Thrifted Suits, Gender Anarchy, and the Power of a Writing Uniform
Heidi Sopinka on Sartorial Experimentation
I wrote my novel Utopia in stretches at an empty apartment offered up by a distant relative. On my first visit, I discovered the apartment overlooked a massive graveyard that gave such an off-kilter static of human electricity that I immediately had to shut the blinds. It was too on point, given that on one level, the novel functions as a love triangle with a ghost, getting at all the ways we are haunted.
But with writing, sometimes when you give yourself over to your subconscious in a way that’s so total, weird little things start to happen. I started to think a lot about bodies because my novel centers on 1970s feminist performance artists who did a lot of body works, and because staring out at tombstones makes it hard not to.
What is writing if not practice for leaving the body? But there is privilege in not having a body. Women (not biologically essential women, but anyone who lives as a woman), understand this. Its flipside, of course, is that every experience we’ve ever had is written on our body, and all our entire culture wants to do is take our bodies away from us.
Graveside, I write a main character who struggles with gender identity and wears a thrifted men’s suit for most of the story. She marries an artist who is tall and feminine, who also wears a suit. I like how they are twinned and androgynous in their suit-wearing.
But when I read over their sections, I make an assessment: too much about suit wearing. In another tab, I read about how the second-wave feminist performance artists used a kind of backward logic: to subvert dominant culture’s contempt and fear of women’s bodies, they stripped naked and used their bodies confrontationally. As Hannah Wilke, one of the pioneering feminist artists of the movement said, “After a few minutes people forget the nudity and listen to what I have to say.” And then the book stalls.
Between drafts, I meet my illustrator friend, Ani, for coffee. I am struggling with the story, I tell her. In particular with Billy, a character who may or may not have killed his first wife. I get the women, I say, but Billy eludes me. He eludes the women too. He’s a version of the men from Southern California 1970s conceptual art scene the novel centers on: in other words, an egotistical jerk with an unimpeded strategic ambition, the kind that runs frictionlessly inside an athlete’s head. He never has time for you. He’s always meeting someone else—his gallerist, his friend, his New York dealer with the great ass. “Why am I making these really interesting women, both artists themselves, obsess over him?” I ask Ani. The phrase historical accuracy comes to mind.
Thanks to the terrible efficiency of the patriarchy, male narcissists have always been loved easily. I think of Hannah Wilke, who in the 1970s made vagina sculptures out of chewing gum as well as lint she’d collected from all the years doing laundry for her then-boyfriend, Claes Oldenburg. Let’s just say Oldenburg was too busy getting to make art to return the favor. Eventually, he changed the locks on his studio and ran off with another woman.Husband: “You look like an Almodóvar set.”
Ani sat back and looked like she was really thinking. “Maybe you need to dress like him.” I looked at her. “You mean just start going around as Billy? In character?” She shook her head. “No. Only when you’re writing.” She ventured that wearing Billy’s clothes might be like a charge jumping from writer to character. “Maybe you’ll get access to him, understand him better.” I got really excited by this. After our coffee, I went straight to a thrift shop in Kensington Market and bought a dark wool men’s suit without trying it on. It had an Italian label and smelled a bit like a mattress left out on the street mixed with cigarettes.
I pack the suit and once I’m back at the apartment, I realize, if the writing is going well, I don’t think about having a body at all. I don’t usually think much about clothes either, other than perfecting an extreme form of layabout dressing. In other words, I dress like a teenage boy. It’s a relief in a way, because my job, outside of writing, is as a clothing designer for the label I started with my close friend when we were both struggling with the novels we were writing at the time. And like how most writers don’t read their novels once published, I get why designers wave from the catwalk in normcore jeans and a white t-shirt. Putting everything into their work, they want it to stand alone, outside of themselves.
At the graveyard apartment, I decide to document my suit experiment by writing a clothing diary while I’m there. I don’t want to wear the suit right away, I need to get back into the writing first, build up to it, so I start off somewhat neutrally.
Day 1: Vintage, holey faded SIGMA PHI ZETA sweatshirt (possibly poor decision to advertise toxic frat masculinity while writing a feminist novel), grey sweatpants, shearling boot/slippers, angora puff sleeved bolero, grey “Mueller” wrist splint (to steady carpal tunnel thumb from excessive procrastinative “research” about Rihanna’s then-pregnancy), gold-rimmed reading glasses, drowned-rat greasy hair resulting from hair mask failure.
Day 2: Pale lavender men’s pyjama bottoms (purchased cheap version on eBay to emulate the Daniel Day Lewis character in The Phantom Thread as worn with waistcoat for extra asshole-ery), dark purple oversized sweatshirt. Same outfit worn to make pancakes at home prior to leaving. (Husband: “You look like an Almodóvar set.”)
Day 3: Attempt to exercise in building gym wearing sad, pilly black trackpants and child’s t-shirt. Old lady in pearls on an exercise bicycle next to me reading a potboiler. It occurs to me that this is going to be me in, like, ten minutes.
Day 4: I put on the thrifted suit. It’s the Billy-dressing moment. At first, I feel an uptick, like freshly wired electricity. Immediately I am deeply uncomfortable. The pants dig in at my waist. I force myself to sit in the chair and write. The old cigarette smell is so horrible the suit could be used to help people quit smoking.
The smell immediately triggers a memory: high school, eleventh grade. I’d cut my long hair short and bought an oversized black men’s suit at the Salvation Army for $7. I wore it for two months straight, until my friend at the time wrestled it off me and washed it in her bathtub, the water going black from cigarette smoke. My friend, the suit washer, had these very long legs and an insane body she had just discovered she could accentuate with the tightest shortest dresses she could find, including one her younger brother jokingly referred to as the “rape dress.” She shrugged it off because she felt totally alive with the discovery of a certain power about her own sexuality.
She started having sex, and later had sex with three different boys in one night. I tried to support her notion that it was what she wanted, that she was in control, but we were young teenagers, and in truth, it scared me a little. The goal was to be hot and to be hot was to be fucked, and getting fucked did not feel, to me, like a goal at all. My goal was to simply see the small town I grew up in in the rearview mirror so I could start my actual life.
I thought I could express, sartorially, my anarchy against the expectation of how I was supposed to be by wearing a baggy men’s suit, the pants literally hanging off my hipbones. Of course, a body doesn’t vanish in a men’s suit because every single thing, from our eyebrows to our shoes, is a signifier of gender. The notion that gender is a shared and societally enforced delusion didn’t make me feel any better then as now, rereading the second-wave feminists for my novel and steadily growing angrier.
What is more powerful? Confronting your sexuality like my friend in her so-called rape dress, or adopting masc dressing and negating the body in an oversized suit? It doesn’t matter what we do because the kind of clothes we put on and take off, as women, are loaded with meaning. Of course, it took me many years to realize that real rebellion was to be different, not just to dress differently.
Day 5: I write a scene where Billy, blackout drunk, cheats on his wife with a stranger in some by-the-hour hotel somewhere off Sunset with stained carpets, bedbugs in the mattresses, a toilet in the hallway—the kind place that’s the final stop for dying hookers and junkies. As he stumbles out, a woman sitting on the piss-smelling steps yells at him, “Motherfucker! Why do you need so much pussy? Aren’t you tired of it?” I wonder if this is my Brando-with-his mouth-full-of-cottonballs-auditioning-for-Don-Corleone moment, if the method could work for writing.
But when I reread the scene, I find it disturbing and delete it. I blame wool. All wool. It obviously makes a person cruel. The pants get really itchy, and I eventually rip them off in exchange for sweatpants. I take off the jacket as well. The smell of the suit is so penetrating, I end up cramming it into a Whole Foods bag and tying the handles tight, but I can still smell it. I wait till it’s late and then throw it down the building’s garbage chute, feeling shame about the landfill, but understanding that the smell of the suit was the smell of death. It made me write ugly. The suit wearing is all wrong, but it forces a point. When I write I want to leave the body, not take it on. I want to write like I have no body at all.
Day 6: Vintage Striped Edwardian night dress. Found former wearer’s Kleenex in pockets. Elicits enough disgust to change. Back into sweatpants.
Day 7: Determined to not wear sweatpants. White ruffled nightgown with Nike leggings underneath, shearling slippers, and men’s herringbone suit jacket. Trying to emulate Jo in Greta Gerwig’s Little Women in her fevered attic-writing-scene attire, which looked way better on Saoirse Ronan and possibly involved a waistcoat. I realize this is my second mention of a waistcoat, or as regular people call them, a vest. I catch a glimpse of myself in the dark window and one word sums up my look: maniac.
Day 8: Turned up heat and tried to get a sense of what it felt like in 1970s California without A/C. Inexplicably the fridge starts beeping wildly and I spend most of the morning reading the manual, which tells me to turn off the breaker to re-set it. When I can’t find the breaker, I call the building superintendent who comes around 3 p.m. and looks at me funny. I am obscenely sweaty. The breaker, it turns out, is behind a painting of a clown.
Day 9: Sweatpants.
Day 10: Sweatpant / nightgown combo.
Day 11: Nightgown / sweatpant combo.
Day 12: Clothes. What are they? I mean, really? Find sticky note that says, CALL HUSBAND IF ASKING EXISTENTIAL QUESTIONS ABOUT GARMENTS. Wait, did we say pants was our safe word?
I feel like I have become the maniacal clown. I also seem to be physically incapable of wearing anything other than sweatpants, which doesn’t tell me anything other than confirm what I’ve always suspected— that writing is a sport. The ghost of that deleted scene stays with me with a small shock of intactness, though it’s so hard to say what really ends up in a book. At night I become a tense, twitchy antenna. I find it hard to sleep by the graveyard.
What streams around and through and between me is the material and immaterialness of people, a thundering knowledge that my present form is only temporary. In the day, writing, I can now work with the blinds open overlooking the dead, the world whipping ecstatically past, until it doesn’t, and then it grinds. I think about the horrible irritation of a physical body in the wrong clothing while trying to construct living hearts of fictional people. I think of the illogical and shapeless beauty as we live and die, and in between, tell stories.
Utopia by Heidi Sopinka is available via Scribe Publications.