When Clothes Don’t Make The Man: What Suited Leaves Out


Jason Benjamin’s HBO documentary Suited, produced by HBO’s Girls co-creators Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner, is an eye-opening journey into the niche subject of dressing for success when you’re a gender nonconforming individual. Brooklyn bespoke tailoring company Bindle & Keep is a no-frills, two-person operation consisting of straight, cisgender male founder Daniel who fell into his calling through his non-binary, apprentice-turned-colleague Rae (née Rachel). Mixing cinema vérité with interviews, Benjamin’s film is fairly standard in approach—alternating between surface-deep snapshots into the lives of Bindle & Keep customers and the actual fitting process. It’s the clients themselves that are the true revelation—at least to me.

For even as a genderqueer chick it hadn’t really occurred to me that a white transman would have difficulty finding a suit for his wedding, or that a black, gender-nonconforming law student in conservative Georgia would struggle to find interview clothes. Or that a non-cis, blue-collar, NYC cab driver would want a suit to celebrate the big 4-0—let alone that a twelve-year-old would need proper clothing for a Bar Mitzvah. It’s not that I’ve never wanted to wear a suit myself. Quite the opposite—it’s that I’ve spent my life trying not to let that thought cross my mind.

Strangely, what the film sidesteps is the fact that a suit doesn’t just signify “male,” it signifies “straight male.” In other words, Suited spotlights a pretty niche segment of queers—non-binary and transmen who dig chicks. (Though there is one transwoman lawyer shopping for a conservative skirt and jacket. Unfortunately, she seems almost added in as an afterthought.) Personally, as a biological female who’s known since adolescence that I am both not a heterosexual woman and not attracted to women, the idea of dressing as the gender I identify with has always sort of freaked me out. How do I simultaneously cloak myself in the masculine style that feels right while still indicating to the outside world my romantic interest in men? A head-scratcher for even Anna Wintour.

Indeed, watching Suited I felt myself longing for more. The clients represented in Benjamin’s documentary—while being “diverse” in terms of race and (refreshingly) class—weren’t diverse in the queer sense at all. It struck me that masculine-identified folks were being trotted out in front of the lens time and time again to the point that their lives pretty much blurred into one big homogenous experience. (Even the sole exception, a trans woman, was looking for a “conservative”—read “not feminine”—outfit.) Where was the LGBTQ rainbow? It’s not that the viewpoints of these particular individuals aren’t important. It’s just that what we call “gender neutral” or “non-binary” is too often really just code for masculine—a troubling reality that Suited never attempts to address.

That said, I consider myself blessed that during my own formative teen and twenty-something years I was able to find refuge in the gender-neutral punk and goth scenes—where masculine Doc Martens and leather jackets, feminine nail polish and eyeliner, don’t signal sexual preference. I was able to flaunt my baby doll dresses and bright red lipstick in irony. (Indeed, it wasn’t until I started going to “mainstream” clubs in my late twenties that I realized women actually put on skirts and makeup as an extension of themselves. Seriously, it was life changing to discover not everyone called this drag!)

As I’ve gotten older, though, my relationship to clothing has become a bit more complicated. I’ve outgrown the combat boots and the camp. And what I’m left with is the reality that as a non-transitioning, hormone-averse female that sees a gay guy every time I look in the mirror I’ll continue to have a fashion dilemma on my hands, one no bespoke tailoring company can solve. Yet I still look forward to one day feeling comfortable in my very own suit. And to seeing myself reflected on the big screen.

Lauren Wissot is a film critic and journalist, filmmaker and festival programmer, and a contributing editor at Filmmaker Magazine. Her writing can also be regularly read at Documentary Magazine, Salon, Bitch Media and Hammer to Nail. Her book Under My Master’s Wings, a memoir about her time spent as the personal slave to a gay-for-pay stripper, is available from Random House sub-imprint Nexus Books. More from this author →