Originally Published: January 30, 2002
Let’s just say there is no less fuss about what to wear to a show nowadays than there used to be. Satin, velvet, theater-length gloves and opera glasses are rare, but the statement one’s going-out clothes and accessories make about one’s place in society is equally vital. It’s just that now the language is coarser and there is much less fabric involved.
I don’t go to a lot of theater these days – have seen almost nothing since moving to the DC area. This is not a reflection on the quality of theater in the nation’s capital; it’s a reality of having three kids and a budget that may have a modest column for Legos, but not, sadly, for the lively arts.
My friend Nancy had invited me to my first adult theater experience since leaving the west. It was so adult in fact that Ticketmaster warned ABSOLUTELY NO CHILDREN were allowed. An obvious caution, really, when one is buying tickets for The Vagina Monologues. But then, some parents are more permissive than others, I guess.
How does one dress for The Vagina Monologues, I wondered? Jeans, flannel, and work boots perhaps being a tad obvious - and more West Coast in flavor. A skirt was too… femmy. No make-up was a given, and I could pretty much leave my hair as it was. My uncertainty lay in the deceptive simplicity – how easy it would be to underestimate the task and show up looking either like a lesbian wanna-be or a tourist. Alas, it was unseasonably warm, so just hiding under a black overcoat would not bail me out.
Ridiculous, perhaps, to dress so carefully for an event at which I will know no one. The problem is my unsatisfied theatrical aspirations. I get a kind of backstage mentality. I secretly want to be on the other side of the proscenium arch, with the great and powerful wizard. I long to be part of that marvelous family. The illusion, if it is successful, becomes its own kind of reality with the audience, which leaves an actor with a feeling of indescribable power. I had my chance, but left acting behind in college because I determined finally that I did not like actors – whining, self-serving, soul-sucking flakes, I told myself. That as may be, the truth is, I chickened out.
But back to the question of what to wear to an historically significant theatrical event at which I would be invisible.
I wanted to costume myself in a way befitting the mood of the show. The problem was, I didn’t know much about The Vagina Monologues. I knew its author, Eve Ensler, the 1999 Guggenheim fellow in playwriting, was performing them herself, and that it was hugely successful around the country. I knew that HBO had recently filmed it. And that was the extent of my knowledge.
I settled on black wool pants, dark gray zip-up shirt-jacket, chunky mid-size heels, and a wool scarf. Simple, unadorned, confident, sexually ambiguous. Just right.
It was as if I’d bought the uniform. At the National Theater there must have been hundreds of women dressed like me. But delightfully, there were just as many dressed differently. There were older male-female couples in their Washington work-day suits, multiply-pierced young women in low rise pants with midriff exposing T-shirts, lesbian couples in chic professional wear, male and female students from GW, with their backpacks, lip studs and their respectably punked-out hair, there were wo/men, there were mothers and daughters and aunts and cousins. It was an enthusiastic crowd.
The show was wickedly funny, intermittently tragic, and surprisingly educational. “Empowering” is a ghastly word, which I write here only because I am sure some have used it to describe the piece – I would say simply “encouraging”. If you have not seen it, and the various euphemisms for women’s sexual organs do not appall you (the nomenclature “vagina” is just the tip of the iceberg, my friend) I urge you to do so, either on stage, or on Valentine’s Day when it will air on HBO.
The playbill states, “The world tour of The Vagina Monologues initiated V-Day, a global movement to stop violence against women.” Ensler has raised millions of dollars nationally and internationally in this cause. There was something fiendishly rewarding about ducking out of Bush’s state of the union address in order to participate in this kind of war on terrorism (Eve Ensler has her own vaginally-inspired ideas about how to ferret out the Taliban).
Today I am back to wearing my usual jeans and shirt, and notice, sheepishly, that I would have been just as welcome at the Vagina Monologues dressed as I am, that I wasted a considerable about of energy fretting about a costume I didn’t need in order to fit in. Eve Ensler, after all, wore no costume at all, only a plain black slip and black polish on the toes of her bare feet. Sometimes, I realize, costumes can hide all the wrong things.