THERE IS NOTHING a woman likes more than getting a look inside another woman's home. And, to the benefit of countless charities, many of us will pay good money for the privilege, which is exactly what a friend and I did one crisp, fall evening in Annapolis.
It was a candlelight tour of 15 homes benefiting the Historic Annapolis Foundation, and it was advertised as "Twentieth-Century Living in Three Centuries of Architecture." Every home was beautifully presented and perfectly appointed.
But it could have been billed as "Unfettered Access to the Homes of People Richer Than You and With Better Taste," and the breakfast dishes could have been in the sink and my friend and I would have cheerfully handed over the price of a ticket.
We left our husbands at home because the only men you see on these house tours are decorators, retirees who can't come up with anything better to do, and husbands who are in trouble with their wives.
My friend says her husband hates such tours. "He thinks that every time I say I like something, it means more work for him." Most of the men we saw that evening were sitting down on the nearest bench.
There were docents at every house, and they pointed out the interesting architectural details. But as we waited in line to snoop around the second floor, most of the women asked what the owners did for a living (read: "How much do you have to earn to afford a place like this?") and if there were children in the home (read: "How do they keep it so nice if they have kids?")
Though women have been into home decoration since we were inspired to draw on cave walls, the charity house tour is a 1960s phenomenon that drew on the model homes and appliance-demonstration homes that were part of the invention of suburbia after World War II.
The first such tour may have been of a designer make-over of a down-on-its-heels mansion in California to benefit the Los Angeles Philharmonic more than 30 years ago, and that is still the most ambitious way to do it. But house tours can be designed around any theme. In addition to historic homes and designer showcases, there are bed-and-breakfast tours, architectural showcases and Christmas tours. There are even pub and tavern crawls for a younger, livelier set. (My neighbors and I are thinking of charging $2.50 for a chance to see what our homes look like after we run the vacuum.)
These tours used to be frequented by older women with money and time and heirloom brooches, but too many of us like to look into the lighted windows of other people's homes for it to remain a diversion for only the idle rich.
Why? It isn't that we are nosy or jealous or snippy, although we can be all of those things. Sometimes we are looking for inspiration, for fresh ideas, for an interesting way to decorate a difficult space, for the latest color palettes or window treatments or the latest in kitchen makeovers. It is fuel for daydreams. It is the up-and- walking-around version of Metropolitan Home or Country Living or House Beautiful, and none of us can resist a look inside these magazines. House tours are why In Style magazine is such a smash success. "Tour the homes of the stars."
We like to look in other women's homes for the same reason we check out what other women are wearing. It is not always a competition, but we like to see what is out there, and how we measure up.