As L alluded in her previous post, I recently got caught in “the fraught waters of acceptable formal wear.”  As a dedicated amateur singer, I cantor for a church on a regular basis and wasn’t too surprised when the music director asked if I was available to sing for their first communion service last month.  What did surprise me was this:

Also, and this is awkward, but Church Staffer (who runs the First Communion and really all religious education) says she loves when you cantor, but she asked if I can get you to wear something dressier than jeans. I honestly hadn’t even noticed, and I hope you’re not irritated by the request.

I was surprised because I’m almost certain I’ve never worn jeans to sing a first communion service.  Or a confirmation service.  Or any high holy day service.  While I have worn dark jeans for the occasional Sunday service, I have always dressed them up with a nice top, jewelry, etc.  To ask that I “wear something dressier than jeans” is to suggest that I’m not professional.

I took that very personally.

After typing all that into an email response, I decided it couldn’t possibly be about “jeans.”  I wear them so infrequently that there must be a broader perception problem given that I don’t wear skirts or dresses, only pants.  And my boss admitted to not noticing an issue.  After some stewing, I decided to go with

Regarding dress code, you haven’t noticed an issue because there isn’t one.    If she’s confusing pants with jeans and wants me to wear a skirt or dress, she’s out of luck. I can have a chat with her about gender non-conformity if necessary.  Seems like the right time and place.  😉

In an effort to keep the peace in an awkward situation, my boss came back with

I don’t think she’s asking for a dress per se. I think she must be thinking that the pants aren’t a dressy variety. I know Boss’s Wife has some dark pants that are actually jeans. They look nice, but they’re not the same thing as pants you might wear to an interview. Anyway, whatever. I don’t think Church Staffer needs the chat. She’s not really a stick-in-the-mud about stuff like this. Just something she mentioned. You do you. 🙂

I’m pretty sure this was supposed to make things better, but it only made my angrier.  What kind of pants did they think I’m showing up in?!  I usually sing in one of the two or three pairs of wool slacks that I wear to work (in a professional setting) on a regular basis.  If I actually showed up in my business suit I’m sure they would agree I’d look ridiculous.

(PS: If we’re going there, other singers have come in looking decidedly shabbier on a regular basis.)

(PPS: How do you know what I/the other cantors can afford?!  Cuz, yeah, I sing for you for FREE.)

(PPPS: Matching separates can be damn hard, especially with different fabrics and when you’re gender non-conforming but still want to be identified as female.  PLUS, I’m a weird size and have to get half my clothes custom made.)

(PPPPS: Don’t think I haven’t noticed you getting away with wearing cargo pants behind the piano/organ.)

I was particularly incensed given the service in question: First Communion.  As a feminist non-believer, the spectacle of 8-year-old children being paraded around in absurdly gender-conforming virginal outfits really turns my stomach.

All of this, though, I realized is beside the point.  Deep down the issue seems to be: What does “dressy” mean if you’re a gender non-conforming woman?  If you’re not going to wear a dress, what do “dressy” pants outfits look like?  Apparently my business professional outfits don’t pass muster.  What did they want, a tuxedo (#LifeGoals)?  The plight of minorities and their “inappropriate/distracting” hair not fitting into white people’s formality standards suddenly took on new meaning for me.  My enraged brain bounced back and forth between showing up in a) a badass punk outfit; b) the most obnoxious pair of acid washed jeans I could find; c) a tuxedo; and d) my normal #@*&ing outfit.

As the day approached, I settled on a classy vest and tie with trousers, but nearly chickened out at the last minute.  This was going to be a fairly conservative crowd and I didn’t want to rock the boat too much.  But then I though, “You know, there is probably a trans kid sitting in those pews.  I need to show that kid that girls’ bodies don’t have to wear fluffy white dresses and boys bodies don’t have to wear suits.”  With that, I showed up like this (swap in some dress flats):


Take that!

(PPPPPS: When my boss wore his cargo pants behind the piano/organ for two back-to-back funerals one day shortly after this incident, I made sure to let him know I noticed.  The “dressy” pants standard goes both ways my friend!)