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ChoralNet: Should a woman singer be allowed to wear a Tuxedo?


I had a similar situation last year, and posted more or less the same
question to the list. It is now time to confess: I never posted the
compilation. I do so now that the subject has come up again. I have
intentionally left out the names of the "who-said-what" to protect the
guilty. :-)

I received about twenty-five emails regarding this issue, and as you can
imagine the spectrum ran the entire gamut. One person lauded my
sensitivity in merely considering an alternate to the traditional
standard, while another was incredulous that I wouldn't just
let her wear whatever she wants: "It's really nobody's business but
hers. Religion has nothing to do with it." Another person, by contrast,
had a somewhat less sensitive position: "What utter nonsense. I cannot
believe that I'm actually reading this rubbish... She needs to learn
that some things just 'are' and the dress code is one of them - get over

Those in Favour

In summary, I only had about four people (16%) who felt that concessions
should be made to allow a woman to wear a tux in performance. "Here at
San Francisco State... we have had allowed the student to wear a tuxedo
with very little problem or negative feedback. I can't help but come
back to the basic question of freedom of expression and believe the
right thing to do is to support the student's choice." Two other
respondents had similar responses: "it has been done successfully
before." One person weighed in to say that "this young woman is dealing
with something terribly important in her life, and she is no doubt
having a lot of difficulty with this. That she came to you shows she
trusts you with something very private. You can be the one to say,
'Sing with us. We want you with us.'"

Those Against

The majority of responses (56%) registered their opposition to allowing
any deviation from the established norm. Opinions were sometimes baldly
stated: "I tell my singers if they don't want to wear what the ensemble
wears then they will... not be in the group." "If she intends on
surviving in a job market, let alone as a musician, she is going to have
to conform to a lot of things she is not going to like... A lesbian who
does not want to wear a dress... needs a reality check. You may think
you are doing her a favor, but you are preventing her from seeing the
world in real terms." "If you fail to stand firm on this point you can
count on the fingers of one hand the number of semesters that will pass
before some guy in the baritone section decides he absolutely must dress
in drag, and you will have handed him a precedent against which there
will be no defense. If you acquiesce you'll be opening a Pandora's box
in the other direction which could turn your choir into a fashion
free-for-all... you can't possibly expect it to be okay for a girl to
wear a tux, but *not* for a guy to wear a dress." And finally, "having
one girl in a tux (or one boy in a dress) is probably not the solution.
It's definitely not a good thing for your choir or audience, and it is
probably not good for the individual..." Personally I'm not sure I agree
with the last part of that last sentence, as it was the individual
asking the question was the reason the issue was prompted in the first
place and I tend to believe that the adult individual, if they don't
know for themselves what is right for them, should at least be allowed
the freedom to fail and find out for themselves what is right for them -
but that is my own opinion. Succinctly put, the issue is between what
may be right for an individual vs. what is right for a group. A soloist
in a concert situation may well get to choose whatever s/he wants to
wear - but perhaps members of the choir in the background are not
afforded that luxury?

Most of those who were opposed explained their argument with tradition
("This has nothing to do with sexual orientation, or "gender
stereotypes," only with clothing tradition. Choirs of 8-year-olds often
wear suits and dresses. This person may not like the tradition, but it's
selfish of her to insist on changing it just so she'll feel more
comfortable...") or (even more rationally, IMHO) by appealing to
presentation. "Presentation is an essential part of a concert, and the
word 'uniform' implies sameness; ergo, she should wear a dress. I
usually tell students in question that their costume is just that... a
costume. This argument usually works." Several respondents mentioned
this "costume approach." "[It's] a costume, not an identity badge, and
costumes are not necessarily reflective of the values or beliefs of the
individual...When we choose to join a group... we choose by implication
to subsume our individuality...into that of the group." Similarly,
"approach the uniform as a costume for the audience, as it would be for
a character on stage for a play. Certainly in such a situation, the
"fact" of the dress would not necessarily identify the person in the
role on stage. She may be able to accept a dress on these terms." In
the end, this is what I decided to do, and this approach worked for me.
As the student in question happened to also be a drama major (who was
later in the year seen wearing a dress on another stage), this approach
was very effective. It wasn't the first time it has worked: "I had a
transgendered student (FTM) in my all-female advanced choir. I offered
her the option to wear the tuxedo instead of the dress, but she insisted
on wearing the uniform of the ensemble. She felt that it would distract
from the performance if one female was wearing something different from
the rest of the females. She felt that the need for uniformity in the
ensemble in performance was more important than any gender-role/identity
she might have... I think she saw it as a costume she wore for a part
and not a comment on her identity... She just didn't want to make a big
issue about herself."

Two others had practical advice. "Getting [a tuxedo] to fit a female
figure well (emphasis on WELL) will be tricky. The shoulders, chest,
and hips are likely to be 'off', unless she has a very willowy build...
The point is to look neat and to have the clothes fit, regardless of
whether they are 'traditionally' male or female... Remind her that this
is an ensemble, and that a poorly-fitting garment will detract from the
appearance of the whole group." And one other person reassured me that
"since you teach in a private institution (as I do) you don't have to
worry about the ACLU. Your college can do what it likes... There is a
two-fold issue in your favor: the student doesn't HAVE to participate
in the choir, and doesn't HAVE to go to school there. Her "right" to
wear a tux is a non-issue. If she has that kind of a problem with the
dress and feels here rights are being violated, she should go to another

The compromise position:

Seven people (28%) wrote in to suggest a sort of compromise: do not let
her wear a tux, but don't force her to wear a dress either. Rather, go
for a "dressy-black-pants" type look. Four pointed out that if I was
"willing to put up with slightly less formality, and a bit more variety,
many professional orchestras allow the women to wear 'long black' of
their choice: dresses or attractive pantsuits. If she were in full
black--blouse and pants, shoes--rather than a tux, the difference
between her outfit and the dress would be minimal and would probably
escape notice by nearly everyone. (A tux would perhaps draw much more
attention.)" Another colleague concurred: "My feeling is that there are
more important battles to fight, and I wouldn't force them to wear the
dress. If I had the same situation, I wouldn't allow a tuxedo (during
concerts the attention would be on the woman in a tux, not the music)
but I would allow her to wear all black with pants--something with very
loose legs that will look like a long dress when standing--and a top
with a neckline that approximates what the other women are wearing."
Unfortunately in my case the worthy suggestion to "wear pants underneath
the dress" doesn't really work given the specific type of dress I have
at my college. Finally, one other person suggested that we compromise,
but let her acquire the new outfit for herself. "If somehow you are
able to convince the powers-that-be that the sun will still rise on
Monday morning if this young woman wears traditionally male clothing in
a concert, let her do the legwork to find a source for a custom-fitted
tux (i.e. cut to fit a woman's body as opposed to being altered from a
man's tux). Ask her if she is able to pay the extra cost of this custom
garment -- i.e. if the college spends $250 on a standard tux, and the
custom-tailored one would cost $400, she would contribute $150. Or, let
her buy it outright, and take it with her when she graduates. She might
enjoy the challenge of finding this outfit." This is something my
college seriously considered - it is an excellent barometer of how
important this really is to the student, if they are going to spend
extra money to make it happen - but as I happened to know that this
student came from a terrible socio-economic background it just wouldn't
be an unbiased assessment.

Final comments

One person offered what I thought was a helpful suggestion which I did
not pursue: "You might contact gay/lesbian choruses and see what they
think, not to use this as ammunition against the powers-that-be, but
simply to get a different perspective on the issue." It ultimately
really does come down to what someone else offered: "In the end, the
decision is completely up to you as the director of the choir."

Thanks to Jay Carter, Bill Revenaugh, Steven Edwards, Joshua Habermann,
Nina Doxey, Jim Lunsford, Celia Canty, John Howell, John Hoffacker, Lee
Thomas, Dawn Southwick, Tony Azeltine, Simon Loveless, Ellen Scott,
Floyd Slotterback, Ginny Siggia, Bart Bradfield, Chris Rhodes, Dr. C.
Wallace Hinson, Michael S. Wade, Allen Simon, William Fields, and three
others who responded but weren't identified by name but only by their
email address.


Vaughn Roste
Assistant Professor of Music and Director of Choral Activities
Andrew College
413 College Street
Cuthbert, Georgia
229-732-5912 (o)
229-732-2176 (f)

on September 9, 2006 10:00pm
The simplest solution is to dress the entire choir alike or let everyone wear what they like and then cover them with choir robes. If the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus can wear robes in performance, then so can any other choir.

I don't think that it matters what people wear! I'm not looking at them singing...I'm listening to the glorious music coming from them!
on April 16, 2007 10:00pm
I am a female tenor who chooses to wear a tuxedo in concert. I choose to do so for several reasons. I am a large person, and the dress the other women wear is not flattering on a large woman. I sing TENOR and like to look the same as the rest of the PEOPLE in my section. I truly don't understand why this is such an issue. I wear my hair short and from a distance I appear the same as the other tenors. What does it matter that my sex is female? It has never been an issue for any of the vocal groups that I perform with.

Can't we all just get along and make music instead of mountains out of molehills?

Karen Greene
A Tuxedo'd Female Tenor
on September 9, 2007 10:00pm
While my choice of attire initially created much controversy, I was the first female in a very traditional ensemble to suit up in such a fashion. Although I'm a short person, I also sing TENOR (the only female who does) and choose to blend with my section and not stick out. It's also a more comfortable option for me, since I don't ordinarily wear skirts or dresses offstage. I also prefer the sharp, tailored look and attitude of a tux over the conventional dress. FYI---I tie my own bow. There are also fewer distractions, like runs in my stockings or what my shoes look or feel like and can actually concentrate on THE MUSIC. I do wear makeup, earrings and my hair long and loose, however, topped off with a black kippah like the rest of the guys (SHIRAH is a Jewish choir).