The Clothes Of Our Dreams
HBO’s documentary Suited advocates for the daily right to be dapper.
I watched the HBO documentary Suited twice this week and recommended it to nine very different people. According to the blurb supplied to my television, Suited is “an inspiring film about a custom-suit company in NYC that helps members of the LGBTQ community embrace their identities.” This is true, but also a radical underselling of the documentary’s merits. The film inspires, but also substantially educates. The film is about two people who run a bespoke clothier, but also about a dozen people who come in to have suits made there. The clothier is in New York City, but many of its customers are not. “Helps” is a weak and insufficient word to describe either the clothier or the film, and neither clothier nor film is just for members of the LGBTQ community. The film is about embracing LGBTQ identity, but it moreover points to the fact that every American has to do the cultural legwork of putting on clothes in the morning. The film and the clothier are about everyone and for everyone—and for the individualism implied by “everyone.”
Perhaps you have not gotten into a swimming pool in many years because the thought of finding swimwear provokes your worst anxieties about the shape of your body. Perhaps you have been wearing jeans that went out of style ten years ago because they haven’t completely worn through yet and the prospect of finding a fresh pair that fits in all the right places seems impossible. Perhaps you have a big event coming up, like a wedding or a job interview, and it’s pretty formal so you’re worried that you will soon be squeezing yourself into something that is passably appropriate for the occasion but doesn’t at all represent who you are. Perhaps photos of yourself as a child wearing a dress make you vaguely uncomfortable and embarrassed. Perhaps you just lost or gained twenty pounds and the only thing you ever want to wear again is pajama pants. Everyone has at least occasional anxiety about what to wear because not one of us has a perfect body or a perfect wardrobe. It’s a human issue of which perhaps LGBTQ-identified humans are simply somewhat more aware.
The film provides portraits of many different kinds of customers. There’s Derek, a registered nurse from a tiny farming town in the Pennsylvania foothills who needs a suit for his wedding. “I don’t want anybody to be able to pick me out from a line of guys,” he says. There’s Everett, a cellist who is just entering law school in Atlanta and who needs a suit for the first day at a job he hasn’t yet found. “I’m used to failure,” he says. There’s Mel, a chatty cabbie from New York who has “always felt comfortable in all-male environments” and just wants to be “treated the same way the world treats boys,” but still be herself, looking for a suit that celebrates her fortieth birthday. There’s Judy and her fretful twelve-year-old grandson from Arizona having a suit made for his bar mitzvah. “I never look good in clothing,” he says, “so I worry this will be more of the same.” There’s Jillian, a lawyer getting ready for oral arguments in a case about transgender civil rights at a venue one notch below the Supreme Court. There’s Grace, Lena Dunham’s sibling, who says, “When I feel best, people don’t think I’m a boy or think I’m a girl.”
I guess we could talk about Dunham producing the documentary or the fact that much of its film crew is in the Dunham orbit, but that is truly the least interesting thing about the documentary. Kudos to her to not making it about herself. Even Grace is only in there for three or four minutes. The focus stays with Daniel Friedman and Rae Tutera. Friedman is the original proprietor of Bindle & Keep. He intended to set up a shop that would make him rich off the endless suiting demands among Wall Street banker dudes, but then Tutera approached him about an apprentice position. Tutera was blogging about the experience and Bindle & Keep’s clientele quickly began to shift. “No question,” says Friedman, “if I did not meet Rae, my life would be less meaningful.” When Tutera first had a suit made at age twenty-five, “it was an experience for the tailor, too, because he’d never made clothes for anyone like me.”
The first words Tutera utters in the film are, “every client is different.” The first thing Friedman and Tutera ask any client is, “tell us what you’re looking for,” which is a much more open-ended inquiry than a question about what type of suiting is being sought. “No one contacts us and says, ‘I want a fitting,’” says Friedman, “they say, ‘here is my story.’ ” Tutera’s own first suiting had two goals: “being myself and being unselfconscious.” This is what all tailoring is really about, no matter the client’s gender identity. Tailoring is like going to therapy in the sense that tailors become responsible for interpreting the psychological wounds presented to them in conversation, ultimately producing garments that are meant to begin healing the client’s personal baggage, minimizing its intrusion into the emotional landscape of daily life. “We’re going to cut [the clothes] based on how you feel,” Friedman tells the twelve year old. “Your clothes should be uplifting to you,” reassures Tutera.
This is “not fashion anymore,” says Friedman. As Tutero tells Everett, “we want you to look like the most glorious person in every room you walk into.” The dailiness of their clothing commerce never for a moment obscures their real project, which is continuous personal growth in understanding of the ways that the clothes make the human. “I sort of feel like I’m born again in some weird way,” reflect Tutera, “and I want to spread the gospel of wearing things that fit.” This is not a fashion film, or a documentary about how suits get made; it is about that most cliché of all religious tropes: Suited is about triumphs of the human spirit. “You have the right to be handsome,” concludes Tutera, for to dress bravely is an act of faith. To comprehend one’s own style, move it from imagination to actualization, and then to perform that style in public is a truly evangelical act. One suit can change a life and so can one seventy-seven minute film.
I don’t care how bigoted your grandma is; let her watch Suited and see how it pierces her steely, Sunday school heart when the clients smile from ear to ear after trying on the clothes they have made for themselves. People who feel good in their clothes, who put their truest foot forward in the world, who love themselves enough to show themselves to everyone - these well-dressed, self-accepting people who work hard to make the dream of a suit into the reality of a suit are soldiers doing what really remains to be done in the LGBTQ fight for daily social acceptance. They cast off doubt. Suited is making it easier for all of us to grasp the significance of putting our properly fitted pants on one leg at a time. We can try to imagine a world free of all kinds of hatred as John Lennon advised, but it is more satisfyingly concrete to work toward Bindle & Keep’s world, where we can walk around in whatever things are well suited to our unique selves.
Watch the trailer below
Find out more about the film here