The current issue of Choral Journal features an article in the Rehearsal Break column by Gayla Blaisdell titled “Fostering Inclusion: Unpacking Choral Dress Codes.” Below is an excerpt of the article, and you can read it in its entirety in the August 2018 issue! Go to acda.org/choraljournal and click “Search Archives.” Choose August 2018 from the dropdown menu.
As music educators, most of us have attended numerous workshops on inclusivity and diversity training. We might even sit at those meetings rolling our eyes while thinking, “This doesn’t apply to me. I’m inclusive. I don’t discriminate based on gender or sexual orientation, and I know how to recognize sexual discrimination when I see it in my classroom or in my working environment.” And hopefully, we are correct in our confidence. It is expected that in 2018, blatant practices of sexism and discrimination are taboo.
Addressing continued discrimination in the professional jazz world, Julie Dunbar writes, “The twenty-first century mindset that one should not discriminate sometimes makes discrimination even more covert…” In our effort to maintain our traditions and promote our beloved art form, we may be perpetuating subtle, unintended sexual and gender bias in our music classrooms.
Perhaps one of the most obvious perpetuations of gender bias occurs in the ubiquitous and largely unexamined practice of enforcing dress codes for performances. Most successful choral ensembles require uniforms and adherence to a dress code for performances to create a visual image that projects professionalism. A unified appearance reduces visual distraction for the audience and promotes a cohesive bonding of many individuals into one collective entity for performance.
The traditional dress codes and uniforms of the past may, however, be creating subtle bias within our ensembles. Joshua Palkki suggested more awareness of the subject in his article, “Inclusivity in Action: Transgender Students in the Choral Classroom”: “In the changing gender landscape of the twenty-first century, choral teachers may need to decide whether or not some of the traditional choir uniforms (e.g., dresses and tuxedoes) best honor the gender identity of all students.”
There are ways to address personal hygiene and personal styling choices without falling into stereotypes and double standards. First, make all personal hygiene guidelines inclusive and gender-neutral. Don’t separate men from women. Avoid using morality words such as “proper,” “modest,” and “appropriate,” that indicate social propriety. Using specific physical descriptions of the personal hygiene expectations can avoid subjective adjectives in your personal hygiene statements just as listing specific clothing descriptions alleviates the subjectivity in uniform guidelines. Here is an example of a gender-flexible hygiene statement in which the look of the ensemble can be adjusted to your own preferences as the director (particularly regarding piercings and tattoos).
Personal Hygiene Statement:
- Keep hair out of your eyes. Hair clips, ponytails, buns, headbands are acceptable. Please avoid brightly colored hair accessories.
- No dangling earrings or large, noticeable ear gauges. Noticeable body piercings should be removed for the concert (particularly large nose, cheek, or lip piercings).
- Jewelry is acceptable but should not be large enough to pull focus away from the group. Nothing bigger than a quarter should be visible to the audience.
- Any visible tattoos should be covered with makeup or tape.
- Wear deodorant, but don’t wear perfume or cologne. Many people are allergic to these scents.
- Make sure your concert clothes have been washed and are free of wrinkles for each concert.
You can choose to loosen the requirements for certain concerts. For instance, for a cabaret or showcase concert you may need to amend the ensemble’s personal hygiene statement to encourage sparkling jewelry and hair accessories.
By taking a closer look at the implications of ensemble uniform choices and dress code requirements, it is possible to foster inclusion and promote positive body and identity image for all students in choral ensembles while still maintaining standards that promote choral excellence.
 Julie C. Dunbar, Women, Music, Culture: An Introduction, 2nd Ed. (New York: Routledge, 2016), 332-333.
 Joshua Palkki, “Inclusivity in Action: Transgender Students in the Choral Classroom” Choral Journal 57 (11), 20-34.