Dark Suits for Men, All Black for Women

“Dark suits for men, all black for women.” Anybody who is a musician and has performed in a formal setting is no stranger to this phrase.  It – or some variation thereof – can be commonly found neatly tucked in the attire instructions attached to a performance confirmation email, or heard aloud as addressed to the orchestra (or whatever) at a dress rehearsal, prior to a performance. For most people, responding is a non-issue. They will go home, recall the instructions maybe once, rarely twice, and then promptly put it out of mind until such circumstances merit its withdrawal.

On performance day, most people will simply pull on their trousers, fasten their affiliated tie or cumberbund or other formal black accessory. Or, perhaps they will shimmy into a pair of black tights, or dress, or dip their feet into a pair of inconspicuous black heels (closed-toe, of course). Most people don’t have to give these instructions much thought beyond “what version of these appropriate guideline-conforming garments do I want to wear tonight?” If it is a tuxedo, will I go with a vest or a cumberbund? Is it a dark suit? Will I choose black or blue? Or perhaps a charcoal grey? How about this black dress? Or these new slacks? A skirt maybe, with this flowy blouse? The variety is endless, honestly, when you consider the options wholly.

Most people don’t have difficulty discerning what is and is not appropriate for them. Men wear suits of some kind, and women wear all black. But, for people like me? This situation is a nightmare.

People like me don’t know whether to wear a suit or all black, because people like me do not feel like a man, or like a woman.

If this is your first time reading my blog, let me introduce myself. Hi, my name is Marcus, and I play the French Horn…..I am also non-binary and my pronouns are They/Them.

If this is your first time seeing the term “non-binary” and you don’t know what the hell I’m talking about it, let me introduce you to…the world. Hi, welcome to it.

Non-binary is a term used to describe individuals who do not identify their gender within the gender binary (i.e., not male or female). Gender identity and gender expression are topics that have become much more prevalent in conversations today, and those conversations are happening all over the world. They’re happening in HR meetings, in board rooms, in corporate marketing offices, in restrooms (about restrooms), restaurants, in hallways, in taxi cabs, ubers, lyfts, during commutes, on the phone, over brunch. The question of gender is everywhere in 2019. Everywhere, it seems, but the [proverbial] (metaphorical) concert hall.

But I’m not here to deconstruct gender, not today anyway. And I’m not here to lecture on cultural evolution or the social constructs to which I am sure we are ALL awakening. No, I will leave that for the sociologists and anthropologists. I am here to talk about why it is so damn hard for me to choose what to wear, and why this seemingly (to most) insignificant instruction plagues me with crippling anxiety at every gig.

“Dark suits for men, all black for women.” There it is again, in case you’ve already forgotten what I’m talking about. Much like gender equality, attention spans are also in short supply these days, amiright? *ba-dum, tss*

Anyway…

People like me experience a lot of difficulty functioning in public. Because, while throwing caution to the wind and “blocking out the haters” is so in vogue, the very essence of gender identity and expression is so entangled with external validation that it is systematically impossible to prevent yourself from caring about what others think. Because if others don’t see you the way you feel you, then are you even you

In my head, I’m just me. Just a genderless soul flitting around among thoughts and observations, maybe thinking about what movie I want to watch with my dinner and my husband, or if maybe I want to finally tackle that cleaning task I’ve been putting off for an amount of time that is no one’s business but my own. Or, “ooh the leaves are changing, they’re so pretty!” or “Look! Mums! MUMS THE WORD!” or “Wow I really hate this traffic.” It’s all pretty routine in there, me being me. When I’m in there, I don’t have to prove anything to anyone. Inside my head, I am naked and fearless and pure.

But out there, under bright stage lights, or the sun, or the fluorescent tubular bulbs of retail, with (what feels like) literally all eyes on me, how can I even begin to convey who I am by what I wear on my body? No matter what I wear, or what I do, an assumption will be made about me, and about my gender, and my only desire in life is to provoke so little interest from others that I can be the same me outside that I am within.

Putting on a suit feels like a lie when the instruction is that suits are for men. Putting on all black feels like a lie when the instructions are that all black is for women. Say you are on a sports team, and you’ve been practicing with the team every day for years. But on game-days, the opposing team’s coach walks up to you and hands you one of their team jerseys. They’re short a player for this game, actually they’re short a player every game, and every time, you are the one singled out to wear the foreign jersey, to play against your own team. You follow your training, you trust that you know what you’re doing – based on thousands of hours of hard work – and you play your best. The coach thanks you and you return to your own team, bowing your head in shame, even though you played well, even though you might have made the winning sportsgoal, even though your team doesn’t care, they’re just happy you’re back, and they’re excited to get back to practice tomorrow. You might feel proud of your performance, you might feel angry at your mistakes, but regardless, the entire time you were doing whatever it was you were doing, you didn’t feel like you. You couldn’t connect with the task at hand, you were relying on rote memorization. You prepared well, and what happened happened. But what happened wasn’t you. It was some strange, hollow imposter of you. So you go home, you formulate a plan to practice harder, to try and simplify the essence of your entire being into a concise series of exercises, so that no matter the circumstances, you will always deliver your greatest, and truest product. Except that product never shines quite the way you do, no matter how much you polish it. It never will, as long as it isn’t you delivering. It never will, as long as you are wearing the wrong jersey.

That was a very long analogy and I realize how impossibly reductive it is to simplify the complexity of gender expression to a single article of clothing. Maybe, instead, I could have imagined a player wearing the opposing team’s jersey, but yet still playing for their own team, commenting on what it is like to be perceived to be part of something you are clearly not participating in. But in either scenario, true authenticity is not achieved, and that is my point.

This is not a piece about peak performance and I have already established that this is not a piece about gender deconstruction. Rather, this is a piece about my anxiety when I am perceived to be a man and therefore should wear a suit, or when I am (rarely) perceived to be a woman and therefore should wear all black.

I accept that I am perceived to identify as male 99% of the time. I wear the clothes I already own, and those clothes are *almost* entirely purchased from the men’s clothing section at Target. They are what fit my body, they feel comfortable, they look fine one me, and I am not generally one keen on drawing attention. And I know, above all and in my heart of hearts that what matters, who matters, is the “me” inside my head.

I haven’t written about this – until now – out of fear for my work as a freelancer. When my Gmail app dings with a notification, I pray for a recording session, because it doesn’t matter what you’re wearing when you are playing into a microphone. Nobody listening will ever see you. That’s not to say I wear whatever I want, but I am at least comfortable wearing whatever it is I happen to already own. My fellow freelancing colleagues know me…most of them do, anyway, and I don’t have anything to prove to them, aside from my playing. Sure, I might make someone uncomfortable with my sparkly nail polish, or my favorite clicky-clacky boot/shoes, but if my playing is good enough (and I really try for “great”), nothing is said. But when I get those emails where a public performance is involved, I mostly just conform with my assumption of others’ perception of me. I just wear the damn suit, because classical music culture is only as progressive as its patrons, and let’s be honest…there is some serious work to be done on that front.

In conclusion…I don’t have a solution. I don’t have a solution for being gendered. It isn’t even really about the suit. Or the all-black. It’s the gender association with either that haunts me. Because there is no way to exist in between. Not yet, anyway. And not in a way that doesn’t call unnecessary attention. 2019 is so quick to judge and to label. If I were to wear a dress, people could call me ma’am. Christ, I wore a red cardigan to work last December and a man accosted me at the counter with accusingly gendered language.  So how do I claim my unique identity while simultaneously blending in? How do I create space for my authenticity within a space that demands conformity? Maybe instead of a suit jacket, I’ll wear a dark cardigan and see where that gets me. Maybe I’ll get fired from the gig. Maybe I won’t ever be rehired. Or, best-case-scenario, maybe my nonconformity will go unnoticed. But in the meantime, I will continue practicing, I will continue trying to imbue my playing with the essence that is me so that one day me is the only thing that will be heard or seen. 

…Or maybe I’ll just wear the suit. 

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