What on earth shall I wear? (of leggings and mansplaining)

” ‘Mansplaining”–I hate that word.” (Ryan)

“Stop doing it, and we’ll stop saying it.” (Vikki)

The question of what to wear when conducting, when you are a woman, is a fraught one. The levels of “how dressy is this particular event” have layers and sublayers to a level men just don’t have to deal with: You have your tux, your dark suit, your other-colored suit, your coat without tie, your shirtsleeves with tie, your shirtsleeves without tie. For women there are infinitely more layers of “how dressy” between each of those, and they change by the season and city…it’s a mess, and it’s difficult. That’s before you even talk about how you want to look from behind, and how to work that into the “how dressy” question–the more tailored your look, the less likely your jacket will cover your rear, at least these days (may fashion change quickly!), and the more fitted your top is the more likely it will do unfortunate things when you raise and move your arms…it’s all sort of awful. The 9 years I spent in a church where I wore an alb every Sunday morning were among the happiest in my conducting life; I didn’t have to worry at all, and it was glorious. Now I fret for an hour before every gig.

But there seems to be one unwritten but absolutely followed rule for women conductors. It’s not about leggings; no, it’s this: when we want to know what is appropriate, we ask one another. We don’t generally ask men.

Sometimes they offer their opinions nonetheless.

There’s this Facebook group, “Women Choral Conductors.” Nice bunch. Not terribly active, presumably because we’re all out there making music and living our lives, but when we show up there’s good stuff to say.  There’s another called “I’m a choir director”–much more active, lots of educators, a great place to crowdsource.

Then there’s this guy Ryan Guth, who has a blog and podcast, very outwardly glitzy, and occasionally with some decent content. And he posted a fairly incendiary thing entitled “Leggings as pants, and other ways to make choir all about you.” It went up on the choir director facebook page and ACDA’s ChoralNet blog site.

I can only speak for myself, and I came to this party apparently a bit late, but…the original “clickbait” headline only made me raise my eyebrows and decide I had no interest in listening to it. (In my experience, people who so openly resort to clickbait usually do it because they are unconvinced people will listen to what they have to say unless they do, and I rather expected the leggings themselves would be fairly peripheral to the overall conversation, as in fact they were.)

However, Facebook being Facebook, and the Internet being the Internet, everything sort of blew up as women all over the choral world took offense at this whole mansplainy line of inquiry, and let him know in no uncertain terms (from what I could tell, always courteously, but at the same time sparing no words and engaging in direct criticism and confrontation) how completely unacceptable it is for anyone, especially a young white man, to be telling women what we ought to be wearing. (ChoralNet, to their credit, removed his post.)

I’m willing to give almost anyone the benefit of the doubt and the opportunity to grow without letting their youthful poor choices dog them forever, but it was his words in the various comments that caused me to lose any respect I might have possibly gained for him (and I was very willing to give him the chance–he’s young, he has a lot to learn yet, and this could have been a real teachable moment for him). It was things like, ” By making the assumptions above, you made it all about you and your feminist agenda. I don’t know where you learned to hate men, but it’ll certainly hinder your career…” and “Being critical of my word choice (to get listens – which worked brilliantly by the way) is just as bad as me being allegedly critical of women’s clothing” and “Let’s not fight human nature with ridiculous feminist jargon that vilifies men who think ALL should be conscious of their appearance as a professional” …

My favorite (not) was probably his response to one commenter who mentioned the similarity and evolution of the tunic/legging from the salwar kameez suit from India (she–incorrectly, but it’s a hair-split–identified it as a traditional Muslim garment; it’s actually mostly just Indian, worn by Muslims and Hindus and women of many religions), to which he responded “Leave it to a feminist to make my episode about men dictating women’s clothing and Muslim traditional garb.” All this put together–not the original post, but his unprofessional, ad hominem, patronizing, and childish responses to courteous criticism– have made me pretty much lose all respect for this guy and write him off as a lost cause, and officially Part of the Problem. Because, despite my original dismissal of the incendiary headline, I now read it and can only conclude that he meant exactly what many women thought he meant when they first saw it, whether he consciously realizes it or not.

I even listened to his podcast today, in which he sat down with a woman conductor who had been about to drop her patronage of his website and podcast over this, and it didn’t help in my estimation of him– he went on at length about how “nasty” people were in the comments  (I observed only strong but courteous confrontation from strong women, though I might have missed something) (come to think of it, other famous types have used the word “nasty” to refer to strong women fairly publicly and recently), and he dismissed the traditional Indian wear question on the podcast by dismissively referring to the conversation in terms of the “burka,” thus indicating he not only knows nothing about the tradition but could not even be bothered to Google it to see where the writer was coming from…Admittedly, the person giving the comment did it with that impeccably practiced tone we all know how to use on the undergrad senior who thinks they know everything and who needs to be taken down a peg (you know the one), so no doubt his knee-jerk to was to rebel against it as most know-everything undergrad seniors do before they go out into the world and eventually realize, oops…He somewhere else denigrated the offhanded (and yes, kinda snarky) comment someone made about his dismissal of the importance of degrees and schooling, where a conductor said something to the effect of, “Well, guess my DMA means nothing, since I wear leggings.” (I thought she was funny. He did not share my humor, apparently.)

The original podcast, the one that caused all the brouhaha, was honestly not terribly offensive in its overall content, but also not very positive or helpful, disorganized and stream-of-consciousness-like, full of sweeping generalizations boiling down to this particular conductor’s assertion of what he likes and does as being the solution to whatever grand difficulty he thinks all these other conductors he’s witnessed are facing and perpetuating onto their students–everyone’s problem appears to be that they don’t do it the way he does it. I could pick apart literally every single one of them with a counter-argument. (Except the one about giving yourself a vocal solo in the middle of a school choral piece. That’s kind of inexcusable. Unless the kid who was supposed to sing it got sick and no one else was able to do it on no notice at all, I can’t think of a single instance where that would be a good idea–though he harped on it way more than necessary.) His condescending tone throughout didn’t help either.

No, the DMA is not an automatic marker that one is superior to or smarter than someone with a Bachelor’s degree. It is, however, a sign that someone has been around the block a few times, and maybe has learned some things along the way.

And, well, leggings. The fact that I agree that leggings are rarely a good idea in performance, though I would never dream of telling another conductor she should not wear them unless she asked me my honest opinion, still stands and honestly has nothing to do with any of this. My honest opinion is beautifully reflected in this elegant contralto aria of Anita Renfroe:

Ladies…wear what you want. Connect with your singers, connect with your audiences, connect with your repertoire, and be awesome, however it works for you. It’s not having a DMA, or a highly-listened-to podcast, or any of that that makes you a great musician or teacher or conductor. Know your people, know the culture in which you are making music. Try everything, learn everything, examine everything, listen to everyone, and take what works for you. It’s not that complicated.

(And stop calling your singers “kids.” It belittles them. They are singers, they are musicians, they are young men and women. Stop calling them “kids.”)


  • Betty

    I appreciate your thoughtful commentary in response to the “Guth” affair and the importance of “knowing the people and culture in which you are making music.” I am not from the choral world, but the parent of a female high school choir student. Ryan Guth’s podcast was directed at a specific female director whose choir performed at New Mexico’s All-State concert. Our state has very limited resources, necessitating extra work, dedication, and personal sacrifice from our choral teachers to participate in extra-curricular opportunities. In light of this “culture,” is unfortunate that Mr. Guth, new to our state, would choose to so publicly and inappropriately criticize a specific female director for her clothing choices. Further, his defensive reactions to the constructive criticism that resulted from his podcast illustrates he is not interested in truly knowing the female students and directors with whom he now works.

    • chickwithastick

      I’m so sorry I missed your comment when you first wrote it! (I changed computers and apparently my notifications got lost somewhere.) Thanks for speaking up. 🙂

      I found the whole podcast offputting and kind of distasteful, and all the more so now to hear that he was calling out a specific individual, without the guts to simply address her about it.

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