To find Bindle & Keep, you take a B train from 59th Street to Brooklyn, get off at DeKalb, and walk for 20 minutes: catty-corner across Fort Greene Playground, where kids shriek through the fountain’s parabolas. You pass the hospital, then trudge eight blocks in the gloam of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, cars clacking overhead.
You make a sharp left turn. There is the brick-faced United Talmudical Academy, where young scholars, prayer shawls framing their skinny shoulders and yarmulkes on their heads, parse lines of ancient text. Across the street is Bindle & Keep, a shop where tailors make suits for all kinds of bodies.
You couldn’t craft a better metaphor: On one side of Waverly, a stark embodiment of gender norms: Boys and men study (and wear the pants), while women stay home, their heads (and elbows and knees) demurely covered.
On the other side, gender lines exuberantly blur.
Bindle & Keep, which is planning a Philly outpost (a fall 2020 opening was waylaid by COVID), will fashion a suit for anyone with the money to spend on bespoke garments, but they’re known best among LGBTQ folks for making suits that not only fit the body, but project what that body’s inhabitant wants to tell the world.
Maybe the suit declares, “I’m queer!” Maybe it nods cheekily to the 1950s, a hers-and-hers ensemble in contrasting green and purple plaid. Maybe the jacket says, “Love these curves, but don’t treat me like a girl.” Or “Don’t assume anything from the width of my lapels, the length of my cuffs, or whether my shirt buttons left over right.”
At Bindle & Keep, all the shirts button left over right.
My first trip to the shop happened pre-pandemic, a Saturday afternoon in the fall of 2019. The streets thronged with men in stiff black hats on their way home from the synagogue. I felt transgressive just existing: one half of a queer Jewish couple about to go shopping on the Sabbath.
A made-to-measure suit was the birthday present I’d requested from my mother that year, and she happily agreed, though she may have been picturing a skirted something with a nipped-in-waist, flared jacket, and feminine profile.
Bindle & Keep doesn’t make that kind of suit.
At the initial fitting — part fashion consult, part therapy — a tailor shows fabric samples and asks questions: Which clothes in your closet make you feel most like you? What colors and textures draw you? Repel you? Then a drill-down to specifics: four buttons or three on the sleeves? Top-stitching? Notched lapel? Pants that ride the waistline or hover an inch or two below?
I debuted my suit — a rich, plummy purple, the jacket lined in Peter Max-ian swirls of chartreuse and cerise — at a book launch party 10 weeks later. Then COVID-19 happened, and my wardrobe reverted to an assortment of soft tees and the same two pairs of jeans.
When I wriggled into the jacket again this summer, it felt a little snug. Had my pecs and biceps morphed from morning yoga? Was I supposed to feel as if I couldn’t throw my arms overhead without rupturing a finely tailored seam? Even sitting still at my computer, I could feel the fabric taut across my back, the lower arc of the armhole grazing skin.
I made an appointment to return — alterations are free for the life of the suit — on a recent afternoon.
And there, in the light-drenched showroom, Daniel Friedman, the soft-spoken, bespectacled tailor who founded Bindle & Keep, asked questions, photographed me from the back, put his hand into the armhole of my jacket (yes, after receiving explicit verbal consent), showed me runway photos of models in this year’s trending suits, and schooled me in the physics of fabric, the secrets of military tailoring, the treacherous/liberating territory of body awareness, and the nuances of gender presentation.
The bottom line? My jacket was not too tight. I’d forgotten, partly because of living in pandemic pajamas for 15 months, and partly because, for most of my adult life, I’ve tried to cache my body in garments that were far too big. “Boyfriend” jeans. Thrift-store overcoats. Army pants and roomy T-shirts, dirndl skirts and sack-like linen dresses.
I chose clothing that hid what I believed to be my physical flaws: short waist, thick thighs, what my college roommate ruefully called “peasant legs.” Feminism propelled my choices, too, a furious rejection of fashion norms that called for slit skirts, plunging V-necks, fabrics that revealed and clung. At 15, at 19, at 25, I didn’t want to have a body, to be a body.
Friedman nodded rabbinically as I explained. Sure, he could make the jacket larger, but that alteration would create vertical ripples when I stood at rest. It would mar the suit’s crisp silhouette. It might look as if I were masquerading in clothes that weren’t really mine.
“This suit fits,” Friedman said. “But it’s your call.”
The suit fit. That was the operative phrase. Because this visit, in the end, wasn’t about the cut of my bespoke jacket. It was about the lifelong process of shedding insecurity and shame. I came out to my parents at 23, but there is always another layer waiting for liberation: Yes, this is my body. This is how I inhabit it. This is how I — a queer Jewish woman, a mother, a partner, a runner, a writer — want to move through the world.
I could see all of myself in Bindle & Keep’s gigantic mirror. Behind me, on racks, hung finished jackets, vests, and slacks — clothing configured for the place I want to live, where gender is flux and all bodies are beautiful and power isn’t codified by who wears the pants.