In 2020/21 I conducted interviews with over fifty people who identify as queer, trans, and/or feminist about their wedding attire. I wanted to reach people who have a deeply conflicted relationship with the cisheteronormative wedding industry. Not surprisingly, suits emerged as an important theme for many. J, who is non-binary, said of their suit, “Yeah, it just fit. I felt like my posture really, I don’t know, heightened.” And Kirsten, who also identifies as non-binary, noted, “I felt great [wearing the suit]. I felt very put together. I felt like I was an elevated version of myself basically.” I was struck by the words “heightened” and “elevated” – which aptly capture the more general dynamic described by almost everyone who talked about the suits they had found for their weddings. They recall the word transcendence, which implies a rising. Yet, transcendence, of course, denotes rising above; that is, leaving the world behind. This is not what these besuited participants do, as this brief piece will show. Rather, the people I talked with described a provisional upswing, one that in fact re-tethers them to the world afterward, with the crucial difference of a better fit with that world, or even the reorientation of the world to their dressed body.
From the perspective of queer-feminist theory,1 the term ‘wedding suit’ likely evokes a shudder in most readers. Yet, I detected an experience of suiting that might tell us something about the ways that suits contribute to queer and trans being and belonging in the contemporary moment. It has a lot to do with fit – fit as fitting in – and with the particular, performative event of the wedding. Here is another constellation of terms – fitting in, and wedding – that might scare off the queer theorist, as it (seems to) signal an acquiescence to the normal. In listening to people’s articulations of their experiences of suiting – that most seemingly normative of garments – insights emerge about reparative modes of embodiment and the role that the suit might play.
Ben Barry and Nathaniel Weiner conclude from their interviews with both cisgender and transgender men about suits that the suit is used to uphold hegemonic masculinity.2 Yet the frames that people I talked with brought to their suits was more in line with the complexity captured by Erin J. Rand: “Explicitly masculine clothing, when worn with intentionality, consciousness, and overt attention to detail, can conceal the wearer’s body in a cloak of masculine impenetrability, confidence, and power, while denaturalizing that masculinity and revealing its performative conceit.”3 Rand’s elaboration of suiting for the ‘masculine of centre’ implicitly draws on what historians of suiting tell us: that the suit is a complex and ambiguous garment: it conceals the body and reveals it at once, seems to express nothing while in fact indexing a range of values.4 The people I talked to drew upon this multivalence to performatively instantiate something new for themselves. What they “did” with the well-fitting wedding suit is not reducible to hegemonic masculinity.
Describing what her tailored wedding jacket – her first and only custom fitted jacket – enabled, Deja said, “I was frickin’ comfortable, and I still felt good. It was one of those things where when you can truly find the way that just expresses you… to me, there’s something very powerful about that…”. Here, as in many of the interviews, fit is indexed to the capacity for the suit to communicate – in this case, to Deja herself.
Many other participants made clear the relational stakes of what good fit could communicate. For trans and gender-non-conforming people especially, this captured what Jory M. Catalpa and Jenifer K. McGuire found was paramount in their study of trans people’s relationships with clothing: “The act of properly communicating the internalized sense of self externally and generating the correct social meanings that the wearer was trying to portray.”5 Transmasculine participant Owen, for instance, described his sense of anxiety while shopping for a wedding suit, noting that this first time shopping for men’s formalwear made him feel deeply self-conscious about his gender:
I guess it’s just that I don’t know anything about men’s fashion, and so I’m like, “There’s a bunch of shirts, and I don’t know the difference, and they’re all on these weird pieces of plastic, and I don’t know if I’m supposed to take it off or they’re going to do it. I don’t know what to do.” I just felt so out of sorts. It’s not that I felt self-conscious about wearing men’s clothing, but I felt self-conscious about being like, “Oh, I don’t know anything about this.”
But Owen later explained how good fit remedied the anxiety, when he narrated his experience returning to the tailor: “When I tried it on again after getting it tailored was the moment where I was like, ‘Oh, wow, I look good in this, and it’s cool…’ I had been feeling anxious about it, and then I was like, ‘Okay, I don’t have to be so anxious about this.’” Shortly after this, in response to a question about the feedback he got from wedding guests about how he looked, Owen said, “a lot of people [were], like, ‘You look so sharp,’ and I thought that was really nice because that’s kind of how I felt. I felt like probably I’d never worn something that fit me so well before.”
It is worth dwelling on the movement from Owen’s own understanding of fit as affirming his transmasculine identity, to having the fit recognized by others and experiencing this as a validation of his gender. Owen understood the performative dimensions of the wedding, the fact that it provided a metaphorical stage, an audience, and a singular opportunity to take control of his self-representation. He made a link between his dressed presentation in a well-fitting suit, and relational networks of others, when he said,
it also felt very affirming because, like I said, we consider ourselves a gay couple, but we’re not perceived as a gay couple in public by strangers, mostly, at this point. I guess, to me, it felt like, “We’re gay, and we’re having a gay wedding.” […] It was validating that other people who attended it were on the same page as me about that. I do think that that’s why I was so stressed about the outfit in a lot of ways, and I made the right choice because it worked out the way I wanted it to.
Here Owen made the further leap from his well-fitting suit to the question of relational recognition of his as a gay wedding. He extended the symbolic meaning of fit: Owen recounts using the excellent fit of his suit to fit the commonly understood definition of a gay couple. He appropriated the meanings of the suit, bound up as they are with, in Hollander’s words, “permanence, solidity, architecture,”6 to instantiate not only his masculine identity, but the couple’s identification as gay and their belonging within a social world.
This desire for belonging was echoed by others in relation to the nexus of suit fitting, the wedding, and the social world. B, who identifies as genderqueer and uses masculine pronouns, enthusiastically embraced the wedding as an opportunity, for suit-related reasons:
The suit is… it’s like a male staple…Every man that you know of has a suit in the closet of some sort. You know, it’s like the number one thing I’m excited about is marrying Liz. The number two thing I’m excited about is getting an actual suit fitted…
Here, B reveals some of the power of the wedding as event; it is not just about his relationship, but it presents an opportunity to consolidate a masculine identity, sartorially. Later B elaborated on his interest in being fitted in a shop or tailors, saying,
I think it’s more […] like I said, just the idea of even getting fitted for a suit – like, being in this very masculine type of environment where there’s leather chairs, and they’re like, ‘Hey, do you want a beer before we measure you’ – it’s this very male-dominated type of talking […] Yeah, so I think the process for me is almost as important as the actual suit.
In B’s telling, the homosocial rituals of the consultation and fitting prefigure the wedding, providing a chance to be recognized as masculine in a less performative setting than the wedding, and affording the opportunity for a kind of informal rehearsal – in this case, of something that would persist past the occasion of the wedding. Consider, too, what Deja said, and the register in which she said it:
I feel it allowed me to embrace something about myself that I don’t think I can embrace typically. This is after a breast reduction. I am, what, a DDD still? I am very well endowed… It’s one of those things where it allowed me to embrace my curves while simultaneously embracing my love of what is considered masculine dress. I love suits. I feel powerful in a suit, especially a suit that fits well.
Deja’s use of the present tense here suggests that the wedding instantiated a feeling that persisted, rather than confining this feeling to the wedding. And Owen similarly framed the positive affect generated by the well-fitting suit as something that exceeded the temporal frames of the wedding:
I felt like probably I’d never worn something that fit me so well before. […] Obviously, I love my suit, and I felt strongly about it, but the fact that it was really the first time that I had ever appeared in men’s formalwear was kind of special because I felt like it was my debut.
Here, fit transcends the personal and material correspondence of the clothes to the body, and enfolds Owen into the social body by debuting him as a trans man, in a gay relationship, to his wedding guests; it was the proper fit of his tailored suit that led to feeling, as he put it, “cool and good-looking” in this debut. Framing it as a debut, a beginning of a new relationship to a defined community, drives home the point that the relationship to his embodied identity that was centered at the wedding was not confined to this occasion but would continue into an indefinite future.
Something similar was described by Cayden, a trans man. He talked about how different his wedding suit was from other formal clothes he had owned, which never fit his body properly:
I’ve always felt really constrained and confined in whatever clothes I’m wearing. […] Or whenever, like say before I’d come out and I was wearing something stereotypically feminine, I just … didn’t feel right. Or maybe the trousers were a little bit too tight or a little bit too long or the shoes weren’t quite comfy.
But Cayden said, of this well-fitting suit he’d bought for his wedding, “It makes me feel confident, but also safe I guess.” He explained that he has the suit in his closet next to his ordinary clothes, and “whenever I look at it, it makes me feel nice. Makes me feel happy.” Later, he explained, “that’s what this suit gives me. It gives me that euphoric feeling because it’s, like, I feel like myself or what I see in the mirror is what I see in my head for what I should look like.” For Cayden, the suit he’d acquired for his wedding was the first garment that had given him this gender euphoria – he noted that, since he bought the suit, “a lot of my day-to-day clothes are now starting to give me that feeling.” In this case, fit, carefully considered for the occasion, acted as a catalyst for a general re-orientation to the world after a period in which, as he put it, his “dysphoria was really, really quite bad”.
This articulation of the use of the wedding suit as a material catalyst for a new relationship to the world is what led me to the words I opened with: heightened, elevated. What Cayden, Deja, Owen and B describe is not some monumental lift out of the circumstances of their queer and/or trans experience – they don’t require or desire that. What they desire is a relational recognition of their identities in the worlds they inhabit. The constellation of wedding and suit provides precisely that, and provides a temporal opening onto difference that persists. Unlike the wedding in literature – always the culmination of a plot, the end of a story – the wedding suit provides a brief, a provisional, elevation that affirms for them something about the way they might be – including in relation to others. Rand writes that the suit provides “a way to imagine new relationships and new desires— with objects and with others— and tap into the potential becomings of queer communities and worlds.”7 The elevation that my participants describe – enabled entirely by the wedding suit – is about learning to feel the embodied self anew in order to be seen anew.