What did it all cost? Her lips are sealed.
It's a little secret so many women share: They don't want the men in their lives to know how much they spend on clothes.
Like many young professional women, Hilary, a public relations manager in New York, loves fashion. But to keep her boyfriend and her parents from knowing what she spends on her wardrobe, she murmurs three little words to sales clerks: "Is cash OK?" Presto! No monthly credit-card statement, no paper trail.Skip to next paragraph
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"I love beautiful clothes and accessories," explains Hilary, who is too embarrassed by her sartorial secret to use her last name.
Despite women's growing economic power and independence, the cost of their wardrobes remains one of the best-kept secrets in many homes. Even wives who earn money and need to dress well for work and social events often don't want their husbands to see the bills. As a result, this "Shh-h-h, don't tell" accounting is surprisingly common at all economic levels, according to fashion retailers and wardrobe consultants.
The secrecy stems in part from women's guilt about spending money on themselves. But it can also reflect deeper issues in a couple's relationship.
"Money is very tricky stuff," says B.J. Gallagher, an author and social psychologist in Los Angeles. "It's interwoven with power, control, and questions such as, Whose money is it? How much is your money? How much is our money? With couples, money is often the arena in which they act out their tugs of war."
Some women, like Hilary, pay cash for nearly everything in their closets. Others charge one item at a store and pay cash for the rest. Still others use a separate credit card that their husbands don't see. Some enlist a friend to buy the items, and then repay her.
Other shoppers cut off the tags when they get home and tuck away purchases. A Boston hairstylist who has a penchant for shoes throws away the boxes before walking in the door.
"They don't want their husband questioning them like [they are] a schoolgirl," says Debbie Mandel of Lawrence, N.Y., who counsels women about relationships and stress management. "They don't want him asking, 'Why did you buy this, and for how much? What were you thinking?' "
A woman who identifies herself only as Leona explains that her boyfriend criticizes her for spending too much on clothes. But, she says, "I don't pass judgment on his golf club purchases."
Part of the challenge stems from a gender gap in the price of men's and women's clothes. For women, being well dressed requires a greater selection. They must also keep up with changing styles.
"A man can get a really great suit for $700 custom-made in New York, or one off the rack for $400," says Waheeda Ali-Salaam, co-owner of OKW, a boutique in Boston. "A guy keeps a suit for 20 years. A woman is going to buy a suit every year."
In addition, a man might own only black shoes, brown shoes, and loafers, all of which he gets resoled. Women need more variety, and their footwear costs more. If women themselves wonder how a few straps stitched to a stiletto heel can set a budget back by several hundred dollars, how can men not be even more puzzled? "Manufacturers really get you for shoes," Ms. Ali-Salaam observes.
Gender differences take other forms as well. "A guy thinks it's crazy for his wife to buy another black skirt," says Ali-Salaam. "She tells him, 'No, dear, this one's a different shape and weight.' "
Because men traditionally earn the money, they feel they deserve to spend it, Ali-Salaam adds. But, she notes, "I've not met any women who don't feel somewhat guilty when they spend more than they perceive they should. It doesn't matter how wealthy they are."
One shop owner who requests anonymity tells of a customer who lives in a multimillion-dollar house and earns a good salary. Even so, when she bought four items during one visit to the store, she went to the bank and withdrew money to pay for them. As the owner explains, "Her husband wouldn't disapprove of it, but he would see it as frivolous."