Kleinfeld and Me

Because my childhood ambition was to play in the NFL, the furthest thing from my mind when I was young was what kind of wedding dress I might like to wear someday.  While other girls were keeping up with fashion trends like over-sized pocket combs, velour shirts, and culottes, I was sure that my most stylish outfit was Toughskins jeans, a ratty T-shirt from a garage sale, and my New York Yankees wristbands.  While they were passively playing with Barbies, I was playing Kill the Carrier with a pack of boys and slinging playmates to the ground by their necks. While they were squealing over David Cassidy and Leif Garrett, I was lighting up every time the impossibly cool Kristy McNichol appeared on the television screen. 

So the day I found myself standing on a pedestal in the middle of a brightly-lit dressing room at the Kleinfeld bridal salon in Brooklyn, I felt like Scout Finch in a pair of overalls.

I was 26 and getting ready to marry my boyfriend, and I didn’t know a cap sleeve from a spaghetti strap or an empire waist from a chapel veil. What I did know was that I was now a lamb being brought to slaughter.

It would be 10 years before I would find my voice and realize that I had ignored dozens of obvious clues that I was gay.  But for now, in the spring of 1995, I was relieved to finally get in step with my female peers.  Though I always had friends and was never quite an outsider, I had always been keenly aware and mildly ashamed of the fact that I was not like other girls. 

Somehow, when I was in my 20s, I had lucked out and found a great guy who enjoyed watching sports and drinking beer with me, and now I was going to have a full-blown wedding like all of my friends.

“You should go to Kleinfeld!” people had told me.

“What’s Kleinfeld?” I asked.  

 “It’s where everybody goes.  It’s the best place to get a wedding dress!” 

Actually, it’s not just where “everybody goes” – it is such a quintessential model of high-end bridal fashion that the cable channel TLC later decided to film a show there called Say Yes to the Dress.  When you are a member of the Future Lesbians Club, it’s the best place to go if you are looking to feel as out of place as possible. 

Garage sale T-shirt

This over-the-top establishment, with its high ceilings, ornate chandeliers, and white carpets, is full of pushy, intense New York women with really long nails who can’t wait to tell you what you should be wearing.  Many of the brides-to-be at Kleinfeld have been dreaming of coming to this salon for years; the only issue that has been holding them up was having to find a mate first. 

 “What are you lookin’ for, doll?” Regina, our bridal consultant, asked me.

 “Well, I … I don’t like anything up around my neck, so I guess just nothing that’s like a turtleneck?”

Regina looked at my entourage, my mom, my sister, and our neighbor, and said, “Is she kidding?”  Apparently, she hadn’t worked with too many brides nicknamed Sporty Spice.  She seemed genuinely surprised that I did not already have an air-tight vision of what kind of dress I wanted.

In my rolled up Toughskins jeans

Then she started to consult with my people to figure out what I might like.

A few minutes later, as I was led through a room lined with dozens of bejeweled gowns, it brought back memories of how I used to have heated debates with my mother every time I had to wear a (stupid) dress, and how I acted like a prisoner trudging along on a chain gang when I inevitably lost the argument and had to wear that dress to Sunday mass or a family holiday gathering.  Now I was voluntarily walking through the vaults of a place that was the height of femininity.

After feeling mortified for an hour as I was helped in and out of each dress I tried on (I never grew accustomed to Regina rearranging any body part she thought was out of place), I selected a silk shantung gown that had a long train and weighed approximately 700 pounds. Scarlett O’Hara would have been proud.

When I went back for the final fitting several weeks later, the seamstress cinched up the corset they had made for me.  It was modeled after an instrument of torture from the 1800s, with lots of rods and clasps.  I could barely breathe.  

I was 125 pounds and didn’t need a garment that restricted my organs.  What I should have said was, “Absolutely not.  Sew a couple of tube socks in the chest and we’re done!”

But I didn’t say anything, and consequently, I spent my entire wedding day feeling as if I were in an iron lung.  Bonus: it was over 100 degrees out.

After the Kleinfeld makeover

I did manage to march down the aisle in a rather masculine fashion, keeping my steps wide in an effort to handle my high heels, pointing my flowers at friends and saying things like, “What’s up?” and “Hey!”

Turns out that what Betty White said in the Gingey sketch on Saturday Night Live was accurate: “You can put that lesbian in any kind of dress you want, and you know what you’re going to end up with?  A lesbian!”

So although the marriage got off to a good start, everything changed five years later when I fell head over heels in love with a woman.  The interest was not mutual and nothing came of it beyond a few Ani DiFranco concerts and long dinners.  But it started me down the path of examining my choices, and eventually I came to the conclusion that wanting to fit in was not going to keep me going for the next 40 years. 

I realized that I would need to risk losing the approval of my parents and my friends and leave the safety of a loving relationship with a very good man to forge my own path and become fully myself.

43 thoughts on “Kleinfeld and Me

  1. This is awesome, Sue!…so funny, heartwrenching and heartwarming all at the same time… (And the pictures are priceless.) Can’t wait for the next one!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I love this. Funny and poignant. It feels like the beginning of a book. I’m left having so many more questions about how you came to that realization, how you decided to leave your marriage, and what happened once you embraced being lesbian.
    It’s fascinating the ways we all wear Kleinfeld dresses to fit in. Slightly different for me, but when got married at 20, I felt like picking a legit dress and planning a fancy wedding would somehow make me feel old enough to get married. Weddings can be A beautiful rite of passage, but I wonder how many of us are swimming in some level of imposter syndrome at our own weddings.

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  3. I remember the exact moment you trusted me with your decision to live out loud your amazing self. We were sitting in your classroom surrounds by books. Real books about real things that you gave your students to change their lives. I felt privileged to be invited into your trust. The parallel of reluctant readers opening their minds to stories to your strong resolve to open yourself up to the real story of your life – I’ll never forget it.
    Congratulations on your blog. It’s important to tell complicated, messy, amazing, beautiful stories.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wow. Thank you, Kim. You were there for the hardest part. I remember trying to keep this to myself at work for the better part of a year, and it was a huge relief to finally talk to you and Lauren (though I think I spoke to her at a Starbucks …). You guys were so supportive at a time when I really needed it.
      Thanks for the kind words.

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  4. Haha, good stuff! I am not surprised you are as funny in writing as you are in person. The Kleinfeld Experience sounds absolutely surreal. I look forward to your future musings and hope you include more pictures of yourself in the ’70s, preferably wearing Toughskins. Priceless!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Julie! I’ll see if I can remember enough to put together a piece about one of my visits to visit you and my sister at PC. As I recall, those weekends were extremely entertaining!

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  5. Keep writing, it is great. I promise not to respond to your musing the same way you responded to mine – ‘tldr’ I also think you undersold your skill at kill the carrier, I think you were the first, of many people, to break my nose with a horse collar tackle when we were 8.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. My bad on the tldr (I had to Google that). Are you referring to your lengthy letters from Russia?
      I do remember your telling Gary that I was a “neck tackler” when you met him. I believe we were newly engaged, so that was kind of special. (Cue attempt at feminine laughter — “he he, but I don’t do it anymore!”)

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  6. Now that you’ve found your voice- and what an eloquent and hilarious one it is— please promise that you won’t lose it. Vulfy, you’ve left us with a cliff hanger and we’re demanding more!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Shocking news… you’re a vegan?????
    Seriously, this is wonderful. After hearing you retelling of the facts of life story to Nancy at the last reunion (probably the funniest “set” I’ve seen) I’ve been waiting to hear that you’re doing stand up! This is better, but I can totally see a Netflix special in your future. Can’t wait for the next chapter. Stay well!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I know — the most surprising part of this is that I’m now only eating sticks and berries!

    I just finished an awesome 8-week comedy writing class. I wrote the Kleinfeld piece for that, and we did some stand up and sketch writing as well. Once the world returns to the (new) normal, I plan to give stand up a try in some shape or fashion in the DC area.

    Thanks for keeping up from across the pond!

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  9. Hey Susie, so I figured I leave my comment here instead of sending you an email. First off, I thought it read Kleinman not Klienfeld, so I thought you came out to our HS guidance counselor. 🤣Imagine my surprise the story was about a wedding dress buying adventure. I absolutely remember you always had cool wrist bands while we were playing softball on the Honeybees. The funny thing, though, I always thought you would find your true self much sooner because I recognized it right away. Although, while we were growing up “being a lesbian” wasn’t something that was acknowledged/talked about, I did know people in town who were gay. I always thought you would find your true self in college. But as an adult looking back, I realize that finding our personal truths isn’t always an easy or straightforward path. I love your writing style and that you included pictures. Keep writing interesting stories and I’ll keep reading them!!
    ❤️Maria

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hey Maria, You aren’t the only one who knew about me before I knew about me — funny how our minds can resist when we don’t want something to be true. Mr. Kleinman may have even figured it out! Anyway, thanks for your comments and your encouraging words. I always remember how you were really nice to me and the younger kids on our team when you didn’t have to be, and I always appreciated that. Susie

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      1. Ok so I just read all your blog and entries! You need to DEFINITELY need to keep writing!! I’ll be the first on line to buy your first book! Thanks for the kind words! I was always taught, by my dad the teacher, that being kind is one of the most important aspects of friendship. And I have always thought of you as a friend!! The Teddy Roosevelt quote hit me quite hard. For the past few years I’ve been dealing with a lot of issues of self-doubt, long story, and reading your blog entries have reminded me, that as human beings, we all experience it at one time or another. You reminded me to kick butt and take names!! 🤣 Maria

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