Growing up in South Carolina, Mary Going hated the clothing her parents made her wear. They wanted girly skirts and dresses; she wanted anything boyish, settling for baggy shirts and cutoffs. As she got older, her desire for masculine items grew. She avoided corporate jobs in order to escape wearing dresses and pantyhose. After becoming a parent with her partner, Martha, she'd find herself staring at her closet before the kids' recitals, miserably contemplating her options. “Every time I had to dress up, it was like a panic attack,” Going says. “I would wait until the last minute, hate everything I had to wear, and end up wearing something that felt bad.”
When she and Martha married in 2008, Going knew something had to change. She commissioned a custom suit, and while expensive (it cost more than a month’s rent), she was stunned by how confident she felt in it. Once she realized it was possible to eliminate her fear of getting dressed, she knew she wanted others to experience that feeling. So, she took her business school background and began to develop a line of men’s clothing designed for women’s bodies. In 2012, she created a Kickstarter campaign to launch Saint Harridan (reclaiming a term for an "angry and unpleasant woman"), with the goal of producing luxurious men’s suits for women and trans men. The response was overwhelming: The brand hit its $87,000 goal in just eight days. Since then, the Oakland-based company has flourished. Saint Harridan has transformed into an online clothing store selling not just custom suits and shirts, but also American-made, ready-to-wear classics like vests and waistcoats. The Saint Harridan folks have become experts at the tricky task of tweaking masculine silhouettes to fit women’s bodies: making armholes smaller, discreetly adding more fabric on the sides to accommodate hips, and adding more fabric to the chest to fit breasts (while avoiding the dreaded boob gap). And although the bulk of its customers are lesbians, Saint Harridan's clothes are also popular with other women as well as trans men; the Saint Harridan store has even had cis men wander in, attracted by the curated collection of shirts, colorful bow ties, and dopp kits. While Saint Harridan's clothes mimic traditional men’s styles, Going said she’s not promoting one particular silhouette. Good fit, to her, is vital. "I want the person walking out of here feeling confident and loving how they look," she says. And that goal is resonating well with customers. Saint Harridan has shoppers from around the world, and Going receives gushing letters from people living under strict anti-gay laws: The company’s visibility makes them hopeful that things can change. Other excited customers talk about how confident they feel in their wedding suits. Going also receives letters from kids like her — girls or genderqueer kids whose parents won’t let them wear the clothes they want. Those kids are excited to grow up with a clothing brand that honors their style and how they present themselves to the world.
For these customers, Saint Harridan is more than a place to get clothes, and it's about more than shirtsleeves fitting perfectly; it’s about finally wearing clothes designed for your body that also reflect how you see yourself. For customers who were once barely tolerated in the men’s department and wore ill-fitting shirts from the boy’s section, Saint Harridan is a revelation. On Yelp, one customer wrote: “When I was a kid, I used to stare at the Sears catalog men's section. It was just a dream. This place makes that dream come true.” Going explains that her customers "had never been the expected customer” elsewhere. “Yes, tolerated — I've been to Nordstrom and been treated well. But to be expected? That's a whole other level of validation.” When she started the company, Going thought it might be frivolous to focus on fashion at the expense of other LGBTQ issues. But after seeing the impact clothes have made on her and her customers, she’s convinced of their importance. “When I had my suit made and I felt so different in it, I recognized I was limiting myself," she says. "As a social justice activist, I'm more effective because I'm more confident. I want to give people the tools to feel that change in their confidence.” Plus, when people are more visible with their clothing choices and gender expression, it forces the rest of the world to accept what Going already sees, which is that “there's this fake story out there: Men are like this, and women are like this. The more I'm out there dressed like a man, the more obvious it is that none of that is real.”