| Arts & Culture
Queer Life This Green Velvet Jacket Helped Me Understand My Nonbinary Identity
It’s about being able to say, oh, gender? It’s no big deal. I just threw this gender on today.
He sits at the kitchen table. His sister, after ruining two dishes to the point of being inedible, declares they have no more food in the house and have cashed all the checks, so she is going to call Papa. But the telephone line is dead, of course; the three teenagers living alone in Paris have been living luxuriously, irresponsibly, and have run completely out of money. They have descended into a glamorous decay.
The boy lights a cigarette, his stoic, angular face centered in the frame. He is completely naked, save for a green velvet jacket—the plush material catches the light, there is a tuft of dark pubic hair, a curl of smoke from his lips. He tugs the jacket around himself and walks through the house, out to the courtyard below. As he leans over to pick edible items from the garbage, the jacket rises over his long, thin legs just slightly, just enough.
This is the jacket that haunts me.
At sixteen, Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers was the first NC-17 film I’d ever seen. I was a budding bisexual at a boarding school, hopelessly devoted to a girl who was leagues more mature and sexually experienced than I was—isn’t that always the case? She had already gone to see the film and so I, naturally, had to see it as well, in some kind of quest to prove to her that not only was I interested in the same things she was interested in, but also that I could be as open and articulate about sex as she could be.
It was because of this girl that I came out as queer. It was because of this girl that I became interested in a lot of things that are still with me to this day. But it was also because of her that I began to really explore the expression of my sexuality. She dubbed herself a ‘porn connoisseur’ (we were sixteen, fuck off), which was the first time I experienced a safe place to talk about my interest in porn and sexuality. Still, I was painfully shy, and still only just learning about what I wanted. She had a blog detailing her sexual exploits, which became the foundation for my understanding of sex writing, which later evolved into my own fanfiction and other creative writing pursuits. (*gestures vaguely to this very essay*)
And, of course, there was The Dreamers .
The Dreamers was everything I wanted, everything I still want. Starring Louis Garrell and Eva Green as French twins/chaos agents Théo and Isabelle, and Michael Pitt as their American friend Matthew, the film’s air of intelligentsia appealed to the part of me that wanted to be recognized as artistic and cultured.
It centers three characters who loved Film so much they sat at the front of the Cinémathèque Française (a place I later visited during my time in Paris, because of course I did) so that they would be the first to take in the images projected onto the screen. The dialogue between Théo and Matthew is prone to bouts of argument over the merits of Hendrix versus Clapton, or Chaplin and Keaton. They reenact scenes of famous films like Breathless and Queen Christina , including the pivotal bonding moment in which they run through the Louvre, trying to beat the record set in Godard’s Band of Outsiders . In fact, when Matthew first meets the alluring Isabelle, she is chained to the gates of the Cinémathèque, protesting its closure.
It strikes me now, as an adult, that while Isabelle is shown being just as enthusiastic about film as her brother, it is Théo that argues theory with their new American friend. He is the one who attends classes and engages in intellectual pursuits. Isabelle’s power is in being alluring, and interrupting the boy’s arguments with their favorite game—“What Film?”—a game that eventually leads to Isabelle and Matthew making love on the kitchen floor while Théo makes eggs on the other side of the kitchen table.
Isabelle is, as women often are in film, the emotional and sexual center. In a behind-the-scenes feature, Bertolucci calls her “the obscure object of desire.” While Matthew acts as audience surrogate in his role as the American who enters into this relationship, naïve and reluctant to participate in their games, quick to point out the wrongness of it all, Isabelle’s coy sensuality is the conduit for the trouble they get into. It is she who invites Matthew to run through the Louvre, she who demands her brother masturbate in front of them after losing his round of “What Film?”, which in turn leads to the kitchen floor lovemaking. She is our siren, our seductress. This is due in no small part to Eva Green’s Eva Green-ness. You know what I mean.
So where does that leave Théo? He is our stoic, aloof intellectual. Théo is never shaken or bothered by anything (as evidenced most precisely by his frying an egg while his sister loses her virginity on the floor beside him). We never see him get outwardly jealous. The most emotional we see him, besides his passionate ravings about Chaplin, is when he tells Matthew: “Let’s get one thing straight. You’re a nice boy and I like you a lot. But no, it wasn’t always meant to be the three of us.”
It might seem obvious now why I might be drawn to Théo. He is too cool for school, the epitome of a masculinity that is untouchable and Very European, with the cigarette constantly hanging between his pouty lips. To me, this is encapsulated by the velvet jacket scene—where his sister has burnt things, and Matthew is helpless, Théo and his cigarette and his green jacket get things together in the most nonchalant way. He is unbothered by their lack of food, the way things have fallen into disarray. He is unbothered by dumpster diving. But most of all, he is unbothered by his own nakedness and the displays of sexuality happening around him. It’s as if he is there to remind the audience: “What, this? It’s no big deal. It’s just sex.”
I longed to be that cool, that comfortable both with my sexuality and my body. But the confidence I craved was undeniably masculine, the type of confidence I saw on screen in Théo.
Still from ‘The Dreamers’ (2003)/Recorded Picture Company
I realized early that my gender was prone to fluctuation. By sixteen I was already moving through life as a nonbinary person, though I wouldn’t have the right language to describe myself until I was in my twenties. Womanhood and femininity are varied experiences, and that opposition to being seen as feminine can be rooted in internalized misogyny. But my aversion to being called a woman or having traditional aspects of femininity imposed upon me by outside forces went deeper than that. They had been present ever since I was a child: I wanted others to know that I wasn’t just a girl who was capable of more, but that I was a boy, too. Without knowing how to describe it, I always wanted to be both. I was always both.
As a teen, I used theater as a way to explore playing with gender presentation, and played masculine roles when I could, though I was often prevented from doing so by my directors. (I’m still mad about being told I couldn’t play Don John in our production of Much Ado About Nothing ). Costuming was always a way into this exclusive club of manhood. Perhaps, if I could look right enough for the part, I would finally be given it.
I started to save images of the type of men I’d like to look like so I could copy their style. Among these male style icons were Diego Luna, Brendon Urie, and Louis Garrel. Somewhere along this journey I started looking for The Jacket. Not exactly that one, which I’m sure is hanging out in some film costume warehouse somewhere, smelling of cigarette smoke and Louis Garrel’s sweat.
But whenever it’s the right season for velvet clothing, I go on a hunt for a plush, luxurious, dark green jacket like the one Garrel wore in The Dreamers . Beyond it being just a fucking good jacket, it feels like the cherry on top of the gender-inclusive wardrobe I’ve already built. But I can never seem to find the perfect thing. My options are either nonexistent, don’t fit right, or are out of my price range (calling all potential Glucose Guardians). It’s been years that I’ve been searching for this jacket, having given up several times and scoured the internet for many hours. The jacket remains elusive.
Perhaps, if I could look right enough for the part, I would finally be given it.
The truth of it is masculinity is elusive. And I’ve always had issues with dressing the boy of me. Having physical and visual indicators of my gender is a dream inhibited by these Oscar-Isaac-ethnic-hips, this bumpy meat suit I’ve been tasked with lugging around that refuses to change when I need it to, no matter how hard I try. All of it is just rude, frankly, and gender is hard.
Of course, masculinity isn’t about one specific body type. Just because jackets from the men’s section don’t fit over my hips doesn’t mean I’m not a man. My gender filed for divorce from my body a long time ago, and in my thirties, I struggle much less with body image than I used to. But the fashion industry at large still exists on a gendered binary, one that links presentation to the body. For those of us who don’t function along the binary, this can be an added level of frustration, another way this world wants to deny our existence.
It’s easy to say that clothes don’t have a gender. It’s not so easy to be constantly inundated with images and products that say the opposite. The reality is that, at one point, I have to purchase something that isn’t a potato sack (shout out to H&M’s bizarre “gender neutral” collection that was just basically sweatshirts), and finding things that are gender-affirming is a real needle/haystack situation. It does make me feel like shit. It makes me feel stuck, like I’ve got to shove myself into a category that isn’t accurate or comfortable.
And so the world says unto me: fuck you, be a girl or be nothing. Be a girl, or be naked and stay inside where we can’t see you. Be the thing that we told you to be.
The thing I actually am is unavailable.
I can follow men I admire on Instagram and search for where they shop. I can ask my male friends to help. I can tailor every single piece I purchase. I can find indie designers that cater to nonbinary clientele. But the fact remains that occupying this in-between space, this sometimes-but-not-always, this sliding gender scale, means that I will never quite get there. I am left wanting to be the Boy, but never quite being able to get there.
When I was twenty-six, the first brick-and-mortar space for Trunk Club opened on Madison Avenue in Midtown Manhattan, around the corner from the place I was working at the time. I scheduled an appointment for nine o’clock and went specifically to work with a stylist who could help me find masculine clothes. I sent a few images of what I was going for, including an image of Louis Garrel in The Jacket. The first thing the stylist said to me was, “Yeah, I wasn’t expecting you to be so curvy. You could do this if you looked more like Alexa Chung.”
I don’t imagine, should I find this jacket and put it on, that I’ll suddenly see Louis Garrel’s face in the mirror, or that I’ll suddenly become this aloof, intellectual, cinema-obsessed Parisian fuckboy with a cigarette constantly dangling between my lips. I don’t imagine that this jacket is the thing that will signal my masculinity to the world, that I’ll suddenly be allowed into some exclusive club and accepted as One Of The Boys like I’ve always dreamed of. I don’t imagine that attractive girls will come to touch the soft velvet of this jacket—okay, fine, sometimes I do imagine that.
Finding this jacket isn’t proving my masculinity to anyone else.
But it is about reaching back to a version of me that felt lost and confused in their body, that couldn’t understand why nothing seemed to fit right and didn’t have the words to describe why being called a girl made them cringe. It is about finding something that will make me feel confident in the masculinity that fits me, a Boy that I can slide over my shoulders with ease. It’s about being able to say, oh, gender? It’s no big deal. I just threw this gender on today. I sit naked at the dinner table wearing only this gender. I wore this to grab something out of the dumpster outside.
It’s about being able to say, oh, gender? It’s no big deal. I just threw this gender on today.
Unless Louis Garrel sees this and has The Jacket lying around somewhere amongst the Dior in what I imagine is his expertly decorated Parisian apartment, I’m stuck with the almost-not-quite version. I am fine with that, for the most part. I’ve found other ways to be the kind of man I want to be. But also, does anyone know the costume designer?