Hello, kitten: The allure of 1930s Parisian lesbian style

When I first saw the film Amelie, I must have played back the scene five times.

The title character has found a tin box of childhood treasures hidden behind a tile in her bathroom, and has embarked on a journey to find its owner – surely now a grown man with children of his own, if he still lives. Along the way, Amelie – shy, doe-like Amelie – tracks down the box’ owner in every place he is presumed to have lived. She buzzes an apartment in Paris, asks for the man. She gets no answer beyond an opening “Hello?” and heads up to the apartment. When she gets to the hallway, she sees a willowy woman leaning in the doorway of the apartment. She’s dressed in a beautiful suit. She’s smoking a cigarette. The marcel waves in her hair are deliberate and a touch wild.

Hello, kitten.

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Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, a blues singer in 1920s Harlem, wore a suit very, very well.

Between the basso profundo of the woman’s voice, the languid lines of her suit and the smoke curving up like a lascivious question mark, well, I was smitten. No. That’s not true. Smitten is too dignified for what I felt. All the warmth in my body gathered in my pelvis.

Thus began my admiration for 1930s Parisian lesbian fashion. Thus began my love of a woman in a well-fitting but decidedly masculine suit. I’ve loved butch women as long as I can remember. When I was maybe 12 or 13, my parents pulled into a gas station to fill up the tank as we returned to Clear Lake City, Texas from a trip. We pulled in behind a small car occupied by two women. When they got out to stretch their legs and filled up their tank, I noticed their hair and there clothes – gym-ready shorts and T-shirts. One of the women was powerfully built.

“Lesbian!”

My mother said it the way some people said “cancer.”

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This suit was designed for a woman, but employs what we now call “boot” cut leg and straight lines of a tailored men’s suit.

I didn’t say it out loud, but I admired their boyishness. They carried themselves as if they could spring into action at any moment. Like a guy.

A suit doesn’t say action, exactly. Not the physical sort. But a suit says function, ease and a little style and respect for occasion. And a woman in a suit? The lines draw attention to the face, a certain set to the jaw line, and the eyes. A suit says confidence, forward motion and independence. (Conversely, the women’s apparel of 1930s Paris suggested restriction, restraint and a need for a strong arm to brace against when boarding a train.)

And the woman in the suit? She’s transgressing. Associating with masculine independence, intellect and agency. Her body is an instrument of her own will, rather than an object to be acted upon.

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‘Hello, kitten.’ This Parisian woman in the 1930s looks to have donned a man’s suit, tie, vest and shoes.

Most of all, the Parisian suit of the 1930s exaggerated the actual strength and vigor of a woman’s body, without compromising its softness. Would I try a suit today? Sure, if the proportions were flattering. But really, I’d rather be the kitten. The favorite pet of a lady in long lines and structured angles.

Meow indeed.

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