On the etiquette of complimenting an outfit
November 7, 2017 12:15 AM   Subscribe

What approach should I take to complimenting someone's outfit? It seems like there's a clear set of social norms about how women exchange compliments about outfits, but it's a little foreign to me and I could do with some pointers. Difficulty level: novice trans lady.

The etiquette of outfit compliments used to be very simple: when everyone perceived me as a man, the rule was "don't comment on a woman's appearance because it's creepy". No problem. Not saying anything is easy!

Over the last year or so, I've gradually shifted my presentation to be more feminine, and the fact that I'm at least some flavour of trans is more or less public knowledge. It's always difficult to judge how other people see you, but I'm surprised at how often I get gendered as a woman, so at the very least people are seeing me as feminine on a pretty consistent basis.

One thing that has come with that, as an unexpected delight, is that women will now do the social exchange of outfit compliments thing with me: "oh I love the nails", "where did you get those shoes?", "love the bag!", that kind of thing. It's really lovely and kind, and I feel like the polite thing to do is to reciprocate.

What I'm finding though, is that I'm very skittish about taking part in this - I totally do notice the things I love about an outfit, but I can't shake the feeling that it would be gross or creepy for me to say anything, and that makes me nervous. At the same time, I don't want it to look like I don't appreciate the effort that other people put in to their outfits. Right now I feel like I'm "freeloading" - I'm take other people's compliments about my outfits, but I'm rarely if ever giving out compliments in return.

The approach I've started taking is to mention only those things that I think a (cishet) man would be least likely to comment on (e.g., shoes, nails, bags, accessories etc) and never say anything about tops, dresses, skirts, make up, etc. Also, I tend not to compliment anyone unless they've complimented me at least once in the past (just in case the reason that they haven't done so is that they're seeing me as a guy). That way I feel like I'm doing my part in the social exchange without veering into murky territory.

Is this a sensible strategy? Is there a better approach? Strangely enough, I can't find a good etiquette guide for this one. Help!
posted by saltbush and olive to Human Relations (24 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Compliment away! I think asking a question really helps because a) people love to talk about themselves and b) it shows a genuine interest, rather than creepy.

Also fact finding for yourself and finding new sources is great - like when I first moved to the UK I had no idea where to buy shoes for example... It was just a whole new territory.
posted by teststrip at 12:28 AM on November 7, 2017 [3 favorites]

Think of it like buying someone a drink. You don't have to compliment back right away (and if you always do that it can seem fake). But you should try to balance it out over time. If someone has complimented you recently, keep an eye out for something nice you can say in return within the next few weeks.

And in the cases of an immediate compliment exchange that they started, I think it's okay to stray from the "safe" topics you mention. In my experience the "I like your nails" "thanks! I love your lipstick" or whatever is just not a conversational pattern that straight guys use to hit on women, so you aren't going to be read like that even by people who think you are a man.
posted by lollusc at 12:31 AM on November 7, 2017 [3 favorites]

One trick is to do it when you notice that someone put in a bit more effort - like a cool necklace or something.
posted by k8t at 12:33 AM on November 7, 2017 [9 favorites]

I'm super bad at complementing back right away if it's a stranger or someone I don't know well, usually because I'm caught off guard and it's a passing comment from someone. And to be honest, when I compliment someone I don't expect to be complimented back. I'm not fishing for compliments, I'm genuinely telling someone that their thing is awesome.

So when I get a compliment I actually usually tell someone where I got the thing and say they should totally pick it up too (if it's available.) That way I think I free them from feeling like they would be copying me. Something like "Oh my gosh, thanks, I got this necklace at ASOS for super cheap! They have awesome stuff!" And then that sometimes leads to a nice back and forth about style. Often my return compliment is telling them that OF COURSE they can "pull off" bright pink eyeshadow or whatever it is. That way I feel I'm giving something back (product info) without trying to search for a fake compliment.

If it's someone I know a bit more well, then I do compliment back in some way. Like "Oh but you're style rocks!" (I do compliment back in kind on social media with people I regularly exchange those things with.

I try to stay away from words like "beautiful" and "pretty" but often use things like "rockin' it!" - "stunning" and "cute" on social media. In person I will say "Oh that shirt is so awesome" or "Love that skirt" or something to that effect.

I tend to... wear things and style myself in a way that sometimes gets attention. I'm talking bright colors or goth attire, tattoos, green hair, and glitter boots.

I've also had (those who seemed to present as) men compliment me in non-creepy ways.
Some that stand out are:
"Wow, you're tattoos are so awesome!"
or one early 20s dude in my apartment complex "Cool hair!"
Also definitely had masculine-presenting coworkers compliment my style without coming across as creepy. It's definitely like "That color/print is cool!"

I feel like words like "cool" and "awesome" come across as evaluating the item, not assigning a beauty standard or checking out the person.
posted by Crystalinne at 12:47 AM on November 7, 2017 [16 favorites]

I can't shake the feeling that it would be gross or creepy for me to say anything, and that makes me nervous.

I am a cis woman and if it helps you to find your own comfort level, my rule of thumb is to never compliment any woman about any piece of attire that houses a body part that mainstream porn would sexualise. Therefore, tops and pants or dresses are out; bags, manicures, top fleek brows, shoes, accessories, haircuts, etc are all in.

If you want to know how to do it, it is being modeled for you by the compliments you're already getting.

"Love the bag!"

"Thanks, your shoes are amazing."
posted by DarlingBri at 12:58 AM on November 7, 2017 [6 favorites]

I think adding a “where’d you get it?” can make everyone more comfortable. As in “great shoes! Where’d you find them?”
That way the person you are complimenting doesn’t feel compelled to reciprocate, and they can start a conversation if they want to. (They can also give a short answer if they don’t).

I think it’s a rather uncommon question for a cishet man to ask a woman as well.
posted by nat at 1:10 AM on November 7, 2017 [14 favorites]

when I compliment someone I don't expect to be complimented back. I'm not fishing for compliments, I'm genuinely telling someone that their thing is awesome

This. I give compliments pretty freely, and in most cases I actually don't like when someone compliments me back right away, because it seems insincere even if well-intentioned. I also don't ever really notice whether someone I've complimented does or doesn't compliment me in the future.

My response to a compliment is a sincere "Thank you!" with a big smile and maybe a comment about the item/haircut/etc if I can think of one that isn't dumb. So if someone says "I really like that skirt!" I might say something like "Thanks! I got it on sale at Torrid. They've got some great stuff on clearance right now!" Or if they say "I love your new haircut!" I might say "Thank you! It's a big change, I'm still kind of getting used to it but I think I like it."

The one instance where the automatic return compliment is advisable, in my opinion, is a special occasion where everyone has made an extra effort to look nice such as a wedding, fancy party, prom, etc. In those cases it feels rather impolite not to return the compliment, since everyone is looking extra-special and in that case it doesn't seem insincere. "I love your dress!" "Thanks, I love yours too! That color is great on you."
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 1:26 AM on November 7, 2017 [17 favorites]

I often compliment-bomb people by saying it as I'm walking away from them. It's kind of like a mirror universe catcall, just me going "I love your sparkly sweater~~" as I go by and don't look back. It never ever bothers me when I don't get a reply beyond "thanks" and when it does happen it gets a little weird, particularly if they're a stranger. So I say try not to worry about if they've complimented you before or not. If someone's look is giving you good vibes you're magnifying that positivity with a compliment about it. I know that's very different from the cis male thing, but that's the ridiculous gender binary for you.

As long as you keep the compliments about the clothes and accessories themselves and you also are presenting as feminine I think it's okay to talk about dresses/tops/pants. Sometimes this isn't going to fly as easily, like if you're at a work event and meeting important people keep it to shoes and jewelry and bags. But mostly you can say something like "That blouse is so pretty" but not "I love the way you look in that blouse". Make sense? Another example: "I love your eyeshadow, purple is great" is okay, but "That purple eyeshadow really makes your eyes stand out" is creepy unless you're styling a friend for a date. It's about the stuff, not the person wearing the stuff (even though the stuff says things about the person wearing them.)

But feel free to not go there ever if you don't want to, or only with your closest friends. I don't think I've ever noticed someone not complimenting me, I just notice when people do. Nobody is counting these exchanges and balancing the books, here. I think if you work on releasing yourself from guilt about this you'll find it easier to do in the future when it happens organically.
posted by Mizu at 2:02 AM on November 7, 2017 [17 favorites]

The line, for me, is at complimenting the thing, not the person.

Good: “I love your shoes!”, “That shirt is cool”, “I like your haircut!”
Less good: “That shirt looks good on you”, “You look great today” (depending on the person who says it), “That lipstick suits you”
posted by third word on a random page at 2:24 AM on November 7, 2017 [20 favorites]

When I love a dress, top, pants, or skirt I compliment the piece of clothing itself so that it is obvious I’m not calling attention to the body parts related to that piece of clothing.
“I love the cut of that skirt!” (Doesn’t work on bodycon stuff)
“That color is fantastic!”
“The sleeve length on that dress is just what I’ve been looking for!”
“That print is so springy. Love it!”

In other words, the person themselves gets the compliment because they are the ones who selected that amazing piece.

Thank you for spreading niceness around!
posted by kimberussell at 3:36 AM on November 7, 2017 [6 favorites]

Just reciprocate in kind,; "I love your dress, that color looks great on you, lovely shoes etc. Remember, you are not coming from a "guy judging" place any more. Most women enjoy being complimented by other women, I know I do.
posted by mermayd at 3:49 AM on November 7, 2017

I, like Mizu, do the compliment and walk away thing. I am a cishet female, so YMMV. If I notice something really awesome, I'll say something like, "Awesome shirt, love the pattern" and then keep walking by. What I'm trying to do is signal that I like the thing but not trying to use it as a way to open a conversation or require the person to say anything back.

Of course intent isn't everything.

I tend to compliment only really clearly awesome stuff.
posted by sciencegeek at 3:51 AM on November 7, 2017 [3 favorites]

I think you're slightly overthinking things. You've def got the right sentiment driving your compliments and you seem to instinctively know what to avoid. You can totally compliment people on clothes and makeup, but yeah just focus on the thing and not how it looks on the person.

But don't worry too much about reciprocation, or at least don't feel pressured to do it on the spot. Sometimes I get caught off guard by a compliment and I stand there like an idiot looking at the person up and down trying to think of something nice to say but I'm like a deer caught in headlights and I really reach for it and reply "Oh um thanks. That's a nice, um, ah, did you do something with, ah, nice shirt." :/

Sometimes just a sincere "Thank you so much, they kill my feet but I'm so happy I decided to splurge on these shoes!" is enough.
posted by like_neon at 3:54 AM on November 7, 2017 [2 favorites]

I feel like the best platonic compliments from any gender come from a place of admiration for the other person's skills or tastes, and especially so if you can establish or clearly imply that you share the taste (where did you get it?) or have attempted the skills (I wish I could do it that well!).

Non-creepy compliments that I've had from men are almost always along the lines of admiring my tattoos or bright hair colours and are almost always from men who also exhibit tattoos or bright hair, and are never accompanied by a look of expectation or a demand on my time.

I don't remember ever being actively creeped out by a compliment from a woman, but I really hate it if women ask if I've lost weight or compliment me on looking skinnier. Don't do that.

I don't think you need to worry about immediate reciprocation - I don't generally reply beyond a thanks and a smile, it feels a bit awkward and insincere otherwise.
posted by corvine at 5:00 AM on November 7, 2017 [1 favorite]

"I don't want it to look like I don't appreciate the effort that other people put in to their outfits"

But, their outfits aren't necessarily for you or anyone else, and that concept seems a little odd. And I definitely wouldn't want someone seeing a sweet outfit I was wearing and thinking I was putting a bunch of 'effort' into it. I don't like outfit compliments, and if people aren't going around complimenting men's outfits, I don't want them doing it to me either-- I'm a person going through my day, not window dressing, not performing, not doing it for others.
posted by asimplemouse at 6:07 AM on November 7, 2017 [6 favorites]

I almost never approach anyone, mostly because that requires a little more blind social interaction than I'm comfortable with, so I guess I'm in the drive-by category. I don't usually go into any specifics, just, "Oh, great hat" kind of thing. I also don't ask any questions or go further because I don't want anyone to feel obligated to start talking to me.

I don't think I've ever taken a compliment from a woman in a negative way, and I don't think any of them thought I was dressing for them or anyone else. I also don't recall getting a negative comment or vibe from anyone I've complimented this way.

When I'm complimented like this I just say thank you, because 1) reciprocating seems forced and insincere, and 2) I've been working on accepting compliments without being self-depricating.

Then again, I enjoy these small kinds of exchanges. I feel more connected to my community and to all kinds of people I normally wouldn't interact with.

if people aren't going around complimenting men's outfits, I don't want them doing it to me either

I also compliment men, usually on their t-shirts of tattoos, but of course there's no way of knowing this.

I don't want it to look like I don't appreciate the effort that other people put in to their outfits"

I agree that this crosses a line and is an inappropriate way to approach this.
posted by Room 641-A at 7:35 AM on November 7, 2017 [1 favorite]

I try my best to be more specific when I compliment someone (especially when trying to gather the courage to compliment a stranger). It comes across as more genuine, personal, and appreciative of their clothing choices rather than a silence-filler.

That color is so amazing and it looks great on you/you're killing it! I really love how your jacket has a million pockets, I love having pocket choices in my clothing! Those shoes look sleek as hell, are they comfortable too? That scarf is amazing, it's perfect for this weather where I just want to curl up and take a nap.
Chances are, the person wearing it also loves the features you're complimenting and you can continue conversation over that.
posted by blueberrypuffin at 8:03 AM on November 7, 2017

I agree that the outfit-compliment exchange is definitely a Thing in general US lady-culture, at least everywhere that I have lived. Based on my experience, here are some bits of advice for making it go smoothly:

-compliment something that the person CHOSE, not something they were born with. Caveat: if the hair is dyed a "natural" color this can be an iffy thing to compliment - some people want everyone to believe their hair grows that way. Pink/purple/blue/stripes/etc is pretty safe - you don't do that unless you're okay with people noticing it. You can also sometimes skirt this with a more general "I love your hair" or "That's a great outfit".
-I would say it's fine to be the compliment-exchange initiator if you would like to be, especially with people you know
-Don't interrupt someone to compliment them, especially strangers
-look her in the face and say it with a smile/warm tone
-make sure that you actually like the thing, people can tell if it's insincere
-Things like bags/shoes/manicure/scarf are pretty low risk compliments
-Easier to go wrong but also fine if you do it right:
-----makeup - compliment selection/skill, possibly with comment that shows you also use the item in question. "I love that color, I can never find a red that works for my skin tone" "That glitter eyeshadow is amazing! Do you use a primer?" Do not compliment something that is meant to be invisible/conceal "flaws" unless you have previously had a conversation on the topic. (so if your friend has previously told you about how hard she finds it to cover her rosacea and she shows up rocking a new foundation you might say something like "your skin looks flawless! did you finally find the holy grail foundation you were looking for?" but this is advanced level.)
-----Tops/skirts/pants/dresses: compliment the item itself with the subtext that the person is a style genius for selecting it. "The pattern on that sweater is amazing!" "I love that print, it reminds me of an impressionist painting!"
-If you feel awkward complimenting them "back" in the same conversation, you can respond to what they said - tell them where you bought the thing, or what feature made you pick it out. "Thanks! I always like to wear bright colors when the weather gets dreary." "Oh, thank you! I went on a giant outlet-mall quest to find a work bag that would fit all my stuff."
-If someone compliments you and you want to say something nice back but don't see anything they are wearing that you really like, here are a few scripts:
---Them: OMG, I love your nails! You: Thank you! I got them done at Nails For Reals on Monroe Street. They have a 25% off special on Tuesdays!
---Them: That bag is so great! You: Thank you! It was a $HOLIDAY present, I couldn't wait to wear it. How was your $HOLIDAY?
---Them: You are rocking that outfit today! You: Oh wow, thank you so much! You've made my whole morning.
---If nothing else, you can compliment them for complimenting you: "You've got such a positive outlook, I always feel uplifted after we talk." "Every time we run into each other it makes my day a little brighter!"

Special note on complimenting guys:
-many women will be a bit more wary about this, because some guys are creepers and will take the slightest excuse to creep on you
-if I am complimenting a stranger who presents as a guy, I usually do the breezy drive-by compliment: make eye contact as I'm walking by, smile, and say "hey, cool shirt!" or "Nice tattoo!" or "I love the rainbow hair!" and walk right on by.
-if the guy seems less likely to creep on me (for example, is currently with a group of mixed-gender friends, is wearing Pride tee or jewelry, etc.) and I really like the thing/have questions about it, I may slow my walk and make it a slightly longer exchange: "Awesome tattoo! I love the colors, did you get that somewhere in town?" "Great shirt! Mass Effect is my favorite game." Then he might tell me he got it at X shop, ask for Jamie, or we might have a short convo about which Mass Effect game is best, then I end with a "Cool, well, have a great day!" and walk on by.

This got kind of long but I hope it is helpful!
posted by oblique red at 9:25 AM on November 7, 2017 [1 favorite]

I disagree with most of the people stating to compliment the item and not the person. Complementing the item is the same as complementing the store/salon/etc that made the item. If you are genuinely impressed with something, compliment how the person put it together. ex:

"wow, the way you paired the colors of your top and skirt is really spectacular!"
"did you get a new haircut, it frames your face so well!"
"what a bold pairing of prints, Im impressed by your print mixing skills"

if you are genuinely curious about where the person bought an item, it's a good follow up question.

As mentioned by others, I can tell when people are complimenting me or attempting to come onto me. I can tell by their tone and whether they're looking into my eyes, so being genuine in your compliment is the key to avoiding creepy. Just this weekend an unknown older man came up to me to tell me he 'liked my outfit, but its really more of a look isnt it?" (I dress very bold/colorfully). I said thank you and walked away feeling very nice from our short interaction, b/c he was genuine, looked me in the eye, smiled and moved on. There are a million different ways this could have gone wrong, but bc he was genuine it was a compliment.
posted by vividvoltage at 11:16 AM on November 7, 2017

I tend to say things like "I love that colour!" or "that's a gorgeous colour" or "your outfit is super cute!" (cis woman).

I find it's smoothest when you are not hanging around afterwards making awkward followup conversation. Leave it so they can just say 'thanks!'.
posted by kitten magic at 3:23 PM on November 7, 2017 [1 favorite]

Thanks all!

This is all super helpful. I think the big takeaway message for me is that I'm probably worrying a little too much and probably feeling too much guilt. For now at least, I think I might stick to something similar to DarlingBri's rule of thumb about what to compliment someone on. It's probably a conservative approach, but my experience as a non-passing trans femme has been that any time that my phrasing or delivery is less than 100% perfect, my words tend to get reinterpreted as though I were a cis man saying them (rather than a cis woman who phrased something poorly), and that that has a tendency to change the meaning that people assign to them. It's a little awkward, but it's been an extremely consistent pattern in my experience. So I just can't imagine myself ever saying "your outfit is super cute!" (just to use an example from the last comment). I might be being overly-cautious, but that one feels like dangerous territory to me - I think I would be wise to stick to things that are completely impossible to misinterpret! :-)

Anyway, this whole thread has been really helpful for me. I feel like I've got a better sense of the range of different approaches cis women tend to adopt, and I think I can see how to go about the social niceties here! Thanks!
posted by saltbush and olive at 3:54 PM on November 7, 2017 [3 favorites]

any time that my phrasing or delivery is less than 100% perfect, my words tend to get reinterpreted as though I were a cis man saying them

I'd say use less words. I feel the more specific you are the higher the chance of weirdness. I'm a guy. I compliment people. Most people like it, some don't, as with anything in life.

I like to use words that are explicitly my opinion, it seems more honest to me and as a side benefit seems to be less inviting of a false reciprocal compliment. I say "I like your nails" because I do, I'm not proclaiming them universally beloved or approved. I'm not saying "Yes, you have made the correct decision in choosing that particular color or finish" I'm just saying I like it. Maybe they don't like it!

I don't leer, or try to start a conversation, and either walk away or signal that that was the extent of it.

But when someone compliments you just say "Thanks".
posted by bongo_x at 5:11 PM on November 7, 2017 [1 favorite]

That’s so cute, I have never minded any compliment about my appearance be it necklace, shirt, skirt whatever, I’d say compliment away as the urge takes you.
posted by karmachameleon at 8:22 PM on November 7, 2017 [1 favorite]

Please keep in mind that it is not just about 'social niceties.' It is also political. Please note above:

...if people aren't going around complimenting men's outfits, I don't want them doing it to me either-- I'm a person going through my day, not window dressing, not performing, not doing it for others.
posted by thegreatfleecircus at 9:01 AM on November 8, 2017

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