Image Credit: Isora Lithgow
I first came across the handmade custom binder company Shapeshifters when author V.E. Tirado tweeted about the “Hell Followed With Us” binder they commissioned, inspired by the remarkable novel by trans author Andrew Joseph White. Needless to say, the trans energy was strong.
When I began to explore Shapeshifters’ website, it was like a whole world opening up before me, one where endless accommodations are available to make binding easy, safe, comfortable, and fun for every body. Not only do they offer binders in larger sizes and a wider range of skin tones than I’d ever seen (in addition to gorgeously patterned and holographic fabrics), but by making a supremely wearable masterpiece from a fiercely trans book, it feels like Shapeshifters is expanding the idea of what’s possible within queer fandoms.
INTO spoke with Eli, Shapeshifters’ co-founder and maker, about their experience supporting trans people in this creative and tangible way for almost a decade. Eli—who is nonbinary and binds themself—shared their insights into the future of binding and the power of queer community.
The “Hell Followed With Us” binder you created is exquisite! Had you read the book when you received the commission? And what was it like working on the piece?
Thank you! I hadn’t read it when the commission came in; it’s been a while since I had the chance to sit down and read. Also, since the pregnancy, I’m kind of sensitive to transmasc body horror, so I’m still psyching myself up. I’m excited for it, though.
The piece itself was a blessedly meditative work. I spent a long time with the wings, drafting and cutting and sewing and cutting again. I wanted to layer the feathers to give it that plush 3D look and feel, with a pair of eyes just peeping out from under them. The machine went on its slowest speed, and I traced out each wing stitch by stitch.
Then I flipped over to the front, and the bloody black heart was an absolute catharsis. Some of the veins curled in different directions from draft to final stitch and I just let them go. It burst into something spontaneous and I had a lot of fun.
How has the Shapeshifters mission changed in the near decade since you first opened in 2014?
When we first started, our core message seemed rare at the time: we said that binding doesn’t have to hurt. If your binder hurts, it doesn’t fit.
This has become the norm. Now I see more and more young trans people saying things like “it hurt, so I tried a different brand”, or, “I can’t bind all the time, but I can some of the time”, or, “my surgeon told me I couldn’t bind or else he couldn’t do the surgery, so I found a different surgeon.” Statements like “of course it hurts, that’s just how transitioning works,” have become vanishingly rare.
We also said that a binder doesn’t have to be boring; that this garment can be a source of joy and stylistic self-expression. This one took longer to sink in! But over the years, more and more people have posted selfies wearing our products while expressing gender euphoria and trans joy. The pushback against colors and patterns is increasingly seen as reactionary, oppressive, and outdated.
Our mission to make binders that feel good and look good hasn’t changed. But it hits differently now that more and more trans people are openly and purposefully seeking to feel and look good.
Has the way you work changed?
By contrast, the way we work has changed a lot! We started as an Etsy store operated out of a Brooklyn living room we shared with two roommates and three cats. We moved the shop to Vermont, found a studio space, hired employees, started scaling up, and then the pandemic hit. Now we’re in a better-ventilated and more COVID-safe studio space, our employees work on staggered shifts so they’re not sharing air, and we’re keeping the scale small enough to survive the ongoing supply chain breakdowns.
How is the world (and your customer base) different from when you first started?
You know, there’s all the obvious bad stuff. The transphobic fascists are getting louder, more radicalized, and thoroughly distracted from their own class struggles by the effort to scapegoat us. We’re all tired, struggling, getting sick, and squeaking by.
But I see more and more people stepping up to help, too. We take care of each other, more and more capably as the years go by, and we have people ready to take care of us. The Shapeshifters customer base started in the realm of enthusiastic twenty-somethings treating themselves to a luxury product. Now we sell to parents of trans kids who want the best for their children; nonprofits supplying necessary garments to their clients in a range they can’t find anywhere else; friends and siblings and spouses getting a precious gift for the special people in their lives. My favorites are the ones I make for weddings.
With the increase in trans eggs being cracked during the pandemic, have you noticed a noticeable difference in the enquires?
There’s been a noticeable shift toward more fun patterns and bright colors! Lots of custom prints. I imagine more folks are dreaming about what they want instead of what they think will pass best.
What inspired you to begin selling a make-your-own-binder kit, and what’s the response been like?
We’re big believers in DIY up here in the backwoods. When you can’t get what you need, you make do with something homemade and ask your community for help. I’ve benefited so much from our rural queer skillshares (shout out to Out in the Open!) and I wanted to pay that forward. Anyone who learns how to make their own chest binder can become a community resource for other people learning to make, fit, and wear binders in their circles. And decentralized knowledge is lasting knowledge.
Plus, a lot of folks had been asking for our patterns! So the response has been wonderful. So many people are ready to make their own binders and make them perfect for themselves. I truly love to see it.
Your blog post about being pregnant and nonbinary, which discusses dissociation and binding while pregnant, is so beautifully written. We’re now about a year later; Is there anything you’d do differently, or continue to share about binding and body autonomy that you’ve carried with you since that experience?
Thank you! I spent a lot of time on it. My addendum, when it’s ready, is going to be about chestfeeding; perhaps unsurprisingly, I had a lot more dysphoria around that than I did around the entire pregnancy.
When I was ready to stop, binding was extremely helpful in slowly moving my body out of food-production mode. I gained a whole new appreciation for binders as a method of choosing how and when my body was going to directly nourish my child.
I love how supportive and inclusive the educational aspect of your website is. How much of your customer interactions feel like an intro to binding, or perhaps even to transness?
Honestly, less than 10%. We are rarely people’s first stop, since we’re on the higher-end side price-wise. But we did a lot of education at in-person events pre-COVID, especially at TIC in Burlington, and we covered a lot of Binding 101 and Trans 101 in those talks.
Your chest binding 101 list is incredible. I appreciated that you highlighted the many reasons that people bind, not all of them being tied to gender expression and dysphoria. Are there any questions you receive often that you wish was a fact more widely known?
A lot of people over the years have asked me if binding will make your chest sag. The fact is, time and age do that at such variable rates for all of us that it’s very hard to measure the effects of any kind of undergarment. Nobody’s funded that science yet.
But the most often-asked question I get is about measuring: how do you measure a part of the body that changes shape depending on your position? How do we measure something that shifts with our breath? Is it better to be lying down, standing up, wearing a sports bra? The answer here is annoyingly vague because the method is different for every body shape, so all I can say is: be generous. Measure a few different ways and take the largest number. It’s always easier to make the garment a bit big and then tailor it down.
There is no “normal” body, no standard body, no way for any garment to fit everyone. Size “medium” is a laughably inaccurate misnomer. When you need something to fit well, custom alterations are the only way for most people to do it.
Are there any specific complexities involved in making and selling binders that people wouldn’t know about?
Sourcing material has been my biggest trouble for the past ten years. Apparel is an industry of giants. If you can order fabric by the truckload, you can do anything. If you can order by the thousand-yard lot, you can do a lot of things. If you’re a microbusiness like us and you mostly have to order by the hundred-yard roll, you are generally limited to the castoffs and leftovers from the first two groups, or else some necessarily expensive small-scale producers.
We’ve been fortunate in just the last few years to have connected with a domestic supplier in Rhode Island who will sell us a half-lot at a time for our base fabric, and an eco-friendly supplier in Oregon who sells outer fabrics made from recycled plastic. But domestic fabric mills still source their raw material from overseas, so when the Suez Canal gets blocked, we see the hit in fabric production down the line. It’s a huge, tangled web of poorly-mapped supply chains, and there’s very little I can do from my sewing machine in Vermont to make sure everything we need gets to us on time.
As a disabled person who is constantly researching the accommodations available to get through daily life more comfortably, reading the levels of adaptation you encourage your customer to consider made me quite emotional. I loved reading this part in Autostraddle’s review of Shapeshifters: “Eli described a quick release side-zipper they’ve tested the shit out of so they know it doesn’t break and that they use on long drives and release themself when they can’t take another mile in the binder. They described how lowering the arm holes reduces that hand-numbing sensation. They can do various compression strengths, a binder made entirely of mesh for the summer so you don’t pass out, even custom full-length binders for folks with insulin pumps.”
It can be so overwhelming to not know what kind of everyday support is available when you are chronically ill or disabled, let alone questioning your gender or feeling uncomfortable in how your body presents it. Could you share some other potential modifications you’ve come up with, or adaptations that are available for people to consider when binding?
That Autostraddle review is up on our studio wall. I still tear up when I reread it.
We’ve done so many one-offs over the years for folks with their own specific needs. When people come to us saying, “I would love my binder if only it had (a cutout for my IVA port)(a zipper that went upside-down)(a particular armhole shape)”, we try to make it happen. One unexpectedly popular adaptation is to make one strap longer than the other; for folks with scoliosis or other reasons that one shoulder sits higher, this is a necessity.
What are some of the most fun commissioned projects, or most unique asks you’ve had from customers? (The Yuri!!! on Ice binder made me audibly squeal! I can’t stop thinking about how cool it is!)
There were two Yuri on Ice binders, actually! One for Yuri and one for Victor. I had a lot of feelings about those, about representation and queer joy and enabling the kind of cosplay that started me exploring my own gender, back in the day.
There is no “normal” body, no standard body, no way for any garment to fit everyone.Eli
I love every single hyper-specific commission, the more detailed the better. Hell Followed With Us. Jaime “Blue Beetle” Reyes. The Riddler, but a specific version of the Riddler, because he was written in a way that resonated with the client in one particular comic miniseries. But my favorite project was Double Trouble, from She-Ra and the Princesses of Power. A nonbinary shapeshifter character, voiced by a nonbinary actor, created by a nonbinary artist. Double Trouble wasn’t a commission; I made that binder because I wanted to, sized it for a model so I could get pictures, and then hung it on our shop rack as a showpiece when we went to events.
Then a customer came up, recognized the character immediately, tried it on, and it fit perfectly. Of course I sold it to them. I’ll make another someday.
With your binders, there seems to be a shift in how people wear them — you (and your customers, when sharing to social media) often photograph the stylish binders as outerwear. How did this progression happen?
This is honestly the facet of my work I might be the proudest of. When I bought my first binder, it was available in white, black, or ugly beige, and marketed as a “medical device” for men to hide under a button-down shirt.
When I made my first glittery binder, I felt so good about how it looked that I walked fifty blocks through Manhattan wearing it under an open button-down. It was a Liquid Metal, silver holo that caught the light and threw rainbows. That was in 2013. To my knowledge, nothing else like it existed in the world.
Ten years later and people have sent me Pride selfies featuring that same binder, reflecting sunlight and dazzling the camera. The binder has come out from under the shirt. And we’re not the only ones making binders in bright colors, patterns, and Pride stripes anymore. It might’ve happened without us, but I like to think that Shapeshifters pushing the envelope made the rest of the binder-making field aware that the demand is out there.
Do you have a vision for what you hope binders will look like in the next few years?
I have said for years that I want people to look at binders the way they look at shoes. People need shoes. Some people just want to wear plain black work boots forever. Other people want red glittery stiletto heels or vintage spats or rainbow sandals. All of these options are fine. Nobody needs to judge anybody else about what kind of shoes they wear, or for what reasons. But if anybody gets a pair of shoes that don’t fit, they can do real and lasting damage to their bodies, so we all need a lot of sizing options.
What does the future of binding look like? Do you feel that it’s tied to the safety of being trans?
Not particularly. Trans people will be safe or unsafe depending on the current rise of fascism and how it all plays out over the next ten years. The availability of a specific undergarment, while important for some individual transmasc peoples’ safety and survival, is not going to sway the larger picture that much.
When I peer into the future, I see some grim possibilities. Maybe the global petrochemical supply chain will collapse and spandex will cease to be an available resource. Maybe the fash will win across the board, and it will become illegal to sell a chest binder in 31 states. Maybe the US postal system will fall apart and online businesses based in the USA will triple our shipping costs. A lot could go wrong. The big pictures are hard to look at.
That’s another reason we’re making and selling the Make-Your-Own kits. I hope the future of binding is a decentralized one, in which a lot of tailors and sewists across the world have the ability to make and fit the garments some of us need to live good lives. This is maybe a Vermonter’s answer, but I’ll always root for the small community of close-knit queers saving each other from the world.
In an ideal world, what would that look like?
Well, if we’re dreaming! I want binders to be part of a larger movement of sustainable fashion, one which focuses on well-tailored garments that last. Being trendy or getting into mainstream retail is the road to fast fashion, and nobody needs more of that. Give me a tailor in every neighborhood, a local fitter connected to every LGBTQ+ community center. Teach the gay kids the trades! I’d love to teach classes. Somebody open up a queer trade school.
What’s a big dream for your business (or the binding movement) that you’re hoping to achieve?
Seriously, where’s the queer trade school. Let’s teach each other what we know. If somebody wants to start that up with me, hit me up.♦
You can order your own custom Shapeshifter binders, view their holographic collections, or contact Eli about the queer trade school here: https://shapeshifters.co/