Mary Going, 46, a former non-profit consultant from Oakland, California, wanted to wear a suit to her same-sex wedding in 2008, but found the shopping process demoralising.
Nothing fitted and often there were no dressing rooms. And salesmen looked at her strangely when they realised she wasn't shopping for a son. "They didn't want to serve me," says Going. "You could feel it."
She soon learned that she was not alone, and last year Going started an online suit store, Saint Harridan, that specialises in classic men's suits tailored for women. It joins a fresh crop of untraditional fashion brands and style blogs that cater to butch lesbians, transgender men, the androgynous and tomboys - underserved customers who might call themselves "masculine of centre", a gender-studies term for women who dress in ways traditionally associated with men.
It is a group long considered "tragically unfashionable", says Jack Halberstam, a transgender professor at the University of Southern California and the author, most recently, of Gaga Feminism: Sex, Gender and the End of Normal. "Neither men's nor women's clothing fits you, and the market has absolutely nothing to make you look good."
That is changing, thanks to clothing companies such as Saint Harridan, as well as Tomboy Tailors, a custom suit maker in San Francisco; HauteButch, a clothing line from Santa Rosa, California; and Marimacho, a Brooklyn label that makes shirts, vests and swimwear based on 1920s men's bathing suits. One company, Wildfang, in Portland, Oregon, was founded by Nike veterans and aims to liberate menswear, "one bow tie at a time".
Tomboy Tailors has a retail shop in the Union Square area
of San Francisco, but most are online only. Setting the trend are style blogs like dapperQ, which positions itself as a sort of GQ
for the unconventionally masculine, and Qwear, which updates the heritage-chic look for women. Think pocket squares, brogues and suspenders popularised by so many men's blogs.
The look subverts gender norms, says Susan Herr, 51, the founder of dapperQ, based in Brooklyn. "It's not cross-dressing for me to wear a suit," she says. "It's cross-dressing for me to wear a dress."
Unsure if there was enough interest in a company like Saint Harridan, Going used US-based crowdsourcing platform Kickstarter to test the waters and raise the US$87,000 needed to meet the factory minimum. She raised more than US$137,000 in a month from 1,108 donors.
Next month, Saint Harridan plans to ship its first suits, which cost US$695 to US$840 and are made in the US from Italian wool. The site also sells ties,
T-shirts and penknives. Going hopes to add Saint Harridan-designed sweaters
and trousers in the future.
Putting the idea into practice brought other challenges. Unlike traditional women's suits, which often emphasise feminine curves like breasts and hips, Saint Harridan's suits create a masculine silhouette. To do so, every aspect of the suit was re-engineered. Shoulders were narrowed to fit smaller frames, lapels were tweaked to lie flat over the bust, and pants that accommodate hips.
The New York Times