I’ll never forget the feeling of dread that came upon me when it was close to my call time for a choir concert. My high school director’s words, “If you’re early, you’re on time, if you’re on time, you’re late, and if you’re late, you’re in trouble,” were seared into me, so I knew that I had to be dressed and ready to go with plenty of time to spare. But every time I looked at the tuxedo hanging in my closet, I felt a pit in my stomach. My palms would get sweaty, and my breathing would get a bit quicker. Every step of putting on the tuxedo felt like walking through an unfamiliar building. There were familiar elements, doors, hallways, windows, but every turn was a question, with the subconscious fear that I would find myself lost in this foreign edifice and unable to escape. I didn’t want to wear the tux, but the tuxedo was the ticket to entry to perform with my ensemble. There wasn’t a choice. I was a bass, and basses wore tuxedos.
No matter how much I loved the music or singing on stage with my choir, it couldn’t erase the feeling of staring into a mirror and hating what I saw in my reflection. While this isn’t uncommon to experience as a transgender individual, it was amplified a thousand times over with such a forced formal declaration of masculinity to the world. The suit jacket felt more like a straitjacket, the cufflinks more akin to handcuffs. The trappings of masculinity haunted me. And even though all I wanted to do was rip off this false exterior and cry, I couldn’t. Because I had a concert to get to, and “boys” weren’t supposed to cry anyways.
I didn’t get to wear a choir dress until my junior year of college. It was a year in which I stopped apologizing for who I was and began to live authentically. When it came time to plan out uniforms, I was fortunate enough that the graduate student in charge of dress fittings came up to me and told me she wanted to make sure I got a dress that year. Sheepishly, I thanked her and had my first ever dress sizing. I later found out that the director, new to my university that year, was against it at first but ultimately acquiesced.
Excitement couldn’t begin to describe my feelings when I received my first choir dress. To be clear, it was still the “black garbage bag” style of dress that many choir women come to be intimately familiar with; it wasn’t extraordinary in design, but it was extraordinary to me. For the first time in my choral career, I could look in a mirror and not be upset with the woman I saw back. No longer was I bound by the tuxedo straitjacket; I was free.
The Fall concert came, and as I got dressed, I learned that the pit in my stomach and feelings of dysphoric anxiety that I had grown accustomed to were no longer there. Was this what cisgender choral members felt all along? Maybe a slight annoyance came with wearing formal attire, but afterward, a refreshingly uninhibited concert experience, where the priority was not what they wore, but rather the music they sang and the overall experience of performing in front of an appreciative audience. My high school choral self never could have imagined that was a possibility.
Until it’s brought to our attention, sometimes we choir directors don’t fully understand the unintentional problems our choral uniforms can bring. When we think of uniforms, our thoughts are not on how they can divide us but rather how they can unify us. Uniforms serve an essential purpose, showing that we are a cohesive collection of voices. The importance becomes thrust upon the ensemble and not upon the individual. However, much of the choral profession is entrenched in deep, gendered binary traditions, with our uniforms being no exception. While some may compare choral uniforms to those of marching bands or football teams, it is easy to forget that those are unisex. Everybody wears the same thing, so there is no inherent gender expressed by them. While there are choral robes, those don’t work for every ensemble due to the religious, typically Christian, connotations they come with. So, how can we, as choral directors, reap the benefits of uniforms but ensure that our transgender, non-binary, and gender-expansive members feel comfortable in the attire they wear?
I believe that the answer starts where we all tend to begin as directors. What style of performance attire is your ensemble going to wear? Are you gearing towards a more professional, formal vibe? Informal? Themed attire based on the concert/event? Religious? Once you have that figured out, you can branch into the different possibilities of each outfit. While it is impossible to list every potential costume or uniform out there, here are some things to keep in mind as you plan uniforms or attire.
1. Always have a gender-neutral option available.
This is probably the most crucial aspect to take into consideration. Typically, uniforms are limited to only a “masculine” or “feminine” option. In formal environments, that usually means some sort of suit/tuxedo or some sort of dress or blouse/skirt combination. These kinds of blatantly gendered options tend to leave our non-binary or gender-expansive choral members in a lose-lose situation. No matter which option they choose, it’s not necessarily going to reflect their gender and thereby make them feel uncomfortable and possibly dysphoric. It’s wise to plan ahead and already have ideas about a gender-neutral option you can use so that if a choir member is uncomfortable with the more “masculine” or “feminine” options, there’s an alternative for them. For formal attire, my go-to choice is saying “formal concert black.” This can mean different things to different people, such as a basic black dress shirt with black dress pants or a black blouse with black dress pants. For informal options, you can’t go wrong with a T-shirt or polo shirt and jeans. I’ve met some show choir directors who give certain sections of the stage different colors to wear to fit a theme instead of a guy/girl role. There are many different combinations out there to try!
2. Allow your transgender, non-binary, and gender-expansive choir members to wear what makes them comfortable.
I recently had a phone conversation with another high school choral director who had a trans student in a tenor-bass ensemble who wanted to wear a choir dress to their winter concert. The student identified as female and was only just starting her transition to wearing more feminine attire. In a small, conservative town, the director was concerned that the community would not react well and was unsure how to proceed because they wanted to honor the student but also protect her. Ultimately, the director realized how important the student’s comfort was, and the student ended up getting her choir dress (much to her elation). While I was able to help the director with my own perspective, the most beneficial action was the director talking to their choir member. The student was able to communicate her needs, and they were able to work together to ensure her comfort at the concert. After everything worked out, the director contacted me and let me know how much happier her student was in the ensemble. Allowing your choir members to wear the most comfortable attire tells them they are supported and respected. This tends to translate into a better choral experience for all.
3. Be size-inclusive.
Keep in mind that there are people of many different sizes in your ensemble. This is especially true for transgender people, who might not fit the “typical” sizes companies offer. Whenever my choir needs something uniform-related, I try and get the broadest range of sizes or choose options with the widest range of sizes available. The last thing that I want is for somebody to be too small for the smallest option or too big for the largest option. The more options available, the better your odds are at not scrambling to find something different that will work.
4. Be flexible.
I have met some very...passionate directors about uniforms. They hold their choirs to strict regimes and don’t like when the tiniest hairs are out of place. While I greatly respect that structure, I’ve never been one of those directors. My goal is to provide a choral experience where all feel welcome and feel a part of the ensemble. Sometimes it’s best to keep equity in mind and recognize that it’s okay if something is slightly different, especially if it comes with the benefit of making a choral member feel more comfortable.
If you’ve gotten to this point and haven’t already done a reflection on your ensemble’s uniforms or attire, I encourage you to do so. Do you have options that are inclusive of everybody? If so, great! If not, that’s okay too. Try and use the aforementioned ideas to kick-start making your uniform/attire policy better for your transgender, non-binary, and gender-expansive singers. Ultimately, I think you’ll find they will thank you for it, and your choir will be on the right track to dress for success.
Please share your experiences and thoughts in our comments section below. Thank you!
Melanie Stapleton is a music educator, researcher, author, and choral director currently located in the greater Houston area. She is the founder of Blurring the Binary, and holds a Masters of Music Education from the University of North Texas, and a Bachelors of Music Education from Louisiana State University. She is a strong believer that the choral ensemble should be a musical family and a safe place offering unconditional love for all. When not teaching, she can be found hanging with her Golden Retriever, Queso, playing video games, or jamming to the latest choral hits.