She'd look great in this

It wasn't long after Lisa Trautner and Sarah Skinner opened their women's clothing boutique in Milwaukee when they began to notice some surprising regulars.

Among the shoppers who came to peruse the floral purses, halter tops and polka-dot headbands: Men, shopping for their ladies and without special occasion.

Trautner, who worked in local retail for more than 25 years before opening Ess Elle Style Studio late last year, had expected men to come through the store. In fact, she and Skinner had installed a lounge area with flat-screen TV, digital cable and juice-stocked mini-bar in anticipation.

But they weren't expecting the men to shop -- holding up dresses and tops in the air for consideration.

"We just feel like times are really changing," Skinner said.

What Trautner, Skinner and other store owners have observed is evidence of an evolution in male attitudes and shopping patterns that researchers across the country are studying. In recent years, men have proved much more comfortable with fashion, in some cases becoming more enthusiastic shoppers than the women in their lives.

"They're finding that it's a fun experience, where they used to dread it," said Donna Reamy, associate chair of Virginia Commonwealth University's fashion department. "We're starting to see more of a blending or blurring of the gender roles to some degree. Where it was a woman's role to shop, it's just not anymore."

If there's a wedding or formal event coming up, Farrukh Daniel, 35, a salesman from Milwaukee, will shop for his fiancee Rachael's gowns with or without her.

His confidence comes from earlier shopping success. On a leisurely trip to the mall last year, Daniel saw a gray wool/cashmere blend scarf that he thought would look great on Rachael, who was not with him.

"They were just beautiful. Fantastic. I decided she had to have it," Daniel said, adding that his fiancee wears the scarf often and gets many compliments.

At Detour, a male and female boutique, co-owner Jason Meyer has watched men come in to shop for themselves, but leave with clothing for the women in their lives.

Granted, there's still about a 50 percent exchange rate on the women's merchandise the men pick out. But Meyer gives the guys points for trying.

"It's really cute to see guys concerned about how their significant other is going to look," Meyer said. "Some of these guys are like construction workers or delivery drivers, or, just like, the quintessential guys. But when they get into our store, they change. They really get into it."

Researchers say the evolution to today's Mall Men probably began in the 1960s, during the "Peacock Revolution" in fashion. That was when men began daring to wear colored shirts instead of just white. By the 1970s, the feminist movement brought more women to the workplace, inspiring men to take more care in their appearance, said Michael Solomon, professor of marketing at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia and author of the book "The Psychology of Fashion."

By the 1990s, there were a multitude of influences telling men to care about how they look: men's fashion magazines; hip-hop stars introducing their own fashion lines; the Internet. Men responded by picking up the habits that inspired the controversial "metrosexual" definition -- spending money on clothing, personal care products and salon treatments.

Today, men spend more money on fashion than ever before -- in 2005, $5 billion in the United States on suits, sportcoats and suit separates alone. And the space and number of department stores catering to men are at an all-time high, said Reamy, who continues to compile data on men's shopping habits.

And that male flair for fashion has produced a side effect: men who enjoy shopping for women just as much as they enjoy shopping for themselves.

Milwaukee-area owners of shops that cater to women are learning how to capitalize on the shift in attitude.

Andrew Ziebell, a 38-year-old custom-home builder in Milwaukee, considers himself friends with the employees and owners of Lela, a women's boutique. When he walks into the shop, the women pepper him with questions about the women in his life -- his girlfriend and sisters. He walks out with candles, decorative rings, dresses and blouses.

And after four months of business at the new Ess Elle Style Studio, Skinner and Trautner have learned to put male visitors on their mailing list along with the regular female customers.

To date, the store's 2,000-person mailing list consists of 200 guys.

"We try to embrace it," Skinner said. "We love it."