I used to own a teal wrap dress that I threw away because it made me look like a member of a string quartet. That might seem like a fairly unobjectionable professional to resemble – and I mean no offense to actual members of SQs – but it was everything I didn’t want to look like. The regular dress code of female classical musicians, including those in the string section, might not appear offensive. If we’re going to go down that route, you could ask, why not discuss denim hot pants or push-up bras. Yet the offense of this particular codified costume lies specifically in its claim to be inoffensive.
If the performers in Ontroerend Goed’s Sirens came on stage in skimpy outfits the audience would immediately know what ‘type’ of women they are. But instead they come on wearing an array of exquisitely tasteful eveningwear. It is in this decision and several others that the real brilliance of Sirens resides. For a show about sexism and female experience, it is as questioning of women as it is of men. When, for example, we choose something as theoretically unobjectionable as a teal wrap dress with three-quarter length sleeves and a midi hemline, are we really opting out of objectification as much as we think we are? One set of clothing is tasteful precisely because another set is deemed tasteless. The image of the Boden poster girl is formed on the idea that classy women keep themselves covered up to a certain extent. They dress simply and demurely to show the world that they are not sluts, both in the sense of sexually promiscuous and slovenly.
The modern middle class woman in her ‘never inappropriate for any occasion’ wrap dress is playing by as just many rules about what femininity looks like as Kim Kardashian. The wrap dress is particularly ‘suitable’ for ‘older women’ because it keeps hidden from view the parts that ‘shouldn’t’ be on show, such as wobbly thighs, and reveals just enough of what ‘should’, mainly cleavage, to still communicate that the wearer is not the threat she might be if she dressed, for example, too much like a man. And the reason it especially grates that classical musicians have to wear this type of garb, is that it succinctly demonstrates how even if you are the world’s leading virtuoso violinist, that huge achievement won’t grant you carte blanche when it comes to gender politics – we need our sopranos to still look good in a corset. See Reckless Sleepers’ A String Section for another take on this same sartorial point.
Along with reminding that everyday sexism is alive and wolf whistling, Sirens suggests just how much women internalise, self-police and deride other women for deviating (“she’s a skank” they chime in Mean Girls unison). You might think you are free from these expectations, only to find yourself under the bright lights of the National Theatre bookshop forcefully insisting that Alice LOOK at your parting because you’re getting grey hairs and therefore turning old and ugly, and all without even half the talent of a string quarter member. You said you wouldn’t care when you went grey, but then you did.
Sirens has been performed since 2014, yet seeing it in its final ever performances at the Tobacco Factory in Bristol, it could have been produced yesterday. This is both the best and worst thing to be said about it. The best, because the performers show absolutely no sense of fatigue with the material. The worst, because the performers show absolutely no sense of fati…. Yeah, that. In the three years that Sirens has been performed over, has anything significant changed? And if they performed it over another three, or even thirteen or thirty, would it? Watching this performance it occurred to me that if we want it to, then maybe all of us women (myself very much included) need to do better at rejecting rather than reinforcing. Stop feeling superior because you’ve cracked dressing ‘right’, when dressing ‘right’ just meant accepting that a set of other women dress ‘wrong’. Stop calling other women skanks. And stop, most of all, buying those horrible jersey wrap dresses.
Sirens is on at the Tobacco Factory in Bristol until 3rd June 2017. Click here for more details.