I did a rare thing the other day - I went shopping.
Having written recently that I don't go into shops unless I'm actually buying something, and since we were - a rare event - actually in a town, with, y'know, shops, I thought I'd go in and have a look round.
We were in Les Galeries, in Flers, Orne, which is a sort of small department store, and what I saw there reminded me of how bloody irritating it is to shop as a woman.
I was browsing the scarf section when I realised the DH had disappeared. I found him in a separate part of the shop, fondling a jacket. It was beautiful. And in fact, as I looked around, I realised lots of the things were beautiful. Aigle and Gant and Levi and Lee Cooper. Trousers in thick moleskin, shirts in merino, coats and jackets replete with pockets and zip-out gilet linings, and beautiful finishing. I could easily have spent a thousand pounds right there.
After pricing up some jeans and trousers for the DH, we headed upstairs in anticipation, to the women's department.
It was a total disappointment in contrast. Where were the quality items? Knitwear was in acrylic rather than merino. No jeans of any description. Polycotton blouses. Flimsy, fashiony, pointless clothes that you'd wear for five minutes before they fell apart. The only warm and comfortable items - mostly coats - were hopelessly frumpy.
This sort of thing in women's clothes drives me nuts, and it always has. Ever put on a pair of men's shoes, for instance? Do you know how much COMFORT these people walk about in on a daily basis? No pinching and rubbing, decent soles through which you can't actually feel every grain of sand, waterproof finishes that actually succeed in being waterproof. Warmth, good God. No wonder my mate Charlotte put on DMs at 11 and then wouldn't wear anything else ever again.
I live in the countryside, and the women here work just as hard as the men, get just as dirty, need - every bit as much as the men - clothes that are warm and waterproof and well made. And stylish - let's not forget. The clothes the DH was looking at were gorgeous, not frumpy and ugly. But manufacturers continue to treat women like they either don't actually DO anything or have given up the fashion ghost and would like to amble around in a duvet and slippers for the rest of their lives.
Why can't I get hide gardening gloves in a size 6? Why don't my wellies come in my size? Really and truly, I don't spend all day sitting on my arse painting my nails and tickling my chihuahua and I don't think many women do. But whenever I want to be really warm and comfortable, I have to wear MEN'S clothes.
Of course, what this points up is the difference between fashion and design. There are plenty of rubbishy fashion clothes for men too, but they're almost exclusively aimed at youth. By the time a man's 40, he's lost interest, and most of us know we wouldn't have a hope of getting an adult male into even great-looking clothing if it wasn't both well-made and comfortable. This lack of adherence to fashion means men have a greater range of staples to choose from, which lends their wardrobes a firm foundation that many women lack.
They largely have themselves to thank for it. Men don't change their wardrobes twice a year so's not to be out of date; or buy something new for a party; or get a new scarf to cheer themselves up - if they want to do that, they get a new toy or a book or a DVD. When it comes to clothing, they shop sensibly, incrementally, and they expect a standard that it strikes me women have long-since forgotten about.
Take pockets as an example. Men expect garments to have deep pockets, and lots of them, in the right places, that don't wear out, that close properly (hey, maybe with flaps so the rain doesn't get in). They expect inside pockets too (two - one for a wallet). They expect buttons that don't fall off at the first opportunity, and sturdy zips, with a windflap, and generosity - a decent overlap on a storm front, enough width at the shoulders. Maybe extras like a built-in hood.
What do women do? "Oooh, isn't it pretty? Isn't it a nice colour? Isn't it trendy?" We deserve all we get.
I'm not suggesting, of course, that quality clothes don't exist for women - but look at the prices. The Aigle jacket my DH was eyeing was just under 200 euros. Try getting such a beautiful and functional coat in women's fashion for under 600. Of course you can get beautifully made items, from (unisex) manufacturers like Pringle and Ballantyne and Jaegar and Scotch House, but you'd better not be planning a holiday any time soon.
No wonder I'm turning into such a grumpy old woman. The truth is, at 45, I couldn't really care less about fashion - most of it sucks. But I do still want beautiful clothes. And I don't want to stagger about with sore feet, or be freezing cold, or cut in half at the waist in order to get that beauty. Nor do I want to spend half the national debt.
Oh la. Still, all is not lost. I was wearing some of my favourite clothes that day that I (at least) think are beautiful and they didn't have much to do with fashion: a black 1950s cashmere poloneck with a slender fit and a zip up the back neck, so your neck looks as thin as a reed (does anyone even make these any more?); brown moleskin bootcut jeans from Boden; brown leather boots with a 2in heel, and one of my zingy coats - a shocking pink moleskin (again Boden) which livens up an entire outfit. And, of course, a decent hat, leather gloves and leather handbag. The coat is quite new - I got it last Christmas - but some of these things I've had nearly 20 years and they're still going strong. They were never in fashion, and they will never be out.
Thank God then for Boden and Orvis, where the quality conscious can find a home without having to give up fashion entirely. I just wish there were more like them, that's all.