OUTSIDE THE CURTAIN of the women's dressing room stands Harold, a small man of great fortitude.
Beyond the curtain is Ethel, his wife of many years, trying on a blouse. Ethel looks in the dressing-room mirror and thinks the black-and-gray print blouse doesn't look too bad under her black suit jacket.
Soon Ethel will pull the curtain aside and come out to ask Harold what he thinks.
Harold thinks he will be careful.
He could, of course, merely nod or maybe even shake his head in the proprietary manner of Richard Gere, who used his considerable neck musculature to pass judgment when Julia Roberts tried on clothes in the movie "Pretty Woman."
Or approve, and then ambush her later with a withering assessment, as Woody Allen did in "Scenes from a Mall," the Paul Mazursky movie. Bette Midler had bought a very orange dress that Allen had approved when she emerged from the dressing room, but later, during a fight, he told her, "You look like my Aunt Minna in that dress."
Women trying on clothes for men are almost as irresistible to screenwriters as women taking off clothes for men. (Sometimes the dialogue is the same.) "I've heard men say, 'Take that off,'" says one saleswoman in a women's clothing department.
Even without dialogue, the trying-on-clothes scene says plenty about partners and relationships, people and their need for approval.
The scene plays not only in theaters but also in discount stores and designer boutiques.
* While the action is similar wherever the scene plays she tries on new clothes, he gives his opinion the motivation ranges from flirtatious frisson to business deal to helpful consultation to outright manipulation.
The bottom line outside of business is that many a woman who has a man cares about what he thinks and about pleasing him with her appearance. Arguable? Perhaps, but it speaks to a human need that cuts across class and generations, and the exceptions are rare. It neatly and delicately dovetails the search for reassurance and an acknowledgment of self-worth. After all, it's a given that anybody who's your partner has good taste.
Whether for lovers, buddies or spouses, the desire to adorn the body and provoke a spark of something approval, appeal or mad desire is almost universal. Pubescents trying hair ornaments in malls do it. Old men donning new shirts in nursing homes do it. Society women in designer gowns at balls do it. People in love do it all the time.
* "I like his positive eye," Malia Scotch Marmo, who wrote the screenplay for "Once Around," says about trying on clothes for her husband, Stephen. "I feel like he thinks I'm either improving from a pretty good place, or I'm lowering my looks."
Marmo, 35, is a Manhattan shopper. She says when women try on clothes for men, there's "a charge, a little element of surprise, like putting new paint in your living room."
In "Once Around," she says, "it was just a little extra business to do, a little tease between boyfriend and girlfriend, a little electricity that's there when you know you're looking great."
Marmo says her characters were "having fun, a mutual kick, the equivalent of buying ice cream sundaes together."
But there's a dark side to men lurking outside women's dressing rooms, and Marmo believes she saw it in "Pretty Woman," "a sorry statement on male-female relationships.
"She's the prostitute, he owns her for a week, and he's changing her," she says. "It wasn't fun. It was more like a man buying accessories for a car."
* It's probably more than just coincidence and good luck that people without partners are the very ones who insist they don't need anyone providing succor outside dressing rooms. People who don't need people when trying on clothes probably don't depend on other people, period. And people who have newly found each other usually need each other and the other's approval.
Rachel Williams, 21, has been married seven months, and it wasn't clear who was taking whom shopping when the couple was spotted in a department store examining a dress on a hanger. James, 23, checked the price tag and peered down the neck of the garment.
"I think he has good taste, and I don't want to get it if he doesn't like it," says Rachel, summing up what most women say about seeking their significant others' opinions on buying new clothes.
"My husband has very good taste, and I want to look nice for him," echoes a sleek and polished fortysomething in a boutique where a Calvin Klein trunk show was in progress. She says her husband is usually with her: "He's a developer. He makes business calls while I'm trying on clothes." He loves shopping for her clothes even more than she does.
The one who pays also gets a payoff. And even if he's not the fiscally responsible party or maybe especially if he's not the titillation and ego massage can't help but give him pleasure.
* With sensuous garments, let alone screamingly sexy strapless gowns, there's a definite boudoir undercurrent when a woman pulls the curtain aside and presents herself.
Just as in any drama, happy endings aren't always in the script. At one area discounter, they whisper about a woman who bought three gowns on sale recently and came back in tears with the glitzy one, a little slip of a dress with a toreador jacket, encrusted with gold, royal blue and black sequins, bugles and brocade. "Her husband hated it," explains a saleswoman.
This is a phenomenon familiar to those who toil among the racks. "If she's ambivalent, and he hates it, there's no sale.," says a 13-year sales veteran.
* Here's where the question of submissiveness comes in, of letting someone else's will prevail in a matter as personal and intimate as the clothes you choose to cover your nakedness and present yourself to the world.
Nor is seeking approval always as innocent as simply wanting a second opinion because you can't really see whether it's tight where it shouldn't be tight.
More often, the motive is less complicated than pathological passivity and more complex than needing another pair of eyes to check out the back. It's the need for a psychic pat on the back, an appreciative flicker from anyone, but especially someone you care about, that says thumbs up, you're looking good.
* Calvin Klein account executive Stacey Brandon usually consults her husband when she's ready to add to her own wardrobe.
Brandon has her own salary, plenty of confidence, and considerable experience as a fashion professional. "I know what looks good on me," she says, "but I like his point of view."
Psychologist Linda Aardema, who counsels couples at the Psychology Center of Birmingham, Mich., agrees that inviting a man to join in choosing new clothes can be a kick when it's spontaneous and unpressured. But she also says that many women like to shop with men because they're unsure of themselves, of who they are, and see themselves only through the eyes of a significant other.
Aardema asked a college student sitting beside her on the plane last week whether she likes to shop with her boyfriend. "She said, 'I love to go shopping with him because when I walk out of the dressing room and he says I look hot, then I know I do. And I know he'll think I look hot whenever I wear it.'"