Daydream with me. Imagine one day a work friend says to you, "You need to dress better. If you want to be paid like a VIP, dress like a VIP." You trust this advice, and after work, you walk into a store hoping to buy clothing that will make you seem confident, successful, relaxed, and powerful. The store has beautiful clothing, and in this dream, you've got plenty of money. You make your way through the store with an armful of clothing, and as you enter the fitting room, you're sure that a bigger paycheck is just a few weeks away. Instead, the dream is darker now, none of the clothing fits, the pants are all too tight, the shoes are painful, and the shirts make you feel ridiculous. You try again, but nothing works. You head to another store, but it's all the same, there are no clothes for you. The next day at work you are diminished and resigned to a life with clothing that certainly doesn't fit, but in a bigger way doesn't reflect who you are or what your potential might be.
I directed a documentary called Suited, which follows two custom clothiers at a company named Bindle & Keep as they tailor suits for their gender-nonconforming clients. We spent the better part of two years at Bindle & Keep quietly observing their process, and during that time I became friends with some of their clients. I listened as people came to them and told stories of acceptance, rejection, and self-realization. I watched as people communicated the challenges they faced in trying to find men's clothing for nontraditional bodies. I met trans men, trans women, genderqueer and trans masculine people. All of their stories were different, all of the circumstances were unique, but ultimately all of Bindle & Keep's clients wanted to look good. They wanted to look in the mirror and like how they felt.
Suited has screened at several film festivals. Each time, after the audience began to shuffle toward the exit, I was approached by a young person, maybe 17 years old. Virtually silent, these young people all seemed lost for words. None of them were ready to express what they were feeling but they stood with me quietly, some choking back tears. These moments, standing with a young person so clearly affected by Suited, were my favorite. The idea that the experiences of the sophisticated and articulate characters in Suited could in some way reach people who were confronting similar issues in their lives excites me and makes me hopeful that the film will find a large audience.
I believe that gender is a spectrum. Every person occupies a unique, individual place on the gender spectrum somewhere in between male and female. It takes some people time to establish where on this spectrum they feel comfortable, and if they are nonconforming, it can take time to figure out how they want to outwardly express that to the world. In Suited, I tried to show people navigating their gender identities through custom clothing but I was always reminded that people are so much more than just their gender. The characters in my film are fathers, authors, lawyers, musicians, nurses, cab drivers, and students. Gender is just one part of a fascinating and much larger story.
Someday, I hope, gender will become irrelevant, but until then I want everyone who has struggled with clothing to be able to dress like a VIP, look in the mirror, and like what they see.
JASON BENJAMIN is the director of Suited, which airs on HBO June 20. Photo: JoJo Whilden/Courtesy of HBO