Back in the days when I wrote about hotels for a living, the man I was eventually to marry sometimes joined me on my travels. And a curious thing would happen as we crossed the latest hip-hotel lobby: a thought would flash across my mind—"what a hideous lamp", for instance—and a micro-second later he would say: "I love that lamp, I wonder where it's from?" It could be a sofa, a painting, a fabric, a paint colour: whatever, I soon learnt to wait for the inverse echo of my reaction. It was the first inkling that we might not be totally compatible in the taste department. My eyes were fully opened when we moved in together and I found that the gorgeous John Smedley T-shirts I'd just bought for him had been put on a pile heading for Oxfam.
It's a beguiling notion that you should be able to divine the sartorial taste of your loved one, and that over the years you'll absorb an accurate sense of what they like and don't like. The subtext of buying clothes for them is, "We are so close, I can choose for you." Those are high stakes.
In theory, the gift receipt is one of the great discoveries of modern life, the Higgs-Boson of the retail sector. But they're for friends that you don't know so well. Of course you say to your partner "the receipt is in the bag". But you don't really mean that they should use it—that would feel like rejection. Look at it the other way, though, and your gift can seem like a rejection of them, suggesting that they could be improved upon. Buying clothes for your significant other is fraught with hidden messages, and the shirt or dress can become the objective correlative for the whole relationship.
This isn't a problem for everyone. Two of my female colleagues say they do all their husbands' clothes shopping. A male friend muses that he used to be quite well dressed before he met his wife, but let himself go after they got married; it transpired on further enquiry that he'd only been well dressed because of a previous girlfriend. Perhaps these men are not at all image-conscious, and see shopping as a household chore that just needs to be done by someone, then ticked off the list. But to anyone who likes clothes and sees the way we choose to dress as an expression of our individuality (and not caring counts as a choice too), this arrangement would be anathema. I might ask a friend to pick up a pint of milk for me, but not a dress. And I wouldn't want my lover to be my stylist. To my mind, dressing your partner borders on the sinister: isn't the otherness of the other a big part of the attraction? Doesn't it smack of Pygmalion falling in love with the sculpture he has carved? If this sounds like an overreaction, I feel bound to say that I don't know any women whose husbands do their clothes shopping for them.
I wonder whether it is ever really possible to know the taste of another? Friends of mine who are architects, a couple, live in an immaculate home that speaks of shared likes and instinctive agreement on everything in it (whereas we have bare walls because we can't agree which paintings to hang). They seem the most likely candidates for shopping telepathy. But the woman tells me that, after many years of receiving "architectural" jewellery for Christmas and birthdays, she had to explain to her husband in words of slightly more than one syllable: "Just because I'm an architect doesn't mean I like this stuff—I like dainty, feminine jewellery."
In case it's a generational thing, I ask a colleague who's almost a quarter-century younger than I am whether she and her contemporaries shop for each other with ease. But she is equally cautious: "It would be embarrassing to restyle your partner," she says. "What you want them to wear isn't necessarily what they want to wear." She and her best girlfriend have a game when travelling together—they flick through a fashion magazine and have to choose the item on each page that the other one would wear. "Even after years of friendship, we only have about a 60% success rate. If she can't get it right, what chance has my boyfriend got?"
Exactly. When my husband and I go out to dinner, we often look as if we're off to different functions—a barbecue in the country for him, a cocktail party in the city for me. He has given up buying me jewellery because he says I always take it back (true; but the things I swap it for, I wear every day). There is a great art, when a present-receiving situation is in the offing, in Letting It Be Known what you might like. With a product code, if possible.