Menswear-inspired fashion for women isn’t exactly new, but masculine-presenting women and trans men still have a hell of a time finding cool threads.
“It’s been part of my story my whole life,” says Mary Going, the owner of Saint Harridan, a clothing company that caters to butch women and trans men. "Standing in the closet when I’m supposed to be getting ready for my kid’s concert at school or somebody else’s wedding, and just hating what my options were."
"I’ve had a lot of experiences just feeling uncomfortable in my clothing," she adds.
For Going, the tipping point came in 2008, when she had a suit custom-made for her wedding. It wasn’t just the experience of having garments tailored specifically for her, but the feeling of finally wearing a suit that not only fit her body, but looked the way she wanted it to.
So, in 2012, Going launched a crowdfunding campaign for her own label, one that would specialize in clothes for women like herself, as well as trans men looking for high-quality duds.
In a way, Saint Harridan is a reaction against how mainstream fashion has consciously feminized menswear pieces for cisgender women.
"What we’re doing is saying, 'I’m being masculine,'" Going explains. "We aren’t making a menswear-inspired suit for a woman; we’re making a suit for a woman's body and it’s highly masculine. You could wear heels with it if you want to, but that’s not our intention. We’re very intentionally masculine. We’re saying that masculinity is an equal opportunity aesthetic."
Conscious of the limits of gendered language, Going is quick to put air quotes around terms like "women" and "men," "male" and "female." The name Saint Harridan itself is a comment on those limits: "If we were to use words like 'stud' or 'butch,' we would inevitably represent some people, but leave others out," Going explains on the company's website.
"We looked for a word that could expand our options. A 'saint,' among its many other definitions, is a founder, sponsor or patron of a movement." As for "Harridan," Going has reclaiming the word, which means a mannish old woman, and was used as a slur not long ago "to keep women from venturing too far from societal expectations."
But to re-envision classic men’s garments for female bodies, Going and her team's task was more complicated than they expected.
"The suit was definitely the hardest thing, because it’s so highly constructed," Going says. "But all the garments we put through the same process of looking at what works and what doesn’t work, ways to improve the fit."
Some of the changes were obvious—reducing the length of the jacket, lowering the rise on the pants—while others were less apparent. Differences in men’s and women’s posture, how they walk, the way they hold their arms when standing—all affected construction.
The result is a line of masculine clothing cut for bodies that traditional menswear companies have never considered.
All Saint Harridan's suits are custom-made, starting at $1,200, and require an in-person fitting at the brand's Oakland flagship store. But customers can order a number of ready-to-wear dress and casual shirts online, as well as pocket squares, bowties, tie clips and other accessories.
Going hopes to eventually offer more ready-to-wear pieces, including pants, jackets and full suits.
But Saint Harridan isn’t just the story of a particular niche company—it’s also the story of a way of doing business. "I actually kept hoping someone else would start this business!" Going admits with a laugh.
She was no fashion expert going in, although a six-month sartorial boot camp overseen by fashion blogger Sheree L. Ross helped Going get her bearings. Her real strength was in recognizing a need the market wasn’t meeting.
"That’s what I bring to the table—thinking, 'What about this could change to make it more efficient, more cost effective?'"
To that end, Saint Harridan is completely crowd-funded: Garments are preordered before going into production (to reduce waste) and are usually made in small batches. Essentially, Going has done for Saint Harridan’s business model what she did for its garments: deconstructed and reinvented it to work for people like her.
There’s an Audre Lorde quote on the front door of Saint Harridan's flagship store in Oakland: "The master’s tools will not dismantle the master’s house." As the costume of those in power, men's suits and ties are in a sense "the master’s tools," but Going is quite literally dismantling and reassembling them to empower people like her.
"Blurring the line between the binary sexes is incredibly important," she says, and can have an impact beyond just fashion.
"We have to work within the context of where we are. When I’m in South Carolina and I’m walking through the airport [in a Saint Harridan suit] I am making a very big statement."
And a mighty stylish one, too.
You can shop Saint Harridan online or at their flagship store in Oakland, California.