Three weeks before the wedding I attended this summer, I began shopping for clothes. My girlfriend had purchased her dress and I had an idea of the outfit I was looking for. I wanted to pick up the colours of her dress (pink and brown) in my tie and shirt and go neutral for the suit. The wedding had a beach theme, so I envisioned a matching linen vest and trousers, no jacket. Just before I set out shopping, my girlfriend surprised me with an absolutely gorgeous Italian tie: big pink flowers, brown stripes. Perfect. “Now the easy part,” I thought. “How hard can it be to find a neutral linen suit. It’s July.” And my search began.
I found nothing. I should have known this, but July is actually quite late for trying to buy summer things, so I took to the Internet, searching though stores’ online collections. I viewed page after page of autumnal threads. Apparently, if I had started my shopping sooner, I could have had a linen suit custom made and shipped to me for a very reasonable price. (Good tip for next summer. Anyone getting engaged soon?) But it was far too late for that option now and I began to panic.
Panic shopping is not good. It is not fun and it rarely yields success. On my second trip out to actual stores, I found what I thought I was looking for, a natural-coloured (oatmeal, ecru, beige, whatevs) linen suit. “Hurrah!” I thought. “Success!” I tried it on and it looked horrible. The fit was terrible. The small was too small. The medium fit here but not there. The large was enormous. But not only that, the colour washed me out completely. Then I bent over to pick something up off the floor and when I stood up and looked in the mirror, I remembered the greatest drawback to linen. With that one move, the trousers had wrinkled in about 30 places. I looked like I had cat’s whiskers extending from my crotch. Hot. Back to panic mode.
I began looking in every window I passed. I stopped in a little boutique store. They were having a sale on their summer stock. I tried on a few pairs of trousers and was shocked to find a pair that looked good. Even the sales clerk seemed surprised at how well they fit. (I like to think her surprise was coupled with a sudden, inexplicable attraction to me, since I looked so hot in the trousers. This is how I embellish the world around me. It helps me navigate the drudgery.) Unfortunately, there was no matching vest, and because it was an end-of-season sale, I would not be able to return them if I couldn’t put an outfit together with them. I decided that they were good enough pants that even if they didn’t work for the wedding, I would certainly wear them on other occasions. So I got them. Slightly off-white, designer cotton trousers. The new plan was to find a brown vest.
Unexpectedly, I found a pair of great looking and incredibly cheap shoes at H&M. (Yes, I was also hunting for footwear.) They look like leather brogues in a gorgeous orangey-caramel colour. But they are not leather. I call them vegan and pretend that I made an ethical choice when I purchased them, trying not to think too much about the working conditions of the (hopefully adult) workers in China who made these shoes that cost hardly anything.
My outfit was definitely coming together. Tie, trousers, shoes. All I needed now was a pink shirt and a brown vest. And this is where things fell apart.
Up to this point in the building of my new wardrobe, I have been able to simply pick things up wherever and whenever I find something that fits my body, my budget, and my style. It has been a great system. I have loads of dapper clothes. Most of them are on the dressy side of casual—ties and bow ties, cardigans and sweater vests, mostly worn with jeans or cords. And if the sleeves of my new shirts are a bit long, I just roll them up and it adds a jaunty flair. But this time I was looking for things that fit well: a vest that didn’t make me look like a box and a shirt with the proper neck size for a tie, a good fit across the (most likely bound but still rather bountiful) chest, and sleeves that I didn’t have to roll up. I was looking for a pink shirt. And then I was looking for any shirt.
Nearing apoplexy, desperate to find something that fit, I reverted to old habits. With my jaw set, I walked into the women’s section and started looking through racks of shirts. Blouses. As I looked around, a familiar queasiness came over me. My guts twisted with anxiety and despair. I was trapped in that horrible place of having to choose between what I wanted to wear and what the stores, and by extension the world, was showing me I was expected to wear. Foreseeing the inevitable compromise had me in tears several times, railing against a society that makes it very difficult to be different, and hating the shame I was feeling for not fitting into anyone’s little box.
Unwilling to buckle, I went back to the men’s formal section at Le Château for a third time, this time with my girlfriend. They had vests. I had tried many of them previously and not been happy with the colours or the fit, but I hoped that, with this visit, something might have changed. (Isn’t that the definition of crazy?) Magically, there appeared a brown vest. (My girlfriend makes magic things happen. I swear it hadn’t been there the last two visits.) I tried it on. Same old sizing problem. As I stood in front of the mirror, my girlfriend helpfully pinching the sides and saying she might be able to take it in, the sales clerk piped up, “There’s a great tailor across the street. We send people to him all the time. Here’s a coupon.”
A tailor. Had I learned nothing since joining this sartorial community? How many articles have I read praising the work of the tailor, touting them as the dapperQ’s best friend?
I bought the vest and brought it to the tailor. I was nervous. What if he didn’t get me? What if he took this Italian vest that I had just purchased and made it look feminine? I put the vest on for him and stood in front of the 3-way mirror. “It’s too big,” he said. And then with a few deft moves and 6 straight pins, he created the perfect silhouette. “There,” he said. “That looks better.” Gratitude swept over me. I left it with him feeling mostly confident that it would turn out the way I wanted.
The next day I found a Calvin Kline basic white dress shirt that fit in the neck without being too small in the chest or hips. I took it to the tailor, too. Again, with a few moves, he mocked up the alterations he would make: shorten the sleeves, take a bunch off the bottom. “There’s too much material back here,” he said, puffing it out. This alteration I was worried about. I had visions of darts at the breasts turning my shirt into the dreaded blouse. When I expressed this concern he said, “No, no. There are two pleats at the back. I will just make them into seams all the way down. Don’t worry. I love you.” Then he squeezed my hand and kissed it. I blushed. Partly because of the attention and partly out of concern that perhaps he was confused and didn’t get me after all. I decided not to worry about it.
A couple of days later I went back to pick up the altered clothes. I stepped into the change room and tried them on. Tears prickled my eyes. They were perfect. I have never had a shirt fit so well. And the vest! All the work was invisible, done inside the lining.
When I walked out of the change room so the tailor could inspect his work I could tell he was pleased. He said, “You look like that one on T.V. The talk, talk, talk… Ellen! You look like Ellen!” He really did get it. I was so happy I kissed him. Kissed his hand as he had kissed mine. We were forming a very interesting relationship.
In the end, the only things purchased from the women’s section were for my teeny-tiny feet: the vegan shoes and a perfect pair of pink argyle socks that my girlfriend found.
In hindsight, I realize how ludicrous it was for me to think I could buy the perfect thing off the rack. I am hardly an off-the-rack kind of person. The whole ordeal proved to be a very emotional learning experience. I had thought myself a fully-formed and confident dapperQ; a dandy butch transforming the world simply by dressing the way I do. How easily and profoundly that was shaken when I was unable to access the clothing I wanted. It might seem frivolous to some, yet I know I am not alone in my feelings of disphoria. It goes to prove just how important presentation is, how deeply my sense of self is entwined with how I am perceived by others.
Now that I have a tailor and understand what an ally he is, I should never feel at a loss like that again. And you don’t have to either. Find yourself a tailor and be prepared to communicate with them. If you think they’re not understanding what you want, or insist on any kind of darts around your chest, you may need to find someone else. Just like finding the right therapist, or, you know, partner, you need to find someone who gets you.
Last weekend I put my newfound knowledge into practice. I was out of town and needed to quickly purchase a dress shirt to go with a suit vest and trousers. This time there was no panic. I went straight to a men’s formal wear shop and found a shirt that fit closely at the neck but had ample room for my curves in the body. I asked if they did their own alterations. They did. I told them I needed the sleeves shortened and asked if they would be comfortable doing some other alterations. A worried expression clouded the clerk’s face as I started to explain what I was looking for. “I don’t want you to hate us if we get it wrong,” she said. “No worries,” I answered. “Just do the sleeves. I’ll take it to my guy when I get home. He gets it.”