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I always heard or read stories about people fighting against the gender construct, transcending binary norms, and subverting conventional gender expression—transfiguring these categories themselves to create their own identities.
I never would’ve believed that I would later become one of these stories.
When it came to identity, I was definitely a lost child. I didn’t know a lot about the world and struggled to find an image to relate to.
I was always more masculine in behavior; I didn’t like dresses, dolls, or pink, and I always liked physical activities. But I hesitated in calling myself a tomboy because, unlike what the stereotype suggested, I didn’t play any sports and most of my friends were girls. Here I was suspended between two opposing binaries—feeling the pressure to cleave myself devoutly to one standard, fully rejecting the other—and here I remained for most of my childhood: frozen by the looming expectation that boys should dress and act like boys and girls should do the same with their gender.
No one in my family had any sort of influence on my natural attraction toward menswear. My parents actually tried to steer me in the opposite direction, if anything—always putting me in dresses and taking me to the girl’s department to shop. My father rarely wore suits. When he would, it was obvious that he didn’t enjoy it. Every time he came home, he’d toss his jacket on the couch and trade in his shirt and trousers for a t-shirt and shorts.
My desire to wear more masculine clothing grew just as fast as I did. My mother tried supporting my interest, letting me shop in the boy’s section for a while. I bought a lot of clothing from Shaun White’s line at Target. But when I hit puberty, the clothes weren’t fitting anymore, and I was lost again. I stuck mainly to jeans, t-shirts, and oversized jackets for most of my teenage years.
Formalwear was the biggest issue. I didn’t enjoy wearing dresses, but I could never find anything else that matched the formality of the occasion and fit me. My parents just believed I was being stubborn, but it was really taxing on my self-esteem. I was uncomfortable with myself, and the feminine clothes just perpetuated this discomfort.
My interest in suiting really transpired after I discovered Ellen Page and read her stories on her struggle to find her place in a binary world. I connected with her sentiments of self-expression and self-image—of wanting to dress in masculine clothing despite looking rather feminine.
She was the first woman to ever wear a suit the way I wanted to. Most of the suits I’d seen women wear before her were feminized (short jackets, stretchy fabrics, made to accentuate the feminine shape) and department-style men’s suits never fit quite right on women.
When Ellen Page first appeared at the Vanity Fair after-party, she wore a straight-cut Saint Laurent tuxedo jacket with a white dress shirt, black tie, black pants, and black boots. Her whole silhouette was very androgynous; there was a perfect balance between feminine and masculine which made for a very powerful image. She has continued with this same style for every red carpet appearance since then.
Two years ago, I found one custom suiting brand based in Los Angeles purely by chance, and it really opened my mind to the possibilities of bespoke tailoring. I discovered that I could actually have clothes that looked and fit the way I wanted them to.
I reached out to the tailor, Malcolm Alexander, offering my service if he ever needed any help in his showroom. I was given a position as an intern a week later. On the first day, he asked me, “You’re a girl…why do you like suits?”
I honestly didn’t know how to answer. I couldn’t say why; I didn’t even really understand why he was asking such a blunt question. Then I realized just how rare it is to meet girls who are interested in menswear, let alone custom suiting.
I ended up responding with, “I don’t know…I just don’t like dresses.”
Months later in the internship, while Malcolm was out of town, he let me cover his appointments. I was truly astonished by the trust these people—these complete strangers—had in me to help them create a perfect image. Before this moment, I didn't care for the client aspect of the trade. I just liked the clothing. But after connecting with these clients’ visceral experiences and remembering how comfortable I felt in my first suit, I realized the sheer power of clothing as a forefront to self-image.
Malcolm died unexpectedly this summer. He was only 30 years old. While reminiscing about all the memories I created with him, I returned to the question he asked me the first day: “Why do you like suits…you’re a girl?”
I realized that I like suits because of how they make me feel when I wear them; I’m finally comfortable with myself—physically and emotionally. Suiting remedied the overwhelming insecurities and negative social pressures that dominated my childhood. In embracing masculine clothing. I’ve freed myself from the enduring pressure I felt to adhere to feminine standards.
When distilled to its essence, I like suiting because of how it makes me feel, regardless of the gender its intended for. Suiting’s gender association with men doesn’t bother me at all. And I actually prefer the masculine energy associated with it because it balances out my feminine characteristics, making for a truly androgynous image.
Bespoke, specifically, is a symbol of individuality for me. It exists independently with each person, never cleaving to a certain type. It accepts all people, allowing them to create whatever they want, regardless of what body type or style they have.
Truthfully, I used to not understand fashion or even like it; being a tomboy I thought fashion was vapid, but now I find myself appreciating it—enjoying it even—because I’ve learned how to reflect my personality through dress.
The biggest challenge for me wasn’t discovering who I was—that part came naturally—but rather communicating sentiments as basic and fundamental as, “this is who I am, this is how I see myself, and this is how I want you to see me.” Discovering the bespoke world changed everything for me. As a naturally shy person, clothing design helps me share who I am without having to speak. Measuring and fitting for my natural female figure while including overtly masculine garment specifications create androgynous silhouettes that reflect my fondness of suits for their form, not their intended gender association.
If I were to describe my personal style with one word, it would be “gentleman.” It consists of a mix between Italian, British, and American styles, but the underlying theme with my image is tailored masculine elegance. I try to make my garments look as close to traditional men’s suits as possible and try not to “feminize” them in any way.
I’ve noticed a great deal of personal growth since discovering the bespoke world. The difference in my self-esteem is immense; choosing suits as my style of dress is a source of confidence for me, without question.
Finding my personal style has definitely been a journey, but I’m right where I want to be—open and unfettered.
I have Malcolm to thank for everything I know about clothing. I don’t think he ever knew just how much of an impact he had on me. He was really the one who gave me the gift of self-confidence when I needed it the most. I definitely wouldn’t be where I am today if I hadn’t ever met him.
I dress well because I believe that all people are unique gifts that deserve to be presented to the world in the most beautiful packaging.
I don’t hate dresses; I think they look rather beautiful on other people. They just don’t accurately reflect my personality, and there shouldn’t be anything wrong with that.
I’d like for people to support women who want to wear masculine clothing; allow women to feel strong and confident about themselves and support them in their desire to express themselves honestly.
Masculinity and femininity in the clothing industry are purely aesthetic and shouldn’t be characterized as attributes of power or fragility.
We’re not trying to hurt, threaten, or offend anyone in dressing masculinely; we’re just trying to find some reassurance in a world of self-doubt.
I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to share my story with a New York-based custom suiting brand. After purchasing a Cherrywood flannel suit from Articles of Style, I was offered the opportunity to be featured in their online editorial series. I’d love for you to check out the article, as well as their website.
One of the owners of Articles of Style, Dan Trepanier, tells people that my article is one of the most interesting and important articles he's ever written.
"I never thought, in a million years, that one day I would be dressing high school girls.
That’s because I couldn’t have foreseen the market shifts ahead of me, and frankly didn’t understand the changing complexities of body image and gender stereotypes in our modern culture.
Indeed times are changing, which was highlighted recently when we made a Cherrywood Flannel Suit (one of our all-time best sellers) for a client unlike any other.
Dominique 'Nikki' Ziehl is a high school senior in Los Angeles California. She’s only 5’2″ but she is, without question, one of the most interesting people I’ve had the opportunity to write about.
I think her words alone highlight the universality, and significance, of the service of tailoring" (Dan Trepanier Articles of Style Editorial Article).
I'm so happy that I've been such a positive shock to Dan and his company.
I've gotten so many positive comments on the editorial article, and I'm extremely glad that sharing my story has been inspiring for so many people who share my same sentiments.
The tides are changing for people in America, and we are on the cusp of a positive shift toward a truly independent, and unfettered expression of gender identity.
Thank you so much for reading.
Look me up on Instagram for more fashion. 😘