Navigating the rampantly gendered world of lingerie as a transgender person is a special kind of hell. Our bodies tend to be outside the assumed norm, so finding pieces that fit well, look good, and match our gender expression ideal can seem downright impossible. However, there are trans-friendly lingerie designers and retailers out there, and they're carving a space in the market for themselves, and for the trans people they cater to.
Rachel Hill is the triple-threat of owner, designer, and manufacturer at Origami Customs, a shop which produces custom-fitted, handmade clothing. She tells Bustle that when she opened Origami Customs, trans folks in her community embraced the shop.
"Trans people were part of my community and so more and more frequently my friends started coming to me asking if I could alter their current clothing or create something that would work for their anatomy," she says. "I realize there's a huge group of people [who are] being underserved, not only because things like gaffs and packing harnesses [aren't] common, but also the people who are making them [offer] a very limited size range."
All of Origami Customs' pieces are made by Hill, and she takes individual measurements and preferences into account for each item. It's a laborious process, but one Hill says is worth it to ensure her clients look and feel good. If a customer wants a piece which isn't one of the several dozen designs available in Hill's shop, she sits down with them to work the details out exactly.
Custom Bamboo Crossover Strappy Hipster Panties Underwear, $46, origamicustoms.com
"Often it comes from a place of customer need, how something needs to make you feel, or how a piece can make you feel empowered and sexy," she says. "Sexy looks very different for everyone, so I'm always being pushed touside my comfort zone by my customers. I'll usually work with a client for a week or so to go back and forth with sketches. [...] After that I spend a few weeks prototyping, gathering fabrics and materials, and making sure I know the best techniques for the technical needs."
Her process equals a wait time of about three to four weeks, though actual sewing time can range anywhere from half an hour to four hours. And if a customer receives a piece they're unhappy with, "They get reimbursed for any tailoring they want to have done locally [...] to make sure it has a perfect fit," Hill says.
Along with offering custom pieces to fit any body (all Hill's pieces are "any size" as well!), Origami Customs has trans-specific products like packing harnesses. "I met my partner Erik, who is a trans man, nearly three years ago," Hill explains. "He had all these very specific plans for packing harnesses that would work with his [stand-to-pee device] but hadn't been able to create them. [...] We prototyped it, and [...] that led to the development of the packing briefs with the integrated STP harness."
Fran Dunaway is one of the founders of TomboyX, another brand created specifically for the LGBTQ community. When TomboyX got its start, she and her partner Naomi Gonzalez wanted to be inclusive of everyone.
"We [...] are delighted that the transgender community is a fan," she tells Bustle. "We applaud the bravery and candor of a community that faces many challenges in our society. We are tired of all the divisiveness and want there to be a #humanagenda that is about just being who you are, from the inside out."
TomboyX offers products like 6" fly boxer briefs, which may not seem like lingerie, but for people who prefer less lace and straps, are perfect. And TomboyX's are buttoned snugly in the front, saving people who are assigned-female-at-birth from dealing with baggy fabric.
Kali Triangle Bra, $50, bluestockingsboutique.com
Boxer briefs are just one style of the underwear TomboyX is now known for. But underwear weren't always on their list of offerings. "We didn't start with underwear, we started with shirts," Dunaway says. "[O]ur customers started telling us we should make boxer briefs for women and gender-nonconforming people. We evaluated the business opportunity and recognized a real unmet need. Then our friend, Carma, brought in a stack of men's [underwear] and told us what she loved and didn't love about them. We took notes and went for it."
Dunaway adds that just two weeks after underwear went up on TomboyX's site in fall 2014, they were totally sold out. TomboyX now offers several styles of underwear, as well as bras. And fans can expect more, Dunaway tells Bustle, saying, "We will be introducing lots of fun new styles and products over the next few months."
Jeanna Kadlec, who owns and operates Bluestockings Boutique, a retailer she founded specifically to supply lingerie to the LGBTQ community, says that leaving trans people behind in her business practices just wasn't an option.
"To be blunt, I think saying Bluestockings was LGBTQIA+ friendly without accounting for trans and genderqueer experiences at all would be pretty transphobic," she says.
Kadlec curates a lineup of lingerie from various companies, including Origami Customs, Tia Lyn, Clo Intimo, and Toru & Naoko. She says several of the designers she works with are queer, bi, or lesbian-identified.
4.5" Trunks, $30, tomboyx.com
Kadlec adds that she's gotten negative feedback from some members of the trans community, who felt what she stocked wasn't representative of them. "[S]o I'm hesitant to say 'Yes, Bluestockings is 100% trans-inclusive!'" she explains. "What I can say is that I make an honest effort. All packaging is discrete, because not everyone is in a safe situation. All bottoms have transfeminine fit notes. There are trans models on the site."
Kadlec continues, "I know Bluestockings doesn't offer a perfect experience — for example, trans folks are systematically socioeconomically disadvantaged, and ethically made underthings obviously cost a lot more than what you can get at Target. There are always trade-offs in running a business, but at the end of the day, I believe that doing something is better than doing nothing because it can't be perfect."
All of Bluestockings' inventory is warehoused by Kadlec, so her cashflow is wrapped up in physical product. Though she walks a razor revenue line, Kadlec still offers discounts to students and to sex workers.
"For sex workers, lingerie is a business expense," she tells Bustle. "Honestly, it just made sense to offer a discount for folks who are frequent buyers, and as someone invested in inclusivity, I wanted my customers who are sex workers to know that I see them, value them, and respect the way their work supports this industry. The feedback from my customers who are sex workers has been overwhelmingly positive."
Hill, at Origami Customs, does what she can to soften the socioeconomic impact on trans folks. "In my community in Montreal, I barter and gift for about half of all my goods," she says. "I wanted to extend that further and offer more options for people who can't afford my work. The more I hear stories about gender-nonconforming people having a hard time getting work or struggling to get things like healthcare, I realize that it is not an even playing field."
Custom Genderqueer/Trans/MTF Gaff Swim Bottoms, $50, origamicustoms.com
She adds, "Buying a $30 pair of underwear is just not a financial reality for many gender diverse people. [...] For a trans woman in a job interview, a good gaff can mean the difference between getting a job and not. I've had a customer tell me the only reason tey felt comfortable coming out as trans to their family is that they had the right underwear in that moment. [These] pieces have the ability to affirm someone's gender identity. I want to make sure that diverse people get the basic undergarments they need to feel comfortable and affirmed."
Hill offers a bursary program, which she says she's expanding to reach gender-diverse youth. She also works with local organizations, including Positive Space Network, and is planning events for the coming year.
When the constant onslaught of cisgender-centric lingerie becomes too much, it's worth remembering that folks like Hill, Dunaway, and Kadlec are out there, helping to make the world a more inclusive place for trans people, one piece and one design at a time.
Images: Courtesy Brands