The best way to find your fit in the boys' department (the clothes are cut differently) is by trying things on. Here are some approximate size equivalents to get you started: Women's Boys Size 5-6 14 7-8 16 9-10 18 11-12 20

While buying clothes for her sons in the boys' department, Pat Johnson stumbled on a discovery.

"They had some good-looking Izod sweaters, so I tried one on. It looked great, and it was a lot cheaper than you'd find in the women's department."

She grabbed it. That was three years ago; she's been buying herself clothes in the boys' departments ever since.

Like Johnson, 35, of Northwest Washington, an increasing number of women are shopping where the boys are. Designer sportswear at about 25 to 50 percent less than comparable womenswear is the main attraction, with inexpensiver accessories -- like belts, scarves, socks and hats -- also a big draw.

"The college girls come in here and clean the shirts off the rack," says Lord & Taylor salesclerk Claudia Straughn. "We get young girls, teenagers and slender women. They go right in the boys' fitting room -- mothers go in there with their children all the time, so nobody's embarrassed. They all say it's so much cheaper here."

Izod and Polo shirts, says Straughn, are female favorites. For good reason: On a recent visit to the chain's Chevy Chase store, Izod shirts selling for $22 in ladies' sportswear cost $16 in the boys' department, and (Ralph Lauren) Polo shirts were $26 in ladies and $21.50 in boys'.

Other boys' bargains: An Yves St. Laurent ribbon belt (in lavender and black) for $7.50, and Izod leather-trimmed stretch belt for $12, Izod zippered sweatshirts (pink, yellow, green and red) regularly priced at $27.50 (on sale, $19.99), baseball jackets for $17.50 (on sale, $14.49), and tube sport socks, $1.95.

But despite the good value, "not every woman can wear boys' clothes," notes Diana Hart, the store's public relations director, who at "5 feet 12 inches" buys boys' shirts for the extra sleeve length. "You've got to have slim hips and a fairly small bust and be able to carry a unisex look."

Not surprisingly -- in light of Mother Nature's own design -- boys' clothes are cut different from women's. Tops are less fitted and often roomier in the sleeve -- which some women solve with a dart or two. Pants have a shorter crotch and slimmer hips, making them the toughest items for most women to wear. (shirts and sweaters are the easiest to fit.)

Fabrics may differ, too. Boys' Izod shirts are 55 percent cotton and 45 percent polyester; women's 100 percent cotton. Both boys' and women's Polo shirts are 100 percent cotton.

While some of the colors differ -- the women's department includes magenta -- the boys' department offers such unpredictables as pink, peacock and watermelon. A selection of Ralph Lauren long-sleeved terry shirts ($25) in colors like lavender and lemon suggests that manufacturers know their clothes are not for boys only.

For those who think preppie, the boys' departments in various stores are a particularly good find, says 24-year-old Teri Jarboe (pictured above), who's been shopping there since she was a toddler.

"We had eight kids in my family so my mother learned where the good buys were," recalls Jarboe, a special-education teacher from Chevy Chase, D.C. "I wore my older brother's hand-me-downs, and I always wanted to wear the same thing he did. So she got me clothes in the boys' department."

Jarboe rediscovered boyswear in high school "when everyone startyed dressing like a prep. My friends wore nothing but Lacoste shirts, and that's when I found they were dirt cheap in the boys' department."

She's still wearing some of the crew-neck shirts and khaki camper shorts she bought when she was 16. She jbought boyswear throughout college -- "a great find if you're on a budget" -- and estimates about 40 percent of her current wardrobe is from the boy's department.

At 5-feet-4 and 103 pounds, Jarboe (size 4 or 6 in women's clothes) has an ideal figure for boyswear. She leans toward "simple separates in different colors," and likes lots of pockets -- "which you find in boys' clothes, I guess to carry all their frogs and things."

For novice boyswear shoppers, Jarboe offers this advice:

Browse the women's departments first. "If you see something you like, chances are you'll find it in boys' too."

Remember boys' clothes button "backward." (And pants usually will need a hem.)

Be prepared to tote clothes to the girls' department for trying on. "Some stores don't mind if you use the boys' fitting room, and some do." CAPTION: Picture 1, Izod shirt $16.00 Zippered sweatshirt $22.00 by Levi Matching shorts $12.50 TOTAL: $50.50; Picture 2, Madras blazer $65.00 Indian cotton shirt $7.99* (reg. price $15) Cotton Izod sweater $15.99* (reg. price $21) Polyester & cottonblend $15.99* pants with belt (reg. price $19) TOTAL: $105.00; Picture 3, Three shirts by Ralph Lauren: Polo $21.50 Madras $25.00 Long-sleeved terry $25.00 Lee cotton jeans $19.50 TOTAL: $91.00 Design by Alice Kresse; photos by Douglas Chevalier -- The Washington Post