Standing in the men’s dressing room at Nordstrom, I am afraid I’ve made a mistake. My new suit from Topshop was designed for only the thinnest and cruelest of bargain-hunting British men. I am a five foot three American queer in Texas. The sleeves hang so far over my hands they disappear. The pants gape around my waist and cling to my ass. We have just spent $400 on this thing, and I look ridiculous.
“Don’t worry, honey,” the hassled salesman says. “The alternations will fix it.”
The seamstress pins, tugs, and fusses with fabric. Helpful tip: if you buy a full suit at Nordstrom, the alterations are free. The seamstress wears a satin pencil skirt and three gigantic lucite rings. The salesman is tall and honey-haired; he finds my proportions adorable. My girlfriend snaps pictures with her phone. She tells me I look handsome.
In your twenties, the only reason to dress up is weddings. I always wore a dress and, increasingly, hated it. Dresses were skins of my former self, pulled from a closet I had taken years to extricate myself from. But weddings are loaded: with stress, with tradition, with family. I didn’t want to scandalize a friend’s conservative grandpa so I could show up in a suit.
Then, a short story of mine was nominated for a Nebula award. The Nebulas span an entire weekend, capped by a formal awards banquet which are basically a geek Golden Globes. Nominees take their attire very seriously, which meant my formalwear bluff had been called. While I could lose a Nebula, I wouldn’t have to worry about scandalizing its conservative grandpa. I would relish scandalizing science fiction’s conservative grandpa. And if I didn’t dare dress as I wanted when being honored for my own work, when would I?
There are a wealth of blogs and articles about how short, square-shaped queer ladies can assemble a suit, and I read all of them. The guides are full of reassurances about nice Men’s Warehouse employees and empowering dapperness. I experienced both of those things, but holy god, crossing gender lines in a mall is profoundly awkward.
After all those encouraging blog posts, my girlfriend and I made Men’s Warehouse our first stop. We made the mistake of suit shopping during prom season. The store was teeming with teenage boys and their mothers picking out mildly ugly jackets. I went to three proms in high school. For each, my mother and I devoted hours to finding the perfect dress. I wore everything from a massive princess gown to a slinky beaded dress and claimed to love every one. But whenever I saw myself with the updo, the makeup, and the fancy ass dress, a shameful disappointment settled in. We had spent so much money and time, and I didn’t like what I saw.
At the time, I brushed it off as self-loathing and ignored how jealous I was of my date’s top hat and tails. Years later, these awkward teenage boys still had the temerity to fit into the suits better than I did. We left without trying on a thing.
Suits started looking up when we discovered a Top Shop outlet in Nordstrom. The internet had helpfully explained that Top Shop often offered an affordable and lady-friendly option, since their suits were cut so small. When our salesman was so obviously gay, and so obviously found us adorable, it was a relief. But because men’s departments don’t make suits for short ladies, helping me was like solving a vexing puzzle rather than shopping. I didn’t want to be a cute interloper; I wanted to be handsome.
If I have a model for masculinity, it’s gay men. The only truly butch thing I do around the house is take out the garbage. I am effusive and neurotic and like to bake. In college, I won the butch lottery: I was the scrum captain of the rugby team. Every captain who’d come before me was taciturn, short-haired, and sexily aloof. The entire team was in love with them. Nevermind that I was still clinging desperately to the notion that I was bisexual, or that I fled from any girl who genuinely wanted to date me — I’d finally made it in the homo hierarchy, or so I thought. My heart broke the first time all the freshman told me how unintimidating I was.
For years I thought my fairly feminine interests and affectations meant I was straight; later I thought it meant I was femme. When dresses became unbearable and I cut off all my hair, butch seemed the way to go. I tried throwing my arm around my girlfriend in public more, and then I’d screw it up by baking her cupcakes. I wanted to be like my gay male friends who put together mean cheese plates and looked great in a tie. To be fabulously butch.
But even this fabulous gay salesman at Nordstrom found me confusing. Staring at myself in that goofy overgrown suit, as the impeccably dressed seamstress chatted with the equally impeccable salesman, fabulousity seemed further than ever.
I sourced the rest of my outfit online, standing on the shoulders of helpful bloggers who determined Cole Haan shoes look manly and J. Crew sells convincing button down shirts. Ten million boxes appeared at our doorstep, most of them full of ties. Knowledge which came naturally when thinking about women’s clothing, I utterly lacked when it came to menswear, so I just ordered everything. Who knew what color shoes went with what color suit? Men’s fashion publications encouraged pattern mixing, but I was so unfamiliar with existing traditional choices I didn’t know which patterns to mix or why. I got a tie clip and googled what to do with it.
There was one universal piece of fashion advice I could apply: stay classic. Choosing the gray suit, the black oxfords, the black satin bow tie, the white shirt struck me as boring. But elegance possesses a certain genius boredom. Plus, no one had advice on what color tie to pair with pink hair.
We returned for two more sessions with the seamstress — all free, honestly that is crazy — and the suit became more suitable. The jacket buttoned snugly, the sleeves hit my wrists, my ass had been painstakingly accommodated. After years of beautiful dresses, for the first time I got that fairytale thrill: tailoring was magic. Still, it was hard to feel satisfied. Staring at the three-way mirror in yellowy light, I was only used to looking for flaws.
Here is where I belatedly explain how much my girlfriend Jen hates shopping, and malls, and fancy clothes. She has no interest in fashion; her sole wardrobe priority is maintaining the structural integrity of her Gap tank tops, which she bought in Orange County in 1998. The fact she came to the mall with me on this quest not once, but three times, is a staggering act of love. I did not dare suggest finding her a new dress for the Nebulas; she wore one I’d picked out for her previously at Anthropologie, a store she’d had no idea existed until I took her there. Yes, we enjoy messing with straight people who subtly try to determine who is the man in the relationship.
The awards were in San Jose that year, so my friend Alice came down from San Francisco to join Jen and I at the ceremony. Alice is hands-down the best-dressed and most fashion-forward person I know (she’s also a great writer.) Back when I was attempting to be femme, I used to gaze upon Alice and despair. Not that she’s particularly femmey – hers is a uniform of structural black, killer leather jackets, red lipstick and boots. But as I started dressing more like I wanted to dress, rather than how I thought I should, my Alice despair vanished. A firm believer in the transformational power of fashion, Alice uses clothes to define herself. When I started doing the same, we became closer.
The three of us got ready in our hotel room together. Alice I expected to take a long time, but Jen did too. I was used to a formal occasion involving hours of makeup and hair and primping. Alice and Jen were in the bathroom doing just that. Meanwhile, I’d just had to iron my shirt and put on my suit. It seemed impossible that all I’d had to do was put on a pair of pants, a shirt and a jacket to look good.
But when I looked in the mirror, I liked what I saw. The satin lapels of my jacket echoed my bowtie and shiny shoes. The dark gray suit had a stylish dignity to it, and my pink hair swept back looked edgy and classy at the same time. All those years of compromising, of flamboyant dresses, muted dresses, elegant heels, quirky ones — and finally, I’d done it. I was handsome.
The three of us are chronically late individually, and with our powers combined we were lucky to make it down before the ceremony at all. I walked into the lobby feeling nervous and hyper-visible, like there was a blinking sign above my head reading LOOKIT A HOMOSEXUAL. But as soon as we joined the crowd, something clicked. I was surrounded by fellow nerds decked out in every fabulous ray of the geek rainbow. We shared a table with the grand master honoree, Gene Wolfe, who showed up in an army jacket and a very nonionic wolf teeshirt. Another member of our table wore full regency dress.
I also wasn’t the only queer in a suit. Science fiction has its fair share of conservative grandpas; I had maddening conversations with several of them. But it also has its fair share of gay, queer, and trans* writers and fans, drawn to the genre’s long tradition of imagining worlds far outside our current gender binary.
I have no idea who took the picture above, of Jen, Alice, and I. But that is probably my favorite picture taken of me, if not ever, then in a very long time. It’s striking, in retrospect, that my biggest fear was looking somehow fake, or in authentic. Because never have I felt more like myself.
Since then, I’ve still worn dresses on occasion. I wore one on a fancy dinner out with Jen, which felt like a delicious kind of drag. But I feel most satisfied and correct in button-down shirts and ties; my favorite recent purchase is a blazer.
I’ve spent a lot of time, probably too much, puzzling over what this shift in gender presentation means. Could I be trans, or genderqueer? How far, exactly do I want to take this masculinity thing? My preference for ties and ladies feels inextricably connected, but for many queer women that’s not the case. At the moment, I’m dwelling in the negative capability of my own gender trouble. Plenty of other queers do the same; the word ‘futch’ exists. If I have a tendency that’s harmful, it’s behaving how I think I should based on existing labels, rather than how I like.
Like all great pleasures, dress can be a profoundly dangerous thing. It can show you to yourself, and reveal you to the world. My biggest fear buying a suit was that I’d waste hundreds of dollars and look ridiculous. Not because women in suits look ridiculous – they look amazing – but because I did not deserve it. Thinking like that gets to the heart of why fashion, so often derided as frivolous, is a powerful tool. Of course I deserve to look amazing. You do, too.
Here’s a sampling of some of the many helpful resources I used in finding a suit. If you have more money/ are good at planning, several companies will make a custom suit for your fabulous gender-non-conforming self:
The Handsome Butch
The Style Manual: Suits 101
The Style Manual: Suits 201
Wedding Suits for Butches, Transmasculine Beings and Other Festive Gender-Benders
Dapper Q on Suits
Clothes Designed For Butches (Yes, Really)