on performance attire

This is for the benefit of my students, whom I’d like to know all this, but it would take too much time out of rehearsal to say. So.

We’re doing attire fitting in the next couple of weeks. Our performance attire was chosen with an eye toward tradition. The historical roots of performance attire are in livery, the attire of servants and vassals, etc. at whatever level. Musicians were household servants, working for the pleasure of the aristocracy.  So, the attire is formal and old fashioned. Since musicians are no longer servants, it’s unnecessary to maintain the tradition; but tradition tends to be maintained for its own sake.

There are lots of pros in favor of the attire: it’s pretty sturdy, washes easily, doesn’t wrinkle. When everybody stands together, it looks unified and sleek.  The styles aren’t dated, and it looks fine on everyone.  Hurray for all those good things.  This is our attire, and it works.

But, I would like to mention some of the problems with the very traditional garb.

Just to deal with superficial issues first, our performances don’t tend to be as formal and old fashioned as our attire. Since we’re not servants, we should be following normal rules for formality, and not wearing black tie before 6 p.m.–we rarely perform in the evening!

At a slightly deeper level, the notion of tuxes for guys and long gowns for women is very old. Covering women’s legs is a tradition rooted in patriarchy, implying shame about women’s bodies, and their lack of need to do anything indelicate. The idea that we need to differentiate between men and women in choir is, in the 21st Century, completely arbitrary.  Why are we bothering? If the choir is made up of people who sing different parts, contribute in unique ways, but are essentially equal, then what purpose is there in wearing clothes that identify our roles in reproduction?

We have a couple of dozen tuxedos in various sizes, and a couple of dozen dresses–not enough of either for everyone to wear the same thing, so out of tradition we assign dresses to people with vaginas, and tuxedos to people with penises. I, for one, don’t care what your genitals look like, as long as we look unified on stage. If you have a vagina and want to wear a tux, that’s fine with me.  If you have a penis and want to wear a dress, that’s fine with me. Please bear in mind that we have limited quantities and sizes, and no budget for changing that in the next four years. As much as it would tickle me to have the entire soprano section looking (and sounding!) like Julie Andrews in Victor/Victoria, our resources don’t allow for it.

Then again, there’s this easy default for the women to dress like men that I want to avoid, because it implies that men are better, and that we should aspire to be like them. Women already wear pants all the time, and “menswear inspired” is fashionable and sophisticated. At the same time men, who wear women’s clothes are shamed, because to look or dress or behave like a woman is degrading for a man–why should someone gifted with testicles lower himself to wear something designed for a person with ovaries??? Ralph Lauren doesn’t have a line of “womenswear inspired” attire for gentlemen.

I have written quite a lot here about attire for women conductors.  I purposely choose to wear feminine attire when I perform–usually a dress, possibly a skirt or palazzo pants. Instead of wearing a suit or other masculine clothes in order to “look like a conductor,” I use the opportunity to be a woman and a conductor in public, and help reshape people’s expectations of what a conductor is and can look like. (This has sometimes had the opposite effect, preventing people from seeing me as a conductor. Sigh.)

My point is, the choices we make about what we wear can be thoughtful, intentful, purposeful.  So far, our attire is traditional and convenient, and that’s fine as far as it goes.  We’re going with it for now, and it’s not bad or wrong.  But the next time we consider what we wear, let’s have a conversation about what performance attire is for, and what we want to say with it.

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