Didem Caia

Suitable for Women

For as long as I can remember, I wanted to be a man. Not a boy but a man. Growing up I don’t think I really knew what that meant, but there are a collection of moments, a pastiche of images in my mind.

Didem in an East-meets-West themed photoshoot for Frankie, 2018

I was born in September in Melbourne, Australia. It was the 90s. My mum estimates that she went into labour at 2:30am on the 29th, a Saturday morning. My grandfather was pulling a nightshift at the outer Melbourne factory where he worked and was called by his panting wife to get home because his daughter was about to give birth. Packed into a 1965 Volkswagen Beetle, the three travelled the 30 or so minutes from Melton to The Royal Women’s Hospital in Parkville. When they arrived at the hospital my mum was ushered into a room and my grandparents used the payphone in the waiting area to call every family member and extended family member they had. Since there are no mobile phones in this story, it was mainly house numbers that were called, and yes, my grandparents used to keep these numbers in their minds.

First they tried to reach my uncle, 18 at the time. It was the weekend, so he would no doubt be out somewhere. I have another uncle, eight at the time and always left behind—come to think of it, he was probably left alone in the house while his sister and parents journeyed towards the hospital, yelling after them but unnoticed. Older uncle was tracked down eating off a night of partying at the house of a family friend. He was ordered to pick up uncle number two and get to the hospital. The bit of the story my grandmother never leaves out is that she instructed her sons to:

“wear your suits”.

Mum said I came out in seven hours, no crying, right on time. By this point, it was almost 10am. The waiting area was filled with family. My older uncle, still drunk, started an altercation with the front desk ladies because he assumed he could just walk into a birth. My younger uncle was there too, wearing a suit, rheumy eyes glued to his Gameboy.

Everything with my mother was calm and clear and I had latched onto her body with ease. Suddenly, fourteen or maybe fifteen people (the number changes each time the story is told) surged into our little quiet room like a parade—being Turkish, it’s best to get used to being surrounded by a parade of people as quickly as possible.

There were aunties balancing food and gifts, balloons, teddy bears, kids hanging off their mother’s hips. My mother jokes that all that was missing was music and barbeque smoke. The community was close and many of them had arrived in Australia in the 1970s and tried to re-create the home they had so decidedly left behind. Family was also made up of friends and neighbours.

When you visit a new baby, it is customary for men to wear their suits and women to bring food. The women usually don’t have added time to dress up if they are busily preparing in the kitchen.

*

It was two days before my dad came to see me. He had been ordered to stay away from the family, and had breached this before. We didn’t expect to see him, but when he arrived, 6’7′, wearing a dark suit, with well oiled hair and flowers, my grandparents took pity on him, forgetting the door he had kicked off its hinges, his grip around my mother’s neck, and the black eye he had given my grandfather.

“Where’s my son?”—He didn’t speak English, so actually his opening words were, “Oglum nerde?”

My grandmother still tells this story as if it had just happened. With her ember eyes burning into the space just above my head, a smirk across her mouth. My mother adds that in this moment, her arms extended around my little body and turned my head to her chest. A position we both mastered very early on.

“You don’t have a son. It’s a girl,” my grandmother replied.

Minutes later, without a closer look at me, no intention of picking me up or seeing if we had the same hair or nose, he left. A rapid rotation: when he walked out, in came my uncles and my grandfather like three well-dressed court jesters, ready to make it all better. My grandfather had even returned home, changed into his best attire, and was now ready to see us.

Growing up I always identified with the men in my family more than the women. I didn’t want to be like the women; I wanted to be like the men so I could take care of the women. My grandmother was a heavy sleeper, and she liked to be in the home most days. My grandfather would look after me while my mother was at work, and he would take me to creche. We would walk there and I would have one hand in his while the other held a gingerbread man. He brought home a jam doughnut and a gingerbread man every night from the bakery he cleaned. I liked my grandfather a lot. I loved him, obviously, but I also really liked him.

My mother re-married when I was five. Right before the wedding, we were out in Coburg, one summer’s day after school. We went into a Middle Eastern take-away to get food. While we were waiting, I was telling my mother about something that happened at school and doing my best impression of my teacher, when suddenly her face changed. She was looking over me, across the road. My eyes followed hers and met the figure walking towards us. It was my dad. I had only met him once but I also had a photo. And I look like him, I would recognise his eyes anywhere. He had on a padded grey suit. He looked so tall, very powerful. The shop keeper could tell my mother was distressed and he ushered us through the back entrance of the shop. We walked quickly to our car. But I’ll never forget the last time I saw him. He was in a suit. And we ran away from him.


“Saint Laurent’s new Vastsuits… are the sensation of the Paris season” —WWD, 1967

Even after I had a stepdad, I couldn’t reconcile this new family dynamic and wanted to stay with my grandparents. I was too attached to my uncles, who were more like my brothers. One day, my mum found me in the family bathroom, bare chested and wearing my younger uncle’s Adidas pants and cutting my hair off with the kitchen scissors. I was six by now. The pants were barely staying up and I was holding them with one hand, and the scissors in the other. She was horrified, almost on the verge of tears. Not because I might have really hurt myself with the scissors but because I had ruined my long, very feminine hair. I always wanted to look like my uncles. I wanted to wear their clothes and would cry before leaving the house if I had to wear skirts and dresses and have my hair brushed and braided. I longed to wear baggy t-shirts, pants, puffer jackets, and button up shirts, crisp and white after being perfectly ironed. And that smell. That freshly ironed shirt smell.

My favourite pastime was watching my uncles get ready on Friday and Saturday nights. I stayed at my grandparent’s home most weekends. My stepdad really disliked that I didn’t have the same relationship with him as I did with my uncles. I just saw more of myself in them and none of myself in him.

When the weekends rolled around, it was all fixing cars during the day, hanging around with their friends in the backyard of my grandparent’s home while my grandmother cooked for us. They would sometimes tell me to get lost, but usually, if I was quiet, and didn’t ask too many questions, I was allowed to stay. I wanted to observe: how they sat, what they spoke about, the plans they would make for the approaching weekend. All of this was fascinating to me.

When my mum came to pick me up on Sunday evenings she would be so annoyed that I had new grazes on my knees, dirty fingernails, and unbrushed hair. I was wearing boy’s clothing and had tied my hair back very tightly into a bun so that from the front it looked like I had a crew cut. This was so offensive to my mother, and I didn’t understand what the big deal was. Hadn’t my dad wanted a boy anyway?

But back to my uncles. They had three-piece suits that they would wear on a night out. I absolutely loved these suits. They consisted of beautiful cotton pinstriped white shirts, and a grey or navy-blue jacket and pants. They were both the same size and cut fine figures in suits, so they would alternate.

My grandfather had suits too. They were a bit older though, from the 70s and 80s. He didn’t wear them much in the 90s because he was working so much he barely had any social time. I would go to his closet sometimes to look at the suits. I’d lay them out on the bed: the dark brown itchy fabric of the jackets, the green stitching perfectly patterned into squares. None of the men in my family were particularly tall, so I assumed that one day I would be able to pass. These suits had been in the closet so long they had taken on that familiar mothball smell. Right next to my grandfather’s suits were my grandmother’s dresses. They were so bright and shimmery, and I always had such a visceral reaction to them. They were too much.

My mother was obsessed with clothing. For as long as I can remember it was very important to her that I was dressed perfectly, no hair out of place, but always ‘like a girl’. Even wearing jeans provoked an disapproving look. But I loved jeans. I would tuck my Oshkosh B’gosh t-shirt into my Levis, pull on my red Converse sneakers and use the street out the front of my grandparent’s house as a runway. Mum was persistent. She kept buying skirts and gypsy-style lace tops, and my grandmother would make these little outfits for me when we had weddings to attend: at least three a month!

One time I asked my grandmother to make me a spearmint pantsuit that I’d seen on a model in a magazine. I thought because the model was a woman, she would love the idea. She didn’t. “That’s for older ladies”.

I was around twelve now and understood there were so many rules when it came to clothing. Surely one day I would just be able to wear whatever I wanted? For as long as I could remember, whether it was the story of my father’s suit when he came to the hospital, told so many times, my grandfather’s suits lined up in the closet like heirlooms tossed through time, or watching my uncles take such pride in their suits, I knew I wanted my own. There is something about a man’s suit that provokes a rite of passage. I know as women we don’t need adornments to signal rites of passage, and the miraculous geography of our bodies might not need added ceremony, but I still wanted a suit. I imagined myself in one all the time. Even when I wore dresses that were especially made for me, I would always walk and straighten my back like I’d seen my uncles do. I’d walk like I was in a suit.

L-R: Zendaya; Marlene Dietrich; Monica Bellucci

As I write this now, in 2021, there is absolutely no issue about wearing a pantsuit as a woman. I constantly wear trousers, slacks, jeans, and pants. I wear them all the time and I think they are beautiful. I have a couple of versions of the pantsuit. I have the oversized ‘statement’ pantsuit, that feels somewhat like a costume, I have the casual white linen pantsuit, meant for summer strolls—very European, and I have the figure-hugging Ralph Lauren black suit, which is my all-time favourite. I think past versions of myself in Ancient China, Mesopotamia, Greece and 18th Century England would have worn suits.

According to a book I have by Barbara Walker[1] the oldest pair of preserved trousers ever discovered were dated from between 1200 to 900 BC and were thought to have been worn by both male and female horse-riders. In the 1700s women like Hannah Snell donned trousers and took on secret identities so they could fight alongside men in battles. Much later, as many as 400 to 750 women wore trousers and posed as men to serve in the American Civil War. I love to envisage my ancient sisters wearing trousers.

Modern examples are congresswoman Charlotte T. Reid from Illinois, who caused a stir in 1969 when she became the first woman to wear trousers on the floor of the House; Katherine Hepburn, the first actress to wear trousers in a major motion picture; Mary Tyler Moore, who created a controversy wearing capri pants as Dick Van Dyke’s television wife Laura Petrie on The Dick Van Dyke Show. And now, we frequently see examples of women wearing pantsuits or ‘power suits’ as my friends and I like to call them. And unlike my grandmother’s statement, that these are ‘for older ladies’, apart from Meryl Streep and Helen Mirren, the pantsuit has also been co-opted by young, gender bending women. I am thinking of Monica Bellucci, Cher, Kendall Jenner, Zendaya.

I know we all create our preferences for things based on very early sense memories. A touch, a look, a smell, a blemish of abandonment. Certain clothing items set a mood and tone, and when I wear something, I take on the essence of that garment. A pair of flowing, loose-legged pants signal ease and comfort, legs raised to chin, head tilted in an I’m listening pose.

The suit has always carried a mixture of power and authority for me. A ‘manliness’ in the deepest, humblest, and most beautiful sensation of that word. Wearing a suit carries many memories: of men who have loved me, and men who have found it hard to love me but men who I have always loved. A suit is strong, tailored, closed in some places and open in others. Like a beautiful armour, pristine, poetically made yet protective of our most vital organs. I think as a woman, the choice to wear a suit is liberating. It allows us to tap into a masculinity that we might otherwise not fully understand.

[1] Walker, B. G. (1983). The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets.

 

Didem Caia is a Melbourne-based writer, dramaturge, theatre maker and arts leader, and a PhD candidate in the School of Media and Communications at RMIT. Currently making her first documentary NOBODY’S DAUGHTER with the support of Film Victoria, she is  a 2021 UN Global Voices Scholar, focusing on domestic violence education, and the recipient of the 2021 Melbourne Fringe Festival ‘New Voices’ Commission. Didem is a board member of celebrated literary journal Going Down Swinging.