When Robin Cloud told her friends she was getting married, they offered to help in the way that friends offer to help, at least for straight weddings.
"They said: If you need anything, I'd love to go dress shopping with you."
And Robin responded in the way she had learned to respond, at least to straight people.
She said: "I am the Ellen of the relationship."
That, says Cloud, a 35-year-old lesbian who hasn't worn a dress in more than a decade, "seemed to clear it up for them."
There would be no pilgrimages to Kleinfeld, no debates on the merits of satin vs. charmeuse.
What the woman needed was a good man's suit. A good man's suit can be hard to find if you are a woman.
"Honestly, I don't know how it's supposed to fit," says Cloud. Though she normally dresses in masculine apparel, her job as a comedian rarely forces her to explore further than the casual convenience of Club Monaco or Uniqlo. The wedding "means I have to go to a real men's department, and that will be a little more intense. It's going to be an education."
This is the sartorial plight of the sporty, the butch, the soft butch, the tomboys, the bois, the "Ellens," the Big Dykes on Campus, the women who love women but don't love wearing skirts and really don't love those girly pleated pantsuits with princess seams and scalloped collars. The women who know how to buy work pants, play shirts, clubbing shoes and everything else, but who do not know how to buy formal wear (really, who does?) and are now navigating the experience for their now legalized weddings.
"I've been really thinking about this," says Nancy Blaine, a book editor who, like Cloud, lives in New York but will hold her ceremony in a state where same-sex marriages are legal. "I've been wearing men's business suits to work for 20 years, but I still don't put on a tie. That's the one step that would raise eyebrows just a little bit higher." In the past she's shopped at warehouse sales to avoid potentially awkward interactions with salespeople. But for her wedding, "I want to be able to ask somebody. If I'm going to do it, I want to do it well." She wants the custom tailoring, the professional eye. She wants to pull out all the stops and wear a tie, and she wants to look darn good.
"Everybody knows where to go for ladies' night, where to go for [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] books," says Eboné Bell, whose Washington area marketing firm sponsored the annual Capital Queer Prom. "But for clothes? It's a free-for-all." Every year before the prom, or for other formal events such as Mautner Project Gala, an annual lesbian fundraiser held Saturday at the Omni Shoreham Hotel, Bell fields dozens of questions from women who want to wear tuxedos but don't know where to go or what to look for. She test-drives several stores herself, walking in unannounced and seeing how the clerks respond to her request for a man's suit. She steels herself for the sidelong glances, the leading questions: So you're getting this for . . . a prom? So the person wearing this . . . is you?
Comfortable in her skin
For decades -- centuries, even -- stylish self-identified butch women have had to chart their own clothing courses. In pre-World War II times, they suffered in dresses during the week to become "Saturday Night Butches" at secret clubs on the weekends. They pored over spreads in men's fashion magazines; they sought guidance from understanding male relatives who might know where to shop for dress pants, but knew nothing about womanly hips filling them out.
The advent of the Internet helped, with personal blogs like the Sartorial Butch; Ellen DeGeneres and Rachel Maddow helped by being Ellen DeGeneres and Rachel Maddow.
But still, some women say, the fashion questions felt isolating. "Women like me haven't necessarily had a community," says Susan Herr. "We haven't shared information. Do we shop in the women's department or the men's? How should a good suit fit? We had to figure this all out on our own."
More confident younger women might scoff at the conservatism of older masculine women and vice versa, a gap that Herr refers to as the "transgenderational gap." Even within the lesbian community, Herr says, there can be judgments or"butch phobia." "If you go to Barnes & Noble and grab three lesbian-targeted magazines, try and find [more than a handful] of women who are not dressed as women."
Everything Herr wore seemed to become a political statement -- people thought she was jealous of men (no) or wanted to be a man (nuh-uh). Feeling comfortable in her own skin wasn't the problem. She just wanted to feel comfortable in her own clothes.
A few months ago Herr launched DapperQ.com, a Web site targeted toward women who prefer to wear men's attire, inspired partly by memories of her own commitment-ceremony shopping experience several years ago. A friend dragged her to a department store and helped her piece together a mishmashed ensemble: men's white loafers, a gender-neutral Calvin Klein suit, a ruffled shirt from the women's department. "If you're a bride wearing a dress, then you have 400 magazines to work from for advice." But if you're a bride wearing a suit, Herr says dryly, "we've got what Ellen wore. And that's about it."
DapperQ.com has received about 5,000 unique visitors so far, and contains profiles on real women, tailoring glossaries and comment sections where women can trade information on which stores have friendly salesmen. One current popular post, "Wingtips as Litmus," laments the absence of men's dress shoes in women's sizes, encouraging readers to upload information on Google Maps about where they found their own footwear, in order to create a virtual library.
One poster suggests Urban Outfitters, another suggests a site that sells vegan wingtips, made to measure. "If ever in Florence," begins one wistful fashionista, before launching into a description of a little cobbler shop next to an old church, neither of which she can remember by name.
The women of DapperQ are elated by menswear designer John Bartlett, who recently ended one of his shows with Jenny Shimizu, the lesbian model who once romanced Angelina Jolie, striding down the runway in boyish black pants and an untied bow tie. "For some time now I've had women, many of them lesbians, come in my store and ask for the same styles that I do for men, but in their sizes," Bartlett writes via e-mail. "They didn't want a curvier, more femme version. They wanted the same styles verbatim." Bartlett says he's "thrilled" to dress this segment of the lesbian population, "as they have very little to choose from in the present market."
Tricks of the trade
Every fashionable butch woman has a few reliable places, a few tricks up her French-cuffed sleeve.
"I've learned when the shipments come in to Filene's and Marshalls," says a 40-year-old Washingtonian named Kris, who asked that her last name be excluded. "Either Wednesday or Thursday is when you have to go" to have the best chance of finding a men's collared shirt in a size small enough to fit a woman's neck.
"Look for separates" rather than complete ensembles, says Jay Morrow, a UDC employee who picked up her sense of style from a fashionable grandfather and now favors bow ties on a daily basis. She wore a three-piece suit with an ascot to her commitment ceremony and is looking for another suit for her legal ceremony in Washington. Women's bodies -- the breasts and curves business -- don't often pour readily into the complete ensembles. And for pity's sake, go to a tailor who is accepting and knows what he's doing.
Luckily, adds Morrow, 38, those tailors seem to be easier to find than they were when she first started wearing men's clothes, though it's unclear whether the establishments have grown more accepting or the clientele has grown more confident.
Up until a few years ago, Victor Dash, the owner of Dash's formalwear in Alexandria, had never had a woman come in for a suit. Now he estimates that he sees one every month or so. "The first one that called asked if I could make her a suit, and I told her I'd never made women's clothes," says Dash, who assumed that the customer wanted him to make her a Hillary Clinton-esque pantsuit. "She said, 'Well, I'm not looking for women's clothes.' So then I said, 'Well, in that case, I've done this thousands of times.' "
Part of the uptick in Dash's female clientele might be due to a rave review he received on So You're EnGAYged, a blog dedicated to same-sex couples planning their weddings. A few months ago, one local woman went to his shop, then wrote about the excursion on the blog. In pictures, she wears a black suit with subtle crimson pinstripes.
As all brides to be, she looks radiant. And handsome.