Why concert dress shouldn’t be gendered

Women wearing twin black dresses at an orchestra concert. The dresses look the same, same color and similar style; basically the dresses don’t have any major differences. (Photo Courtesy of: cottonbro)

Why do musicians wear all black? In order to not distract from the music. So, then, to take this a step further, why should concert dress be gendered? If the purpose of concert dress is to not distract the audience from the music being performed, why should gender even be distinguished? 

Gendered dress codes have plagued my existence, and I’ve always had strong opinions about them. Likely due to the fact that I don’t fall neatly into either category as a nonbinary person and because they provide a framework for cisgender people to categorize me. Alongside the standard sexist public school dress codes, gendered dress codes have also been present in music ensembles I’ve participated in. Surprisingly, though, I don’t remember the concert dress for my high school orchestra to be particularly gendered; it was just that we all should wear black and dress professional.  

The issue here is that when confronted with gendered concert dress in the past, it has caused me immense stress. Having the freedom of ambiguity taken from me is extremely distressing because being sorted into a category where neither suit me completely (male or female) causes me gender dysphoria.  

Now, why am I writing this? Well, I’m nonbinary and I’m a musician. I play the double bass, to be specific. Unfortunately, I’ve found that the concert dress for symphony orchestra is gendered. 

Let’s take it back to high school again. I performed in the Eastern Region Music Festival on the double bass twice. After the last rehearsal before the concert, I was sent into a panic over the concert dress: I was expected to wear a skirt while playing double bass? I was never much of a skirt person, and I always have hated gendered dress codes to an almost irrational extent (which I now know is dysphoria). I didn’t have a skirt either, so I performed in a black mock neck top and slacks. I had to check with my orchestra teacher and the people running the program, and they all said it was fine, but why should I have had to ask them in the first place? 

This brings us to my current dilemma: what does a nonbinary person wear to perform in an orchestra concert? What’s my concert dress? The syllabus for the UConn symphony orchestra only lists tuxedos for men and blouses and long skirts or slacks for women, so where do I fit? I’m not a woman, so I can’t wear a blouse or skirt, but I’m not a man either so a tuxedo wouldn’t feel right either. How do I look smart, professional and nonbinary all at once? Why should it even matter what my gender is when I’m playing an instrument in an ensemble? Why isn’t the syllabus inclusive of me?  

I write this not as an affront to the music department or the various people who make the UConn Symphony Orchestra possible, but as a genuine question of why am I not included? Why are we, the collective nonbinary student body at UConn, not included? 


Although they are different styles, they’re still dresses. This entails that women might not be “allowed” to wear pants or have to ask for permission to wear pants and shirts. (Photo Courtesy of: cottonbro)

I think that the time has long passed to include nonbinary students in the arts. We’re crucial to the arts, just as people who identify along the gender binary are crucial, and of all subjects, shouldn’t the arts be the most understanding and flexible in terms of gender, next to the humanities? The arts are about expression, so why don’t nonbinary students have a place to express ourselves through our instruments without immense distress, while still looking professional and not distracting from the music? Why should we have to put ourselves in one box or another just to perform music we love?  

Navigating the world as a nonbinary person is already challenging enough, especially pre-medical intervention, because the majority of the world operates under the assumption of the gender binary and a concept of “woman until proven otherwise.” It’s especially frustrating when it’s so apparent in something I care about, such as performing classical music. So, why can’t I just be accommodated, as a nonbinary musician, at UConn? Why can’t gender variant or gender nonconforming people be accommodated?  

Here’s my proposition: a list of acceptable garments or assemblages (like tuxedos) but without gendered labels. Rather than tuxedos for men and blouses with a long skirt or slacks for women, why not just tuxedos or modest tops with a long skirt or slacks in general for everyone? Both are professional assemblages, but without the gendered labels, the dress code doesn’t carry the baggage and exclusion of reinforcing a gender binary that actively harms gender variant students at UConn. 

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