No doubt some male authors are expert on this subject, but many will not be. So what do we do in those scenes where what a woman is wearing is important, where she is attending a social function and feels obliged to dress appropriately, where she has someone in her sights and dresses to kill. Even when she is simply carrying on with her daily life, the chances are she will be wearing something. What does she wear and what factors inform her choices?
I haven’t a clue. Sometimes newspapers come with magazines containing ads for women’s clothes, shoes, handbags and so on – though when I check these out I’m often sunk by the prices. Then there are magazines aimed at the female market, Vogue, Allure, Schön! and – who could resist this one? – Happie Nuts. We also have catalogues. These can be really useful to the ignorant male since the illustrations, helpful in themselves, come with defining verbal descriptions. ‘Aha, now I know what it is, of course, it’s a scoop neck sleeveless asymmetrical mid waist chiffon dress!’ And in those catalogues I have looked at you don’t need to take out a mortgage to make a purchase.
Possibly the most radical approach is to seek enlightenment from actual living and breathing women. ‘Hi Sybil, what are you wearing today and why are you wearing it?’ There s always the remote possibility that this might be mistaken for a chat-up line or the questioner taken for an android. But if Sybil knows you and is a long-suffering individual she might come up with the goods. ‘I see, how interesting, excuse me a moment while I write that down.’
There are other approaches though, ways by which the problem may be largely side-stepped. One technique, but which can only be used sparingly, is to gift a female character with such eccentricity that nothing she wears will come as a surprise. So Gladys wears her slippers in bed, sleeps with a beret, and uses her basset hound as a draught-excluder – we would expect no less.
But perhaps the best approach for the hapless male author is to keep description to a minimum and let the reader supply, in his or her mind’s eye, the detail he has not provided.