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Coat Check

Coat Check: Checking in with Emme Lund

Hey Coat Checkers. Welcome back. I’m home now, this dispatch is not from the back of a van but from the warm comfort of my apartment. Really excited to share this week’s conversation with you. I spoke with writer Emme Lund (@emme_lund on Twitter) about fashion, and the conversation went into some unexpected and really beautiful places. 

Emme Lund is an author living and writing in Portland, Oregon. She has an MFA from Mills College. Her work has appeared in Electric Literature, Time, The Rumpus, Paper Darts, and many more. In 2019, she was awarded an Oregon Literary Arts Fellowship in Fiction. The Boy with a Bird in His Chest is her first novel.

When you think about yourself as a trans person, what is your relationship to jackets?

First I’ll say that my relationship to fashion is very present. I was thinking about this morning, just in general with my fashion and in regards to my gender and my presentation. And I think that it is, in some ways, the most affirming part of my gender and was like one of—and probably for many trans people—the first ways into my transness. I was not the type of trans woman who wore pearls as a five-year-old or put on my mom’s lipstick and understood who I was. I didn’t come out until later in life. But it was through fashion, through putting on a dress as a 23-year-old and feeling good. I was gender non-conforming for a long time, which meant that I wore lace bras, I wore fishnets, I wore makeup and nail polish. And all of those things felt very gender-affirming to me. And I think that jackets were sort of the last thing to catch up. For years, especially the first year or so of my transition, I kind of took anything I found that was gender-affirming. My sisters gave me a bunch of clothes, I had friends give me old clothes, people were just like, Oh, this is you, I see you, here’s a bunch of my old clothes you can have, and if something fit, I wore it. It’s very similar to when you’re when many of us were going through puberty the first time. I felt like I was just trying to find some sense of style.

Probably a year or year and a half into my transition, I was like, I don’t feel good wearing some of these, I’m just wearing them and they don’t feel like me still, even though they’re femme. I started to zero in more on my style. And at that point, I was like, I need better coats. I don’t have good jackets, you know? Sometimes I would put on a good outfit, and then I’d throw my jacket on and be like, well, that just ruins the whole thing. I would get inside and take the jacket off as soon as I can. So it’s really been within the last two years or so that I’ve been really focused on jackets and finding the right ones that make me feel good, that go with my style. And I found a few I like in thrift shops. So it’s a much longer process. Like, I want to go and scour Value Village and Goodwill and thrift store racks until I find the right one.

I was gender non-conforming for a long time, which meant that I wore lace bras, I wore fishnets, I wore makeup and nail polish. And all of those things felt very gender-affirming to me. And I think that jackets were sort of the last thing to catch up.

It’s interesting, right? A jacket is such a utilitarian thing. When I first transitioned it was like, everything is utilitarian, none of this is aesthetic. None of this is an active decision I’m making in my presentation. And it’s interesting how that changes over time. Everybody I speak to, tells me the same thing, that the jacket for whatever reason is always the last thing that people figure out. Does that feel almost like a next evolution and or step toward “this is who I am, this is how I’m presenting, this is my personal style.” Does it feel like you’re turning the corner there?

Yeah, absolutely. In some ways, I do the thing where I set new goalposts for myself, and I’m always like, oh, I’ll feel complete when this happens, when I’m finished with this when I get this item. And I feel like once I started finding the right jackets that fit with my style, my sense of fashion or my sense of style felt complete, or at least feels complete when I leave the house.

I live in Portland, Oregon, where it is very rainy all the time. So I think that was a big thing for me too, I always would just put on a rain jacket, which I mean, unless you have $500 there are not cute rain jackets, it’s a hard thing to find. And I eventually just decided to start carrying an umbrella, which is not something people in Portland do. But it has completely opened up what jackets I can wear. Because I don’t have to worry. I have a leather jacket I bought recently that I love and I can’t wear it in the rain, but I can wear it under an umbrella in the rain. But I do feel like, because jackets were my last item to really fill in, once I started wearing jackets that fit right, that felt right, it was nice to leave the house feeling good, to walk into a building feeling good, to walk into a friend’s house feeling good and not feeling rushed to take off a coat.

You just like, suffer through the heat and wear the jacket inside. Because you’re like, “literally just look at this. Look how great this all looks together.”

I think I mix a little bit of both. I’ll leave it on longer than I need to. I do take it off. I’m not a leather jacket at the dinner table type of girl.

Do you have a favorite jacket right now?

My favorite currently is a leather jacket I bought just like three weeks ago that I found for $10 that fits perfectly.

Isn’t that such a rare thing? I struggle with it because I’m 6’2” and I’m pretty broad-shouldered and I struggle sometimes finding jackets that I like that fit me. From what I see online, you have such a really good, strong sense of fashion. I’m honestly jealous of your fashion sense. You seem like you really like to put thought into this is my fashion and this is how I want things to go together. So it must be hard to find thrift items that fit the aesthetic.

Yeah, fashion is important to me. Even when I was a teenager and struggling with who I was and what I was, I liked fashion even then, and it was sort of that kind of goth-punk sort of indie aesthetic that carried me through. I loved to go thrifting back then and just find weird shit that like, no one else is going to have this because I’ve found it at Value Village for $4 and I’ve never seen anything like it. But in my 20s that really dropped off. I would still go shopping and things, but it was more utilitarian like you mentioned earlier and less aesthetic and more just, I have to have work clothes, so I’m gonna wear clothes that I kind of like, I guess. I go thrift shopping often, probably once a month at this point. For a year during the pandemic before I was vaccinated, I didn’t go thrift shopping at all, and would look online, really, but that’s difficult because I’m also six foot one, and broad-shouldered and it’s hard to find things that fit. A long time ago, I was like, Oh, it’s hard to find clothes and I don’t really know what my style is. And [my wife] told me, you know, you just have to try stuff on, you have to go. You have to bring 30 items into the dressing room and leave with three. And early on, before I even started a medical transition when I was just starting to sort of figuring out gender stuff we went to the mall together.

I have a leather jacket I bought recently that I love and I can’t wear it in the rain, but I can wear it under an umbrella in the rain.

We went to H&M and some other fast fashion places. I’d spoken with my therapist earlier in the day and she had said, sounds like you need new clothes. Why don’t you buy new clothes and I was like, I don’t know it feels kind of vain. It feels kind of like I have clothes that work. You know, in that utilitarian sense again. And she was like, but you don’t feel good in them. So my partner and I that night went to the mall and I probably tried on 50 pieces of clothing. Really just scoured the women sections with just armfuls of clothes and half of them I couldn’t squeeze on my body and the other half fit but didn’t look right, and then a small few felt right and looked right and I could afford them. Ever since, whenever I go shopping, if I’m able to try it on, even if I’m just leaving with one piece I’ll try on six or seven different pieces at least. Because sometimes you surprise yourself and you try something on and you’re like this is weird but then you put it on and it works. Because I go so frequently it does help. I know which thrift stores have the clothes I like and even which like Goodwills and Value Villages I know I can go to and they always have something I like. It takes a while. But sometimes you find a leather jacket for $10.

It’s so hard to find a good leather jacket like that. It is such an iconic piece and it’s is so difficult to find the right one. I have one that I hate and I’m constantly trying to be like maybe this combination works. And it never does and I’m always very frustrated.

I feel like I have a jean jacket like that. I had this denim jacket that I bought. It’s probably the last boy thing I bought and I got it at the Levi outlet. I was there with my dad, we don’t shop together ever, and they had a buy one, get one half-off sale, and he was like I‘ll get one and you’ll get one which is just so unlike our relationship. They were unisex and I was on the edge of really saying out loud that I was trans and not a man, specifically. I bought this denim jacket that I liked. It fits kind of in the way that Levi’s stuff fits me, it’s just slightly too boxy. And then I sewed a bunch of patches on it that are really special to me. I wore it for like a year and a half and it was like “my jacket” and now it doesn’t feel right. But I’ll still wear it sometimes. And I try to femme it up, I roll up the sleeves and wear it on top of a dress and think it might work, but it doesn’t work.

I’m glad you mentioned that, because that’s a thing I think about a lot. I kept very little clothing from pre-transition. And now I have one Levi’s blue denim shirt that, as it gets torn to shreds, looks better. But I had this denim jacket that, again, it’s got patches, and it’s got pins and it’s got all this shit in it. And I was like, I could totally wear this because I’m still punk rock, you know? And I put it on. I was like, I look like a fucking dork

You know, for 20 years, I’ve been sewing patches and putting pins on clothes. And, you know, when I was a teenager, I’d sit there meticulously adding pyramid studs to my clothes. And that’s time lost. You know? It’s hard to let something like that go. There are two patches on this coat that I will absolutely someday unsew. I will detach the thread and resew it onto a new piece. But I’m not there yet. And, you know, I sat for hours and watch movies and sewed these patches by hand, and it’s just a shame that I don’t wear the jacket. But it’s like a relic from the before times.

It’s a gift given to you that—like a lot of gifts that people give you—you’re never gonna wear. But you think, I’m gonna keep this around because of the attached memory.

Yeah, absolutely. And I have one of the patches on it, it was a gift from a very close friend of mine. We were going to protests all the time together. This was 2017 or so. They got all of us the same patch as a gift so that we could put it on our jackets and all walk out together at the protest and be a crew. It’s a huge print. And it’s got like, this femme person surrounded by flowers, it says smashing the patriarchy is self-care around it. And I just love the patch so much. And I think maybe I’m waiting for another denim jacket to come into my life that it will work on. I can’t let that go. That might be my last hold over though

I’m not a leather jacket at the dinner table type of girl.

I’ve been out for five years, I have very little left now. I just went back home to the Yukon and went through stuff I had there. My partner and I just took all my shit, because there’s no thrift store in town, so we ended up having to take a dump and it was like somebody died and I’m throwing their apartment away. I just lost all the attachment to these things that I was once so precious about.

I think there was, at some point during the pandemic, a moment where I was like, I need to clean out my drawers. It’s been a while. I was just pulling out stuff that I think I held on to because I had painted this picture in my head where there was some scenario where I would have to go stealth. I kept slacks. I was like, what if I need to wear slacks for something? And a suit for some reason. Just in case. I had crossed that point where I was like, I ain’t ever going back to that. I ain’t ever wearing slacks and a suit again, not like that. And I just cleaned all of it out.

I must have felt cathartic.

Yeah. And I think it takes a while. I couldn’t have done that, three weeks on HRT, or maybe I could have but I didn’t have the money. And also, I wasn’t ready. I think I found my way through transition by being like, I can always go back. I can always stop. If it gets too scary or too bad. If it’s worse than before. I have my clothes still, I can just put these clothes on. I could shave my head, put these clothes on and go back. And then you reach a point where I was like, Oh, no, I’m never going back to that.

Yeah, it’s like being out on a bridge and having your hand on the railing for so long. And then realizing you haven’t been holding the rail for the last half hour, it takes a while to get rid of the safety net of all that stuff. Do you have fashion icons? 

I think I really like it’s hard to attach to certain people necessarily. I think I attach more to outfits, and I’ll see someone wearing something and I’m like, ooh, I want that. I don’t know if you read the Torrey Peters piece on her fur coat. And I’ve just been like, I need a fucking fur coat.

Can I just say that that article specifically is the reason why I’m writing this column in the first place. 

Really? I love that. I also recently watched Mad Men for the first time in the pandemic. And, you know, Betty Draper, in her fur coats and fur stoles. Her fashion, in general, has been what I’ve been gravitating towards, just like that sort of elegant 60s look, cocktail dresses. Some of those the thing she wears are just fucking amazing. When I found my leather jacket, I was ecstatic because it looks a lot like this leather jacket Anne Carson has been photographed in and who’s not necessarily like a fashion icon for me, but I saw this picture of her in a leather jacket and I’ve been like, I want a leather jacket like that. Teddy Geiger, who I follow on Instagram, I think has a great fashion sense. I was inspired to get back to sort of punk roots by watching Laura Jane Grace on social media and being like, Oh, she just wears fucking black jeans and punk t and it looks good. I could do that sometimes.

How did it feel, you know that when you sort of figured out your style, and the way you wanted to present after transitioning,  that first time you like, wore an outfit that was like, this is really me, these are clothes that work. 

 There was this time, like, a year in my transition, a few months on hormones. And I had wanted to wear dresses in public. But I was terrified, just absolutely terrified. My sister was getting married. I was not out to my family yet and I was officiating the wedding. She was like, you’re wearing a bow tie and gray slacks and everything. It was the last time I was ever with my family and not out to them.

The next time I saw them, I came out. I went to Zara. I bought gray slacks and a white shirt. And I was walking through the women’s section. And I saw what I thought was a T-shirt, like a long t-shirt with sort of cuff arms. And I was like, Oh, that’s cool. I’ll just try it on here. And I tried on the slacks and everything first. I stripped naked and I put the shirt on and realized it was actually a dress that came to like, mid-thigh. And it was just so cute. It was one of those, just the feeling, the rush I got of looking in the mirror and feeling cute, feeling attractive, a little bit hot. I bought it and wore it that night, we had some friends in town and we all went to dinner. I wore it to this pretty fancy restaurant. There were eight of us at the table. All of my friends commented on how hot I looked. And I just felt like I had never felt before. I had never felt attractive, never felt hot, never felt grounded in the moment. I was constantly dissociating. And I just felt really, really good. I felt sort of cosmopolitan we’re at this fancy-ass restaurant eating these mussels, I’m in this cute mid-thigh cocktail dress, and it was pure bliss. And like nothing I had ever felt before.

I want a jacket that makes me feel glamorous. And I think it’s a fur coat. And it’s living out there somewhere waiting for me to find it.

That’s sort of the feeling I go for every time I get dressed now. That’s the thrill. That’s the feeling I’m seeking: how do I feel that good again? And I feel that good most days. I mean really, honestly, I’ve gotten my wardrobe to a place where most days I can put something on and feel really good. And it changes: I put on a shirt that I felt good in two weeks ago thought: Oh, no, not today. It’s incredibly grounding and empowering. Because I think I felt that way pre-transition. I think there were moments when I was maybe in a suit or something, and I was like, ooh, I look good. But I didn’t feel good. I was deceiving myself. And so I think it’s hard. If you haven’t experienced that feeling, to really understand what it feels like, to as corny as it sounds to feel like yourself.

I almost started crying when you were talking about that feeling. Because I chased that feeling for so long. Even the first couple of years of my transition, I was chasing it, because I was denying myself so many things. I wouldn’t let myself be a femme because I grew up in a very masculine environment. And so I was like, No, I’m going to be like a butch trans woman, you know. But then I realized I’m actually much more femme than I was letting myself believe. You really start chasing that feeling that you’re describing. And there’s a palpable difference between looking good and feeling good. I looked good before I transitioned, I never felt good about it. Never once. 

I think it’s hard to talk about. I would never decide this for someone else, but I wonder If cis people let themselves dress in a way that makes them feel good? I think that there’s so much put on us by society. And where and how we were raised. It’s really hard to get to that kernel of what feels good. And what makes us feel like we look good, right? I think there are even cis people who don’t experience that. Even if they are the gender they were assigned at birth. It’s hard to really understand what you want, and what makes you feel good.

 I had never felt that way before. I had never felt attractive, never felt hot, never felt grounded in the moment. I was constantly dissociating.

I think as trans people, we tend to do that work already, because we’re already so uncomfortable in our bodies, and we’re used to that discomfort that once we start shedding the discomfort, it’s easier to keep digging and be like, I’m still kind of uncomfortable. What’s the thing? What’s the jacket? What’s the thing that’s going to make me feel more comfortable? And keep digging, because we’ve already started that. We’ve already started uncovering, we’ve already started to shed. But it’s important to feel good and look good. And I was thinking about it too, I think in some ways, a jacket can elevate that feeling of an outfit, if it’s the right jacket, or tweed peacoat or whatever it is. You can I can put on an outfit and be like yeah, I feel good. And then I put on the right jacket and feel like I’ve reached that feeling of bliss or that feeling of being grounded in who I am, and feeling hot and feeling attractive and like jackets are magic.

They truly are. The right jacket makes me feel invincible in public. The wrong one makes me feel like “oh, everyone’s looking at me.” I have a little series of what my friend Sarah refers to as long bitch jackets. And if I’ve got one of those on, nothing fazes me. I know you said that you just got a leather jacket. But do you have a dream jacket?

I mean, I think it’s still that fur coat. It varies in length. Sometimes I’m like, Oh, I want something that’s kind of like an almost crop toppy fur coat or I want something that hits my knees. I think there are some vintage fur coats out there. I’m not buying new fur, could be fake fur, but I have jackets that make me feel cool, and cute, and smart. And I want a jacket that makes me feel glamorous. And I think it’s a fur coat. And it’s living out there somewhere waiting for me to find it.

I’m remembering seeing that Torrey Peters fur coat article. She’s like standing in the street. It’s like a dark street, there are street lamps behind her and she’s in this fur coat. I think sort of the way she talks about the coat is how I feel about fashion in general. She talks about how glamorous and femme and like a woman it makes her feel. And I sort of agree with all those things.  So I want the same coat. Not the same coat. But I have also lowkey been looking for a fur coat for like, two years. So it was already on my mind, but it really pushed it up to the forefront and kind of bumped it up in priorities for me.

You’ve got a book coming out, do you want to just take a sec and tell me what the book is about?

It’s a novel called The Boy with a Bird in His Chest and it comes out next February but is up for preorder now. Owen is born with a bird who lives inside his chest. The bird talks to him and tells him jokes. His mother is convinced that no one can find out about the bird, so she keeps him locked away in the house for a decade. Eventually, his mom sends him to live with his cousin and uncle in the Puget Sound in Washington. He discovers music and his chosen family and a queer community, but he has this big secret that he’s so scared to tell his friends about, the bird. It’s a book about secrets and feeling like you’re the only person who feels a certain way and having no way to talk about it with others. It’s about finding your chosen family and sharing the scary bits of yourself with the world. ♦

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