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‘The right to be handsome’: Clothing for gender non-conforming people on the rise

August 2, 2014 at 11:20 AM EDT
Companies that offer custom-made clothing for transgender and gender non-conforming people are coming to the forefront, as more diverse models gain visibility in the fashion industry – and redefine the parameters of gender identity. Ivette Feliciano reports.
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RACHEL TUTERA: My gender identity is really based in both my experiences as a woman– and also it’s just deeply rooted in the f– the fact that I’m masculine…

IVETTE FELICIANO: Rachel Tutera says it wasn’t until she started wearing boy’s clothes as a pre-teen, that she started to feel like the most authentic version of herself. Yet the 29-year-old says shopping for clothes in the men’s department left her feeling insecure and self-conscious. Nothing ever fit her proportions. So she was resigned to thinking that’s just the way it was.

RACHEL TUTERA: I got used to wearing clothes that hid me. I thought I would just end up being someone who would prefer to be overlooked, or not worth sort of a second glance.

RACHEL TUTERA: “Typically you show a little bit of cuff …”

IVETTE FELICIANO: After years of frustration shopping off the rack, Tutera decided to purchase her first tailored men’s suit…and she says the way she felt when she tried it on changed her life.

RACHEL TUTERA: Having something custom-made for my body basically reintroduced me to my body and I have felt, like, incredibly visible in a way that’s not just causing people to take a second look at me, but I think people see me in a way that may actually be aligned with how I see myself. And that has been the most, like, powerful, mind-blowing thing.

IVETTE FELICIANO: The experience made Tutera want to pass that feeling on to others. So she approached the New York based made-to-order-men’s suit company, “Bindle and Keep” convincing the owner that he was overlooking an under-served market…Not only masculine women, but also transgender men and other gender non-conforming people who want well-fitting, men’s suits. She soon became the company’s LGBTQ liaison, serving hundreds of people all over the country who sometimes spend up to 1,500 dollars for their custom made suit.

RACHEL TUTERA: This is not just a need that is being recognized in progressive cities.

IVETTE FELICIANO: Has it been emotional for any of your clients?

RACHEL TUTERA: Yes it has been emotional for sure. Shopping or wearing clothes seems like a really mundane thing. But actually it’s, like, incredibly meaningful and incredibly powerful and it can really, like, make or break an identity.

ANN PELLEGRINI: There are so many different ways to be gender nonconforming. And there’s an explosion of new vocabularies– to talk about it.

IVETTE FELICIANO: Ann Pellegrini is the Director of the Center for Gender and Sexuality at New York University.

ANN PELLEGRINI: Many gender non-conforming people don’t experience themselves as having been born into the wrong body. But– they might find themselves deeply uncomfortable with the kinds of straightjackets of gender. The ways in which, you know, you’re supposed to sort of present, again, this very narrow notion of femininity if you have a female body, a very narrow notion of masculinity if you have a male body.

IVETTE FELICIANO: She says recently there’s been an explosion of gender non-conforming people in mainstream media, challenging conventional gender roles.

KATIE COURIC: This is the first time an openly transgender person has appeared on the cover of Time Magazine…Why now do you think, Laverne?

LAVERNE COX: Because of the internet and because of social media trans people we our voices now, and we are letting our voice be heard.

JANET MOCK: I think that we are born and we’re assigned a sex at birth. That is a matter none of us have control over. But we do have control over our destinies and over our identities — and we should be respected.

IVETTE FELICIANO: Professor Ann Pellegrini believes that the growing visibility of gender-non-conforming people and the legalization of same-sex marriage in 19 states, has forced the fashion world to acknowledge the presence and buying power of the LGBTQ community.

ANN PELLEGRINI: The really short answer would be capitalism. At the end of the day it’s about seeing that there’s a market.

RACHEL TUTERA: I’ve met a lot of people who say things like they’ve been putting off getting married for ten years because they couldn’t fathom what they would wear.

IVETTE FELICIANO: Pew Research estimates that there have been more than 70,000 same-sex marriages since 2004, when Massachusetts became the first U.S. state to legalize them.

CRYSTAL GONZALEZ-ALE: So it’s our first full collection where we did shirts blazers pants, bathing suits, we did it all…

IVETTE FELICIANO: And that has meant new clients for start-up companies like Marimacho, a Brooklyn-based clothing line that designs classic menswear for the “unconventionally masculine.”

CRYSTAL GONZALEZ-ALE: I think there’s a stereotype of masculine women existing outside of fashion. It– it– sort of– takes them as, you know, perpetual teenagers that are always gonna be awkward and dressed in ill-fitting clothing.

IVETTE FELICIANO: Owners Ivette and Crystal Gonzalez-Ale, who are married, say investors laughed at their business idea at entrepreneurial mixers back in 2010. Yet the overwhelming support from their LGBTQ community allowed them to fund their project entirely without investors.

IVETTE GONZALEZ-ALE: From the moment we put up our website– folks have been pouring in emails about how important it is for them to have– clothing that’s appropriate for their gender.

IVETTE FELICIANO: And now many mainstream labels are following suit. In 2012, Ford Models chose female Olympic swimmer and New York artist, Casey Legler, as its newest menswear model. In the same year, Yves Saint Laurent chose a female model as the face of its Spring/Summer menswear collection. And just this year, luxury retailer Barneys New York featured 17 transgender models in its spring campaign.

ANN PELLEGRINI: None of these designers would be sort of trying to produce clothes that would appeal to masculine women if they didn’t think there were people who could walk in with a wallet and pull out a credit card.

IVETTE FELICIANO: Though mainstream designers are starting to cater to the needs of the LGBTQ community, some shoppers say that sort of acceptance hasn’t trickled down to their stores.

IVETTE GONZALEZ-ALE: Most of our customers have tried department stores where the dressing rooms are typically gendered and that is a really violent experience– to be removed from a dressing room or to be told that you don’t belong there because of your perceived gender.

IVETTE FELICIANO: What was surprising to you when just trying to shop at a store– and going into a fitting room?

RACHEL TUTERA: There’s a weird tendency in people to panic when they can’t tell if you’re a man or a woman, or how you or how you may identify.

IVETTE FELICIANO: Rachel Tutera says discrimination and judgment directed at people like her is often inevitable. That’s why two years ago she started a fashion blog called “The Handsome Butch”. The site hopes to empower readers with a simple message, which is that they too have “the right to be handsome.”

RACHEL TUTERA: It was almost like a meditation I had for myself when I was first shopping. It was, “I have the right to be here”. I think I just had to say over and over to myself, “you have the right to be handsome. You have the right to be handsome–” until it actually felt like a right instead of, like– like, a meditation I was trying to convince myself was true.

IVETTE FELICIANO: Tutera’s work will be featured in an upcoming documentary produced by Lena Dunham of the hit HBO series “Girls”. She says the one thing she won’t be tailoring in the coming months is her message.