From Butch to Bespoke
Published in Bon Magazine, issue 69, Autumn/ Winter 2015
It all started with a poetic email about bespoke tailoring. Now Rae Tutera helps other women and transmasculine people get suited. A believer in the right to be handsome, Rae is part of a growing movement for trans style.
Words Sarah Clyne Sundberg
Photography Tom Hines
A well-tailored suit can change your life. Rae Tutera, who works at bespoke Brooklyn tailoring company Bindle and Keep, knows this from experience. “For most people, becoming themselves involves thinking deeply about what they’re putting on their body,” Rae says. This idea of clothing as self-actualisation is brought to the fore in Rae’s blog, The Handsome Butch, the tagline of which is: “If you ever forget, I’m here to remind you that you have the right to be handsome.” It’s a message Rae spreads, in part, through measuring queer women and trans-masculine people for suits.
The story of Rae’s involvement with Bindle and Keep started five years ago, when she decided to have a custom suit made. Pickings were slim in terms of queer-friendly tailors, even in NYC. “I had to be braver than I was. I went to a pretty stuffy storefront on the Upper East Side, where I had to be buzzed in. As much as I was welcomed, I needed to advocate for myself in a way I think most people don’t feel comfortable doing. I had to repeat over and over that I wanted a men’s suit.”
Once the suit was ready, Rae, soaking up the self-possession it imbued became obsessed with the idea of bespoke tailoring. “I decided there had to be a way for people like me to have a lower barrier of entry into something so basic.” Rae started to research suit companies in Brooklyn, and emailed Bindle and Keep because she had heard that the company made suits for Murray Hill, a well-known drag king. “Maybe the only well-known drag king,” Rae adds, with characteristic dry, thoughtful wit.
Rae was working as an archivist at the time and had no formal background in tailoring or fashion. She wooed Daniel Friedman, the owner of Bindle and Keep, with a “very poetic email” detailing her own experience having a custom suit made and deep love of and philosophy on clothes. The campaign convinced him to take Rae on as an apprentice. Despite the fact that, as she says, nobody has time for an apprentice any more”.
Three years later, Rae is still measuring people for suits, and the business she envisioned is booming. (Marriage equality may have played some part in creating a need for fine suits for women and trans-masculine people. Rae says more than half of Bindle and Keep’s customers are getting a suit for their wedding.)
A whole host of ready-made brands designed for masculine-of-centre women have also sprung up in the past few years, such as Saint Harridan (“transgressing men’s fashion”), and ED, Ellen DeGeneres’ clothing lone, which reflects her personal style. In terms of more commodified masculine fashion for women, the big brands seem to have moved from “the boyfriend jean” to “tomboy style”, doing away with the straight-male alibi, as it were.
At a grassroots level, online communities and blogs such as DapperQ, and former Real World star Ari Fitz’s web series Tomboyish, along with innumerable Tumblr and Instagram accounts dedicated to queer and trans styles, are all fomenting not just radical new looks, but new senses of self and gender.
Masculine fashion for women isn’t new, of course, but we are experiencing a moment in which old categories are in flux, and gender and style is being radically reimagined. With bespoke clothing, as Rae points out, your body is never wrong for a particular item. This is huge for anybody – and downright revolutionary in a queer or trans context.
What’s the process of measuring someone for a suit?
A lot of these folks want a masculine silhouette and, for man of them, they’re born female and it’s just unfathomable [to them] that they could look anything like what they want. So they’re speculating. We speculate together. That’s the longest part of the consultation. People find fabrics they like almost immediately. It’s just that they can’t imagine what their jacket would look like. If my clients and I didn’t have so many overlaps in our identities, I might feel more like a detective than I do.
How do you make it work?
There are some tricks to tailoring. I talk a lot about the wearing curve. When you’re designing something from scratch, there’s nothing for the customer to try on. We design it together. Then the tailors make the suit, and about two months later the customer gets to try it. Then we can tweak it. You don’t know how it’s going to feel until you wear it. You don’t know what kind of pockets you like on your jacket until you wear straight pockets and realize you want slanted pockets. Clothes are really basic, but they involve complex emotion for most people.
What is the hallmark of a good suit, as far as you are concerned?
Fit is everything. No matter what your taste is, what the fabric is, whether the suit looks contemporary or not, every single person can be elegant in something that fits them well.
Are there common mistakes people make?
You can have a single vent or double vent on a jacket. The double vent is the traditional choice, but I think a lot of people don’t realize the impact it will have on fit. In my experience, a double vent flares over the hips. Whether they are masculine-identified or not, some people really want a clean silhouette that follows the true shape of their body. A double vent doesn’t do that; it creates a kind of curvature that isn’t there. A single vent is a straighter, cleaner silhouette.
What is your personal style inspiration?
My grandpa. He was born in the 1920s. He wore a perfectly clean starched white t-shirt every day. Once I got to a point in my life where I was comfortable enough with my body to actually put on a white V-neck t-shirt, I almost wanted to drop dead – it was the best feeling in the world. I like that he had a kind of uniform. It was always variations on a theme for him. Which is something I appreciate in others, and have incorporated into my own style.
Are there any stand-out stories in terms of people you’ve measured for suits?
I had a client come to New York from Texas to have a couple of shirts made for work. The idea that someone would come all the way from Texas just for shirts impressed me. It was a wake-up call in terms of there being a need fore for what I do. She flew me out to Austin a year later, to measure her for her first suit. She hosted me like I was some long-lost cousin. We barbecued, and I met all her cool Texas queer friends, people I would never have come into contact with otherwise. That was just a beautiful moment.
Talk about your new project, Willoughby General.
I live in Bed-Stuy, in Brooklyn. A block and a half from my house there’s a beautiful old storefront that used to be a barbershop. It’s been vacant for seven years. I’ve been looking at it for a long time, and my fiancée’s mom has been looking at it for a long time. She asked me what I’d open in the old barbershop, if I were to open a store there. And I said, “A general store.” I didn’t even think about it. And she said, let’s call up the landlord and he’ll show us the space, and we’ll see if we can do anything.
What will you sell there?
I confess it’s been a bit painful to make custom suits, because there is only a certain segment of the population I can reach within my community, and those are the people who can afford to buy a suit. Here I can sell people a variety of well-made things at a variety of different price points. I wanted to open up a general store where you can get something for as cheap as a dollar. Our dream is to be something of a mirror for the neighbourhood we live in.
Part of the reason I love measuring people for suits is that I get to meet new people and talk to people all day; there’s a lot of spiritual capital in that for me. I get to know people, and through that I get to know myself better.
Your blog is called The Handsome Butch. How do you related to the term “butch?”
I named my blog only three years ago, but my identity and my relationship with the word “butch” has evolved since then. Still, that’s where I came from. I feel as though the original masculine-presenting people are my people. I feel very connected to “butch”, even though I don’t identify that way any more. There’s such a history behind the word, which I find both really upsetting and really powerful. But I’m guilty of relating to everything. I also have a relationship to the word “androgynous”, even though I don’t identify as androgynous – because people see me as androgynous. I experience all this in a pretty fluid way.
It’s almost as if butch is on its way out as a widely used identity and being replaced by a multitude of other ways people think of their gender.
Yes, and I don’t know why. In my mind I’m building on things, which is why I feel like I can come from this older generation of queer people – who may not even like the word “queer”. And I feel like I come from butches. When I see an old butch woman out, having a good time, I just want to thank them. There is a very direct link between that 70-year-old butch and me. I wouldn’t erase that. I wouldn’t upgrade from that. I built upon that.
Do you think style blogs like yours have had an impact on queer styles and visibility, and maybe even the way that people dare imagine themselves?
Immeasurably. I think we are at a point now where style blogs are tools for engagement, allowing the audience to speak back. It seems that, at least in the queer community, there’s a lot of brotherhood and sisterhood online, and people foster not only their identities, but other people’s too. If you post a picture of yourself on Instagram and tag it, someone in some country you’ve never been to might say you look nice, and then you look at their profile. Ideas and images are spread in a way that’s really encouraging. I think that the real world might be online now. Which is probably a good thing.
Would you say there’s been a shift in how masculine fashion for women and transmasculine people is viewed?
There’s so much more visibility now, more proof than ever that people with various gender identities exist. There are even ad campaigns featuring masculine women and trans people. You think it doesn’t matter, and then you see yourself in an ad, and it makes you feel something.