There comes a time in every butch’s life when she must embark on a journey of mythical proportions. The road is long and fraught with peril: gender-segregated dressing rooms, perplexed sales clerks, hostile tailors, and colossus-sized price tags. I’m talking, of course, about suit shopping. This past weekend, my own epic quest finally came to an end and – spoiler alert – it was a happy one. But getting there? Well, it was rocky, to say the least.
Let’s start at the very beginning (a very good place to start): Two of my good friends from college are getting married in May, and I need something decent to wear. Generally speaking, decent people wear decent suits to decent events such as this (decently), and I was sorely lacking in that particular wardrobe department. The last time I bought a suit, it was my senior year of college. The year was 2008 and the U.S. economy had already begun its free-fall into the seemingly bottomless pit of recession and unemployment. While it wasn’t yet clear just how much the job market would come to suck in the following years, the Class of ’08 was acutely aware of the quiet, but persistent voice in the back of our heads whispering with sinister glee, “Wow, you are fucked.”
Against this backdrop, my one singular thought during the Spring of 2008 was, “Holy Mother of Perpetual Bills, I need to get a job.” That was my mindset when I bought my first suit – a women’s suit – from Macy’s and had it tailored to fit as a women’s suit “should” (according to society/patriarchy/Vogue Magazine) fit. I needed a damn job, guys, and I was convinced that I couldn’t get one if I showed up looking “too butch.” It was a sacrifice that I felt was unavoidable. And, well, after a few months of panicked Monster.com application-a-thons, résumé revision after résumé revision, and exceedingly awkward interviews (I even, in a particularly desperate moment, interviewed at Abercrombie and Fitch), I did get a real Big Person job. Fortunately, said job came with a very casual (read: nonexistent) office dress code, so after that, Lady Suit was exiled to the darkest corner of my closet.
Fast forward to modern times, where I am now stubbornly entrenched in “I’ll never wear women’s clothing again and you can’t make me, nyah, nyah” territory. Unfortunately, in this territory, I was suitless. And what is a butch without a proper suit? She’s like a cupcake without frosting. A Christmas tree without a star. A lolcat without a cheezburger. It was a sad situation, indeed. But, until my friends’ upcoming nuptials forced my hand, I had avoided buying a new suit for three reasons:
1.) Suits are $$$.
2.) 99 out of 100 suits do not fit my dimensions.
3.) Men’s suiting stores are intimidating as hell.
So it was with great trepidation that I stepped into the suit department at K&G. I thought I would have a less scary experience there, as it was a store that sold clothes for both sexes, meaning I wouldn’t immediately be seen as an interloper. The guy who cuts my hair – an awesome tattooed, Rockabilly lesbro who shares my love of comic books and women – suggested this store to me as a good place to get suits on the cheap. He’s a husky dude, I’m a husky butch, so it seemed the size options there would work for me. Not so much. First off, finding a suit in 46S that didn’t hang off my shoulders like football uniform pads while also somehow straining against my chest was a Herculean task. When I did find a few jackets that fit me the way a human being’s clothing should fit, the pants they came with were either too tight on the hips or too massive in the legs. (BTW, “wide leg” suit pants? Really, people? I know we’re experiencing a 90s revival right now, but some things – like MC Hammer pants – need to stay dead.)
The cherry on top of this Suck Sundae was my fitting room experience. In this store, the men’s room and the women’s room were right next to each other (both located at the back of the men’s suit section), so I figured I might as well go into the women’s room since I’m, you know, a woman. My mistake. As I was walking in, I noticed a teenage girl who was watching my approach with the sort of wide, fearful eyes usually reserved for a wildebeest stampede or Genghis Khan’s invading army. The second I got too close, she snapped, “This is for FEMALES!” Already emotionally exhausted and in no mood to argue that I did indeed have all the anatomical trappings of “female,” I muttered something unintelligible and looked away. My GF, however, swooped in like a femme fighter pilot and declared to Lil’ Miss Nosey that I was “fine,” and then pushed me in the direction of a stall. She later informed me that she stood outside the curtain while I changed, giving the girl a death look until she finally slunk away in embarrassment. This, my friends, is why every butch should have a shopping wingfemme.
After all that, K&G ended up being a total bust. We moved onto Plan B – Men’s Wearhouse. I had really hoped to avoid that chain, since I’ve had bad past experiences with rude, unhelpful sales clerks who treated me like an alien life form, but desperate times called for desperate measures. When we first got to MW, it seemed this experience was going to echo the last one. Nobody was helping me. The sales clerks around us pretended they couldn’t see our queer little group digging through endless rows of suits. Then, just when all seemed lost, one brave clerk stepped forward and asked if we needed help. I told him the dimensions, styles, and colors I was looking for and he went to work. I was taken aback; this guy was treating me like I was any other customer. Maybe he thought I was a man? Well, that illusion was shattered when he introduced himself and asked for our names; he didn’t flinch when my butch buddy and I told him ours. Wow! This was really happening! In the flurry of trying on different jackets, pants, and vests, I didn’t even realize that he was dropping subtle hints into the conversation: mentioning where he and his “partner” lived, talking about how much he loved the Western part of the state where I grew up – particularly Northampton. My GF and friend later informed me that the sales clerk most definitely played for Team Rainbow. Talk about finding allies in enemy territory! Boston area butches, if you’re in need of a suit, call the Men’s Wearhouse in Medford and ask if Woon Cheul (pronounced “Winchell” is working). He’ll take care of you.
Finally, the impossible was achieved: I found a suit that fit me – or rather, would fit me with a little tailoring. The older gentleman who was the store’s “master tailor” was far less friendly towards me. Unsmiling, he followed the clerk and my fitting instructions with the sort of body language that suggested he really didn’t want to touch me. The gay, you know, it’s totally passed through bodily contact. He kept trying to walk away at every opportunity and Woon Cheul had to keep calling him back to tell him he wasn’t done taking my measurements. My GF was annoyed, but my mindset was more, “Whatever, fuck this douchenozzle – I have a suit.“A suit that, in the end, cost about three times the amount I wanted to spend, but a suit nonetheless. (Good thing I like PB&J and Easy Mac.)
A week later, we returned to pick up my beautiful, tailored, black pinstriped three piece suit. It fit perfectly and I was elated. The cherry on top of this Stupendous Sundae was that one of the same sales clerk who had been afraid to approach me a week earlier came right up to greet me with a big smile, even magically remembering my name. My GF pointed out that I may have “popped his butch customer cherry.” Next time somebody who looks like me walks into his store, maybe he won’t hesitate to help them.
And that, my friends, is what we call progress.