With costume and fashion relying largely on binary sizing and reference, ie. men’s shoe sizes, women’s bra sizes, etc., how can those of us in the costume industry be more respectful to our non-binary actors and the reality of working within the confines of a largely binary system?
Thank you so much for asking this question!
Personally, I really appreciate being able to chat one on one with a costume designer before measurements are taken. Even before coming out as non-binary, I’ve had extremely negative experiences with costumers. These experiences have ranged from costumers suggesting I go on a diet to them telling the director they didn’t know how to costume for my body type.
Regardless of body type, gender identity or expression, the actor has already earned their role by the time they get their measurements taken. Having measurements taken is a deeply vulnerable process for some performers.
I’d recommend prioritizing a private measurement-taking session with any non-binary and transgender performers and make sure that you, the director and the performer are all on the same page in terms of the gender presentation of the character they are portraying.
For instance, I’m a non-binary actor who was assigned female at birth. I am comfortable playing non-binary, male and female roles. If I’m playing a male role, I’ll likely want to use my binder, which reduces the size of my chest.
I’d recommend taking a look at the costuming form(s) and seeing if there are opportunities to update the language that’s being used. If there are different forms for men and women, question why that is the case and see what strides can be made to have one form for all performers.
Use language that acknowledges that many clothing choices are still unfortunately enmeshed in the gender binary at the start of a meeting or measurement session, and vocalize your commitment to non-binary and trans actors to create an inclusive environment in which they can voice their boundaries and preferences.
Saying something along the lines of: “Hi, X! My name is X, and my pronouns are X, Y and Z. Before we get started, I want to acknowledge that the way we talk about clothing and costume pieces is often gendered and I want to make this process an affirming one for you. Let’s look at this costume form together before I get the measuring tape out and let me know if there’s anything specific you’d like me to know before we start taking measurements or any notes you’d like me to add to certain fields.”
You may find that non-binary actors wear a mix of gendered clothes and they may have recommendations on brands or cuts that work well with their body. (Personally, I love wearing “men’s” blazers, henleys and button-downs and can buy them off the rack at thrift stores, but “men’s” pants are almost impossible for me to find off the rack.) Folx assigned female at birth who are portraying male roles will likely need some tailoring, depending on their body shape.
Please prioritize anyone who will be touching the body of a non-binary or trans actor having an excellent command of pronouns. It is absolutely awful to have someone taking measurements of your body while misgendering you. (Personally, nothing shuts me down more in a creative process than getting misgendered: anxiety attacks, panic attacks and dissociating can occur.)
Also, check-in with non-binary and trans performers about dressing room assignments and where they want to be placed. There’s a fantastic piece up HowlRound titled “Beyond the Bathrooms: Cultivating Meaningful Trans Inclusion in Theatrical Spaces,” written by John Meredith and Sloth Levine.
“Ensure there are literal physical places in your buildings where trans people feel safe. Before stage managers and wardrobe assume to partition actors into binary dressing rooms (men and women), ask the actors where they would feel comfortable doing costume changes. These conversations should happen well before tech. As a general rule, private options for changing areas should always be available. When in doubt, choose the option that allows actors—trans or otherwise—agency over their bodies. It is important that they feel safe in these spaces in order to produce their best work.”
I think one of the most helpful things you can do as a costume designer is to familiarize yourself with the concept of dysphoria. (Here’s a piece by Teen Vogue were trans and non-binary folx speak about their experiences with dysphoria in their own words: https://www.teenvogue.com/story/what-its-like-to-be-trans-and-live-with-gender-dysphoria) Not all trans or non-binary folx experience dysphoria, but many do to some extent.
One of the most powerful things costume designers can do is to contribute to a sense of gender euphoria in the performers they are costuming. And each performer will be different. Long story short? Don’t make assumptions, ask questions, empower non-binary and trans performers to tell you what they need to look and feel their best.
And, at the end of the day: clothes aren’t gendered. Folx should get to wear whatever the heck fits them and contributes to a sense of gender euphoria, regardless of the label sewn into it.
As with any advice column, this is one person’s opinion–if you’d like to offer advice that differs with that given above, please post in the comments section!
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