees, the frumpy sweaters with arts-and-craftsy appliqués—all the items that never looked right, never fit, and never quite got returned. Despite the ubiquity of such clothing graveyards, deluded holiday shoppers insist on buying ties and sweaters for their loved ones, forgetting (or worse, not caring) that they will likely go unworn. This year, please abstain: Clothing is the gift that's impossible to get right.

Clothing, after all, is chiefly a matter of taste. It's true that givers buying any gift must consider the recipient's preferences: Is it Anita Shreve my grandmother reads or Nicholas Sparks? Still, there's a loose consensus about which books and CDs are worthwhile. And if you're selecting precious stones for a woman, diamonds are generally a safe bet. When it comes to clothing, however, there are no such universals. Further complicating matters, a person's cultural likes and dislikes often come up in conversation, but few people broadcast their sartorial idiosyncrasies, as such matters can seem shallow or banal. A person might think, say, that the color red washes her out, or she might suffer from a rare allergy. One Christmas, for instance—in a moment PETA-types might call poetic justice—my mother received a fox fur coat only to end up with a case of boil-like hives.

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Most people, when confronted with the minor hurdle of another person's taste, feel the safest way to clear it is to rely on their own. If I like this, the thinking goes, they should, too. But this tack, which we'll call wishful gifting, is not always benevolent. It's most often practiced by those selecting gifts for their significant others. Women see an opportunity to overhaul their boyfriend's or husband's ratty wardrobe. ("Resist. No one should let another person dress them," reads one article written by a henpecked giftee.) Men, on the other hand, often buy items that are shorter, tighter, or lacier than their lady friends would ever buy for themselves. (Pardon the descent into gender stereotypes; the sociology of gift giving is not a nuanced topic.)

Then there's the problem of subtext. A gift of clothing comments not only on what a person likes, or what the giver thinks they'll like, but also on what he or she looks like. To give clothing is to make known, quite concretely, your perception of someone else's size. If the giftee is a woman, proceed with caution. Buying clothing blindly is like purchasing furniture for a house without first taking measurements. In fact, the analogy may be too apt—select a garment on the large side, and a house is what the receiver may feel she resembles. But purchasing on the lower end of the spectrum also has its pitfalls: Does a too-tiny garment mean you think she's overweight? An Internet article advises solving the sizing problem by going on "a shopping trip with the intended recipient," a plan that is realistic only if the intended recipient is your child. The article further suggests "dresses without a definite waistline," and helpfully explains that "waistlines that have elastic or are otherwise adjustable can also span two or more size ranges." Because of course nothing says "I love you" like an elasticized waistband. Finally, if you're buying for a man, scratch all of the above. Scale up, and avoid items labeled "small," even if he, well, is.

Receiving clothing as a gift thus requires a peculiar act of performance art. Here is an item that you wouldn't be caught dead in, that would, in all likelihood, only fit an Olsen twin, and yet you're obliged to pretend you adore it. During one recent Christmas, I opened a gift from my mother to find a nightshirt printed with an image of dancing books and the sentence "A Booklover Never Sleeps Alone." (It had been a chaotic year; she had clearly done her shopping at Hallmark, likely 12 hours earlier.) I wanted to respond, "If she wears this nightgown she certainly does," but I refrained, smiled, and announced, "I LOVE it!" while my sisters gazed on in sympathetic horror. Even more vexing than this game of make-believe is the inevitable clamor to "Try it on!" Who wants to model ill-fitting garb in the company of others? The whole spectacle is so exhausting that the mere sight of those flat, oblong boxes instills dread.

Post-performance, there is just one question: to return or not to return? In the age of the gift receipt, most people opt for the former. Indeed, returns are now so common that gifts of clothing have effectively become very bulky gift certificates. Why not save everyone some trouble and just offer the gift certificate itself? Plus, that pesky little receipt creates all sorts of snares for the giver. Not to include one is dubious and gauche: The receiver will suspect that you've disguised a TJ Maxx item in a Bergdorf Goodman box or that you've regifted an undesirable article. And if you purchase the item on sale, you're sure to be found out. A friend set out to return a weird cloth headband given to her by her boyfriend's mother, thinking that, at the least, she'd exchange it for some socks. As it happened, the most she could have gotten was a pack of gum.

Of course, there are a few people who can give clothing as a gift—those avatars of taste who effortlessly channel the sensibilities of others. This type can tie an Hermes scarf and knows what color flower suits every occasion. You know who you are. The rest of us would be wise to stick to books, CDs, electronics, or foods-of-the-month.

Why, then, do we persist in giving clothing? It seems, at the very least, a practical choice: Everybody has to get dressed, so there's little risk of buying an unnecessary present. Yet those things that are truly practical—socks, underwear, anything worn often—most people prefer to choose for themselves. Then there are the procrastinators, who see a clothing purchase as quick and easy: Who doesn't want J. Crew's latest take on the gray merino sweater? Such laziness encapsulates the real problem with gifts of clothing, whether offered by disorganized mothers or size-guesstimating boyfriends. As the saying goes, it's the thought that counts, and too often, when clothing is bestowed, precious little thinking has occurred.

Amanda Fortini is a Slate contributor.

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