This piece was inspired by Suited, the HBO documentary produced by Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner, premiering Monday, June 20. The film follows a range of clients of the custom suit shop Bindle & Keep, which looks beyond the gender binary.
Daniel Friedman is just as surprised as I am that he gets labeled a "queer tailor." He might be as comfortable discussing chest binding and top surgery as lapels and lining, but he isn't queer. He's earned that part of his title with luck, and a lot of hard work.
When we met for the first time, he was fitting a wedding suit for my beloved, show tune-crooning wife. It was without a doubt the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen her wear: a double-weight indigo blue linen number, cut with loving precision. For someone who typically wears ACT UP t-shirts and torn jeans, it was a radical aesthetic transformation to self-defined adult and self-described strong butch lady.
As she stood in front of the mirror, we got to talking with Daniel about queer culture. When we discovered he hadn't heard of Leslie Feinberg or Alison Bechdel, Jenna and I tried to keep our teasing to a minimum and sent him off to read Stone Butch Blues and Fun Home immediately. But as we left the shop I wasn't thinking about the gaps in his education. I was thinking about the suit, and how happy Jenna looked in it.
Fifteen years ago, I was a young femme dyke living in a world of fierce specificity. It was a tiny kingdom that fit within the boundaries of the Mission District in San Francisco, but it was plenty of room for a wild menagerie of queers. We chose our clothes deliberately. They were our passports, our signifiers, and our secret handshakes. For the butch women and transmen I chased around town and sometimes had the great luck of sleeping with, clothes were especially critical. If I wanted to, I could squeeze into an Ann Taylor skirt suit to pass as a secretary, then swap it out at six for platforms and leopard print. But clothing was more complicated for the masculine people around me. As a general rule they wore Carhartts, hoodies, work boots, and flannel (of course). And the idea of "drag" – either the professional or feather boa variety – carried a lot more weight. For the people I dated, putting on a dress would've been an unthinkable, humiliating subversion of identity, rather than a concession of convenience. And the alternative – a suit, a real, swaggering, check-me-out suit – was easier to imagine than put your hands on. Thrift store finds never quite fit, and if they did they looked like dated costumes. Add to that the rigid, alienating territory of mainstream men's clothing stores, and where could a dyke find clothes to be taken seriously in? In those days, there was no such thing as a tailor for butches.
Daniel Friedman walked straight into this yawning gap in the marketplace. But he didn't do it deliberately. After years in academia and the beginning of a career in architecture, he got sick –
really, really sick. Worse than the headaches and confusion, he found his cognitive skills were starting to decline. He couldn't think or write clearly, and he couldn't remember anything he'd read. After six years of frustrating, dismissive non-answers from dozens of doctors, Daniel finally got a diagnosis: lead poisoning.
He remembers the early months of his illness vividly. "My brain turned off. I have GChats from that time saying to friends, 'I can't read, I can't think, something's wrong.' I had gone to great schools to prove to myself that I wasn't an idiot. My academic work was my crutch, and I lost it. I had no money, and ten years of training was useless. I was living off of a girlfriend. I had no pride. I was 31 years old, and I said, wow, this is not what I expected."