A few girlfriends ago, Howard Issel finally caught on: All his lovers had been faking it, offering whispers of thanks and grateful smiles when they really felt like glaring.
"It became clear to me -- I don't have a clue what women want," the 36-year-old real estate agent in Studio City, Calif., confesses. "Now, I don't even try."
No, Mr. Issel hasn't sworn off women. But since the day one of his girlfriends politely but firmly rejected his gift of a silk paisley blouse, the latest in a series of questionable purchases, he's vowed never again to buy them clothes.
"I check out their kitchens for old appliances that need replacing," Mr. Issel says, a touch defiantly. "[This Christmas] I'll buy toasters and blenders. Maybe a juicer."
Mr. Issel, of course, is violating the most important finding of a very unscientific survey: Women don't want Dustbusters!
To succeed in the delicate business of gift-giving, experts say, a man needs to get personal and, if the going gets rough, ask for help.
Not all men, of course, get lost in Junior Sportswear or the Better Dresses department. And women have been known to misread men's taste. But retailers point out that women generally have more experience -- and success -- buying for men. (In fact, they purchase 65 percent of men's clothes, notes Tom Julian of the Fashion Association in New York.)
Before setting out to select clothes or jewelry, the experts suggest, a man should follow a few simple rules.
* Find out where the woman in your life usually shops for herself. (Ann Taylor, for tame career wear? A boutique, for rubber mini-dresses?)
* Study which styles she prefers and ask yourself if she's receptive to such seasonal standards as pearl earrings or a refill of last year's perfume. Or is she an underwear-as-outerwear type?
* Find out what size she wears. Snooping through drawers and closets is allowed -- even encouraged.
Leave home without this information and you may hear, as Mr. Issel did, the next worse thing to "let's just be friends": You don't mind if I take this back, do you? A beautiful thought, but it's just not me.
"The return rate for things that men buy women is from 65 percent to 90 percent," says Viktoria Kaye, director of special services for I. Magnin, Beverly Hills. "It's usually because men don't know the sizes or the tastes" of their wives or girlfriends.
They often make the mistake of using the so-high-so-wide method of measurement.
"Our [salespeople] say that men come in and put out their hands and aim them at their bodies, saying, 'She's about this size,' " says Joanna Felder, marketing director for the Victoria's Secret lingerie chain.
That approach might work when selecting a bathrobe, but what about thong bikini undies?
"Snoop into her panty drawer and come armed with her real sizes," Ms. Felder says. "Timidity is the biggest obstacle. . . . Be brave and you can do wonderful things for your relationship."
While you're on that sleuthing mission, take note of colors and fabrics.
Are we talking beige and gray or hot pink and lime green? Mostly silk or nothing but cotton?
If you're still unsure, quiz one of her friends to determine if she goes for skirts over dresses, hats above scarves.
And consider following a trend, like this season's oversize jeans, boots of all descriptions and updated versions of vintage watches.
Or "try a man-tailored shirt with French cuffs," suggests Corbin Seitz, wardrobe lifestyle consultant for Target stores.
Once armed with information and ideas, the next step is $H adopting the right attitude. If you treat the hunt like an adventure, the results can be gratifying -- as Caroline Chou can attest.
"I may not always agree with what my husband buys. I mean I've had to return things like everybody else," the Manhattan Beach teacher says.
"But he tends to get excited [over the shopping]. He comes home with the present and I can tell he enjoyed getting it for me. That makes me appreciate it more."
Over the years, her favorite gifts have included classy dresses, scarves, sunglasses and even a dog. "He's had more successes [than failures] because he tends to know me so well.
" Even the dog [a small terrier from the pound] was my style."
Bill Linden, a Los Angeles cable TV installer, says he also enjoys shopping for women's clothes, quickly adding that he's an avid Raiders and Kings fan, lest "my buddies think I'm a nut." Mr. Linden explains that there's something "charming and relaxing" about matching colors, fabrics and styles for his wife, Anne.
"You just have to put a little time into the search," he explains. "I've been able to put together entire outfits [from the shoes to the suits] by being patient with it. One year I got the outfit, [the next] I bought some jewelry to go with it."
But try as he might to get it right, Hank Everett of Santa Monica never did. After a string of wrong sizes, wrong styles and wrong stores, his wife, April, decided she'd had enough.
"I don't know, I guess I just sort of gave up," she says. "Hank suggested that we go together to pick out the present, but I didn't like that idea, not spontaneous enough."
So she delivered an ultimatum: Bring home something practical, like a lawn mower or a set of china, and arrange for a romantic dinner at a favorite restaurant. "The dinners are always very special," April says.
But the Everetts' compromise may be rare among intimate couples. Many women expect a gift that suits their individual personality or taste, a sometimes difficult thing to pin down.
"What is it they say [about women], that their secrets are part of their allure? Well, all that can fade away pretty quickly as the birthday or holiday deadline gets closer," says Larry O'Donnell, a Los Angeles caterer who concedes that he buys only what he likes for women.
"I choose something that would make me happy. If she doesn't like it, then she can return it. It's the thought that counts, right? I usually go for blouses or shirts, usually in colors that I prefer, like black or maybe red."
Similar thinking often leads men at this time of year to lingerie shops like Frederick's of Hollywood or Victoria's Secret, a sometimes risky outing.
Which brings us to Rule No. 4:
Make sure the relationship is intimate enough to warrant a little see-through nothing.
"If I really like the guy, then he can give me just about anything, including a teddy the size of a dishrag," says Kat Herrera, a college student. "I don't feel offended, or that the gift is more for him than for me.
"But if it's [early in the relationship] or we're having problems, I feel like it's insincere or an easy way out for him.
"Maybe I feel a little exploited, too."
Because of the personal nature of jewelry, selecting it can be equally intimidating.
Christine Goppel of Cartier's in New York recommends "buying jewelry that fits her lifestyle, whether it's sporty [say, a watch] or dressy [something with gems] or classic [perhaps a collar pin for a blouse]."
She also touts jewelry as an answer to future gift-giving challenges. "Think of later purchases where matching pieces can be added, such as matching earrings, rings, bracelets or necklaces . . . and be sure to know which color and type of stones she likes."
But some men find bliss in ignorance. A California novelist and university professor who requested anonymity says the best part about shopping for women is being helpless.
"Every Christmas I go shopping with my friend Roy, and we love all the attention we get from nicely dressed, well-perfumed young women," he says. "It's a public place and, because we're shopping for other women, that implies we won't be hitting on them. That makes for a comfort zone recognized by all parties."
Which brings us to Rule No. 5: It's not necessary to share the most intimate details of the shopping experience with your loved one.
He'd better shop around
* Many women don't like practical items, such as toasters, tires and sweat socks.
* Many women don't want the same thing every year.
* It's usually a bad idea to impose your taste on your mate. Don't buy preppy styles for a woman who wears wild Pucci tights.
* Many women are particular about their scent. Make sure you know their brand, and don't confuse the terms perfume, cologne and eau de toilette (see accompanying glossary).
* Avoid giving the same thing to wives, sisters and mothers -- especially if your entire family is gathered together.
* Many women won't mind if you look through their closets (they actually say this) if it clues you in to what they like or to their size.
* Many women don't want shoes as gifts.
* Many women like jewelry. Expensive jewelry.
* Most women don't like exercise equipment if they're out of shape.
* Many women are loyal to specific designers or stores. A woman who likes Millers Outpost may frown on a Chanel suit, no matter what the price.
THE SECRET LANGUAGE OF BUYING FOR WOMEN
Fragrances: Perfume is the most expensive, most concentrated and longest-lasting fragrance form, usually applied by hand to pulse points. Eau de parfume, a lighter concentration, is generally sprayed on. Cologne or eau de toilette, the lightest and least expensive form, acts as a short-term refresher.
Leather: Finishes include fine-grained calfskin, usually used for shoes, handbags, belts and wallets; soft chamois, for shirts; stiff cowhide, for motorcycle jackets; distressed leather, for jackets; smooth nubuck, for shoes, boots, jackets and pants; textured ostrich, for fine shoes and handbags; velvet-like suede, for gloves, vests, trimmings, pants, skirts, jackets, dresses; and synthetic ultra-suede, for upscale sportswear.
Leg wear: Hose, or stockings, require garters or elastic to stay up. Pantyhose have elastic waistbands, as do tights, which are generally opaque. Leggings are clingy pants, usually worn with oversize sweaters or shirts.
Lingerie: A teddy resembles a one-piece swimsuit and can be worn as underwear, outerwear or sleepwear. A bustier is a strapless top (think Wonder Woman, Madonna) worn either under clothing or as an outer layer; it's held in place with boning, elastic or stretch-knit fabrics and sometimes has garters to hook to stockings. A baby doll is a two-piece set -- a super-short nightie and a bikini bottom. A camisole is a sleeveless top, often with thin, or spaghetti, straps that can be worn as underwear or outerwear.
Pants: Bell-bottoms flare below the knee; Capris stop at mid-calf; palazzos are full length and flowing; hot pants are short shorts; tap pants are cinch-waisted shorts, often worn by dancers; a pantsuit is a matching jacket and pants; a jumpsuit is a one-piece top and pants.
Separates: The individual items, such as a blouse, pants or skirt and jacket, that make up an outfit.
Sizes: Petite sizes, which have their own section in larger department stores, are for women 5 feet, 5 inches tall and under, regardless of their shape. Large sizes are based on shape and bone structure; the tags may read 1X (Size 14-16), 2X (18-20) and 3X (22-24).
Miscellaneous: Ready-to-wear is the industry term for mass-merchandised clothing found on countless store racks; couture clothing is made to order by the world's top designers, and custom clothing is tailor-made for the individual.