Monday, August 22, 2022

Rethinking Concert Dress

When my daughter came out as trans, we were proud of her, and happy to share the news with those who care about her too. These are troubling times for trans-people and those who love them, but I'm grateful that attitudes have changed enough that she could come out, and not feel trapped in the wrong identity, maneuvering through the world conforming to expectations that do not fit her. I am fully supportive of her, and glad to help her on this journey however I am able.

The first thing we did to help, was take her shopping for new clothes. That's been fun. But it got me thinking about any moments she didn't have control over her sartorial decisions.

Most of my kids' clothes have been hand-me-downs from a friend back in Michigan. Whenever her daughter outgrew enough things to fill a box, my friend would pass it along to me. She started passing along her son's clothes, too, by the time we had our third child. But when my youngest took a liking to anything her older sisters had worn, she was certainly welcome to take it once they'd outgrown it. Her favorite shirt for years was a Jonas Brothers shirt I'd bought for my oldest when she requested something purple, and that was the only purple thing we could find at Target. When it no longer fit, her youngest sister snapped it up and wore it for years. She also had a strange pink-camo shirt with a sparkly butterfly on it that her cousin left behind one summer that she wore regularly. She wasn't limited by color or sparkles or anything inside our home or out of it. I didn't police any of my kids' clothes. The only rules were the clothes had to be clean and not have too many holes. (I declared weekends "holey days" in our house where beloved clothes that were coming apart could still be worn, but not to school.) There were many outings to the grocery store or choir rehearsals where one or more of my kids were dressed as kangaroos. My kids could where what they liked.

The exceptions, however, were: Weddings, funerals, and concerts.

These are situations where one needs formal clothes. I always think of formal attire as Concert Dress, since those are the events for which I have to dress in an expected manner with the greatest frequency. And unless we want to risk being seen as disrespectful, society dictates what is appropriate, not the individual.

And I realize, looking back with a certain amount of regret, that for formal occasions throughout my trans-daughter's life, I made her put on dress pants, boys' dress shoes and button up shirts. We even got her a blazer for a student UN event down in Chicago. She had to wear those clothes to one wedding, at least one funeral, a few school pictures, and many concerts.

In fact, it occurred to me, as I've been reviewing her childhood and what things related to her true identity I wish I could have done differently to spare her discomfort, that not a small part of her resistance to playing in recitals was probably the clothes. Most kids are nervous about playing recitals, but it could not have helped that being made to dress in a way that felt wrong was required for them. I'm sure Concert Dress added unnecessary anxiety.

This has gotten me thinking about how Concert Dress, and formal attire as a whole, needs to be updated.

The first place I looked to was my own experience with symphony orchestras. The required "uniform" has always been gendered. Which, by definition, makes them not so uniform. My whole orchestra career, men have been told to wear dark jackets and ties, and women full length black. Sometimes it's white on top, and black on the bottom (which has always made me feel like I'm back to waiting tables). In most situations, women wear whatever they like, it just has to be dressy enough, and black.

I think it's time to extend that "long black" as the only descriptor to everyone.

Most string players I know who are required to wear formal jackets find them restrictive. I see nothing wrong with ditching the jackets and ties and saying any simple, decent long-sleeved black top will do. I don't see any reason to dictate skirts vs. pants for anyone. Long black. However you want. Go nuts.

Because looking down the line at younger players, that's a generation full of people who don't want to be forced to conform to the current binary options that earlier generations simply accepted. I don't want orchestras to lose out on talented players because the dress code doesn't accommodate them. I know plenty of trans, non-binary, and gender-queer kids, for whom being told "Men wear jackets and ties, women wear long black" would put them in an uncomfortable position. For what?

I only ever got to participate in a marching band once. Back in high school, our orchestra director asked for advanced string players to volunteer to learn parts on mallet instruments to help fill out a complicated piece the marching band was doing that season. I got to play marimba. I also got to wear a band uniform, which was really fun. And it struck me how there was no "boy uniform" and "girl uniform." Everyone in the band matched. It looked good. Same when choirs wear all the same robes, regardless of gender. Maybe it's time for orchestras to follow suit.

Often private teachers when instructing their young musicians to dress up for a recital tend to request they wear "nice" clothes (no jeans or sneakers), or some version of what people used to call "Sunday best." This still implies to many (like myself) rather gendered options, even if that's not explicitly stated. I think at this point, if I were still teaching, I would tell my students to wear something that makes them the most happy. I remember telling my oldest she had to wear something nice when we went to see The Nutcracker when she was young, and she proudly donned a tie dye shirt she'd made. She was surprised when I told her that it didn't qualify as "formal." She felt that meant she should wear the thing she thought was the most beautiful, and between the colors and the good memories all wrapped up in that t-shirt, it qualified in her mind. I think if I had it to do again, I would allow the tie dye, and add a fancy necklace or something.

"Formal" shouldn't have to mean only skirts/dresses, or slacks and jackets. Men in particular have very few choices. I think we need to get more creative about what constitutes "formal" so that it can include a neutral option that would work for anyone, regardless of gender identity.

Because meaningful events like concerts, weddings, funerals, etc., should be about inclusion and coming together. Not allowing outdated ideas of sticking people into overly specific categories to take precedence over more important things, like music and families and life.

It's time to rethink Concert Dress. It's a relatively small adjustment that could do more good than many realize. It's time to move on to something better that includes everyone who wants to participate. It could have helped my kid, which means it would likely help many other kids. That alone makes it worth doing.