How ‘Girls’ created Lena Dunham was inspired by her genderqueer sister to produce the trans documentary ‘Suited’
Suited is the perfect fit for Lena Dunham.
As producer of the thought-provoking documentary about the powerful relationship between fashion and identity, Dunham knows firsthand that bending the gender rules by wearing a suit can be a transformative experience. During this year’s annual Met Gala, the multi-hyphenate — actor, author, director, social activist, feminist, out-and-proud proponent of the word “no” — rocked an androgynous look, sporting black-tie attire and slicked-back hair as if she were a GQ cover model. The masc moment was classic Dunham — meaning, yet another strong statement. Known for her Emmy Award-winning HBO series Girls, the 30-year-old has made it her life’s mission to tear down societal standards.
Backing Suited only seemed natural, then. In Jason Benjamin’s directorial debut, airing on HBO this week (see sidebar on Page 53 for a review), transgender and genderfluid suit-buyers uncover a deeper sense of self as they find garments that speak to their identity at Bindle & Keep, a Brooklyn-based bespoke men and womenswear company.
Dunham’s genderqueer sister, Grace, appears in the documentary while on a quest for a “dark wool suit … to run around in.”
Dunham recently phoned for a candid conversation about how Grace’s gender subversions have influenced her to challenge Hollywood norms. During the interview, the actor also elaborated on the “strength” she gained from wearing her own tailored suit, seeking to break stereotypes with her zeitgeist coming-of-age dramedy Girls, and being so gay adjacent she calls her significant other, fun.’s lead guitarist Jack Antonoff, her “partner.”
— Chris Azzopardi
Dallas Voice: I’m gonna try not to cry again just thinking about one of the doc’s subjects, 12-year-old Aidan Star Jones. I’m not transgender, but I felt like I was watching a version of myself. Lena Dunham: That makes me so happy! And by the way, I’ve seen the movie a million times and I still weep every time I watch it. I weep every time my sister comes onscreen. I just weep because I love that it’s kind of a feel-good movie. People are expecting this gritty documentary and I’m like, yes, there are moments of that, but really it’s the family movie I would want to watch if I thought that queerness was more accepted in the world of family movies, which I hope it will be soon.
In what ways did you find yourself empathizing with some of the people who visited Bindle & Keep? I don’t identify as queer in my sexuality, but I have a lot of really close relationships with queer people, and queer culture has been hugely influential. Like so many disenfranchised women, queer culture has been a huge part of my coming of age.
Like I said, I’m a straight girl, but what I really empathized with was the need to find yourself in fashion when there aren’t representations of you. I know that when I entered high school and became a chubby girl — I’d always been a little skinny kid and then suddenly I gained 40 pounds in four months and didn’t know what to do with my body and didn’t feel like there was a place [for me]. I could either walk into a Lane Bryant and sheath myself in something that didn’t make me feel like myself at all or I could continue to wear my too-tight hot pink sweatpants. I didn’t feel like there was a place for my body to be seen or known or understood.
So, for me, what’s been really powerful as an adult has been having my clothes tailored, which is something I only started doing once I started going to red-carpet events, and even though I’ve had that experience, I actually had a Bindle & Keep suit made for our Sundance premiere. The experience of putting on something that just fucking fit was so remarkable, and I looked in the mirror and there was this strength that came from not trying to hide any part of myself. So, I think we can all relate to that feeling of trying to find the look — of fashion being a way to try and express yourself, and not feeling like there’s any place to turn in the commercial marketplace where your identity’s being accepted. In that way, fashion turns from something that is very superficial to something that is extremely emotional.
I finally fit into a shirt that I’d been wanting to fit into for a long time, so I get it. It’s amazing. It’s so subtle but it’s so important. My dad has always been into tailoring. He’s a real suit guy. My friends will be like, “I saw your dad and I knew it was him from far away because he was wearing this super sharp suit at 10 a.m. on a Wednesday heading to the grocery store,” and this made me really understand that part of the reason my dad does that is because it makes him feel that he can own his identity. Something that I love in our family is, my dad has all these suits and then my sibling, Grace, who’s in the movie, will take his old suits and tailor them to her body.
It’s funny, when we were little girls, my dad always wanted to dress us in a super androgynous way. If we were alone with him for the day, it was a plaid shirt, jeans, sneakers; he just thinks androgynous fashion on women is super cool. One of the first presents that he bought each of us: He got me a suit in eighth grade; he got my sister a suit in high school. He would really push the-ladies-in-suits angle. My mom came up in New York in the ’80s wearing a power suit, so the idea of suiting as something that kind of already defies gender lines, I already felt like I had an understanding of. This [movie] obviously takes it to a whole new level.
How do you hope the stories that you are a part of telling, such as Suited and your work as creator of Girls, can enrich and embolden the lives of the LGBTQ community? I think my biggest hope — and my [creative] partner Jenni Konner’s definitely coming from the same place — is just that these stories make people feel seen. That was always our goal with Girls. I went into HBO and said, “Hey, I don’t see any shows that represent my friends.” And then when we put it on, and we got our own critiques about what we were representing, we were going, “Wait, a bunch of other people feel that way too,” because I didn’t see kind of my weirdo, anxious chubby self on television. Other women didn’t see complex women of color represented on television; other women went, “Hey, I’m Asian and I’ve never seen a character who doesn’t just have her nose in a book and is playing the violin.”
We’re always just trying to push back against stereotypical representation or play with it in an intelligent way.
And what I loved about Suited: This is about an aspect of queer life — we spend so much time thinking about, and rightfully so, these huge issues like marriage equality, raising families, job discrimination; this is a much more seemingly mundane issue. For the queer community and members of the gender nonconforming community, it actually ripples to every part of their life.
Because you see, if [doc subject] Everett [Arthur] doesn’t get a suit then Everett doesn’t feel confident and Everett’s not gonna get a job and Everett’s not gonna show that, hey, a gender nonconforming trans lawyer is an option in the South. It goes so far. I just hope people see it and go, “I’m seeing myself represented whether I’m queer or not in these characters, and this is a version of the queer story that I haven’t seen before.”
How has having a sister who identifies as a gender nonconforming person changed your perspective on yourself and your sexuality? This is an overused word, but Grace is a really brave person. Grace very much came into the world — age 3 — being like, “I don’t wanna wear a dress and I’m being myself.” Grace always makes a joke that she was briefly straight from the ages of 7 to 10. She very much came into the world with this radicalized approach to being a woman. She did an interview recently in the New York Times in which she was having a conversation with her friend Nicole Eisenman, who is also a queer woman, and they asked Grace about her pronouns and Grace was like, I’m a gender nonconforming person but I’m OK with being called “she” because I like to really push the boundaries of what “she” can be, and that really resonated with me. Because even though I consider myself female and I have a more binary approach to my sexuality, I think that Grace’s idea about expanding the definition of what “she” can mean has really opened me up.
Before Grace became so deeply embedded in her identity, I think that I was still thinking of the world as… I accepted the idea of transness but I felt like I didn’t understand the idea of a person whose gender and sexuality could contain elements of everything that they’d seen. It’s funny: You know, I wore a tuxedo to the Met Ball this year and it was such a great feeling to go to a big fashion event where you’re surrounded by girls in gowns and feel this kind of strength that comes from being feminine while owning some masculine attributes.
How did it feel to be the odd man out, so to speak? It’s this very ineffable thing where you’re like, “I feel cool, I feel sexy, I feel like myself.” I felt a little bit at the Met Ball — I’d go up to ladies and be like [deepens voice to resemble a man], “You look great!” [Laughs] I was owning these kind of masculine clothes I had on and it felt really good, and I feel without Grace in my life I wouldn’t. I think, especially when you’re working in Hollywood, there’s a real pressure to conform to femininity in a traditional way, especially if you don’t look like what people think a TV star should look like. When I was first getting styled I’d go, “I just wanna wear a really pretty dress and really pretty makeup, so when I go to an event people think, ‘Oh, she’s way prettier in person than I thought she would be.’” That’s all I wanted. And now, Grace has made me feel like I can go in with a fucking suit with my hair messed up because the rules have changed.
I love that you’ve taken her lead. Speaking of people who’ve influenced your world, I talked to Jack a few years ago. My partner.
Is that what you call him? I use partner because I like it. We’re not married, but also, he’s not my boyfriend. I feel like it’s another one where I’m like, I’m kind of down with the queer community. I have my partner! He’s my partner!
Your refusal to marry until your sister could was admirable, and you wrote a wonderful essay after the Supreme Court ruling last June. It’s been a year since the ruling. Have you thought about what you might have the queer people in your wedding party wear? That’s an amazing question, and actually, Jack and I have talked about it and we’ve always said that when we get married we want our wedding party to just be our two sisters in tuxedos. Jack has a straight sister, I have a queer sister; they’d be our best men / women and we’ll call it a day. That’s our dream.
HBO doc ‘Suited’ shows how clothes really can make the man
As most people know, trans men are born biological women, and alter their gender identity in a variety of ways: Through hormones, name-change, grooming and surgery. But as much as can be accomplished by science and ingenuity, “there are curves on this body that don’t make sense,” as one trans man observes. Another pre-surgical genderqueer man “binds” to look more flat-chested … but can’t hide everything. Buying off-the-rack suits for a body with structurally wider hips or narrower shoulders is a compromise option that rarely offers a precise fit.
Suited, a new documentary (produced by Lena Dunham) that premieres on HBO Monday night, purports to be about Rachel, a trans man, and Daniel, a straight man, who team up to make custom clothing for members of the trans community. But really, the film is about their customers: The personal stories of men and boys who feel complete only when wearing clothing that they are comfortable in. (The cast includes one male-to-female trans attorney who wants a conservative business suit before an oral argument before an appellate court.) It gives real weight to the aphorism, “Clothes make the man.” Rachel and Daniel are not so much tailors as confidantes, therapists, counselors and bartenders. (It feels less like Project Runway than another HBO show — Taxicab Confessions with needle and thread.)
Many of the stories are compelling, to be sure, but the weak spot is the payoff. You really want to see these men’s bodies transformed by masterful tailoring. But some of the suits actually seem a bit dowdy or ill-fitting. There’s no Cinderella moment that the audience sees. Then again, that’s not totally the point: Their customers’ self-images are enhanced, if not by bespoke couture, then by a patient ear and a concern for making them feel comfortable about who they are. “You have a right to be handsome,” Daniel says at the end. And beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
Airs on HBO June 20 at 8 p.m.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition June 17, 2016.