Ruminations on Gender and Dress

As with many texts that I’ve received over the past two years, I read it, understood all the words, and had no idea what its actual meaning was. When this happens, I sometimes text back and ask clarifying questions. More often, though, I just wait and ask my questions the next time I see whoever texted me in person. In this case, I tossed my phone back down on my bed and promptly forgot about the text message—something about a film shooting the next day during gamelan practice—altogether.

The next day I ambled into the dance room considering taking a nap before rehearsal. One of my friends, the one in charge of the gamelan division, immediately asked me if I’d be participating in the performance that night.

“Yes,” I said. I dropped my backpack on the ground and sat down next to it. “But explain to me what the performance is and why it’s happening.”

He did. Apparently UGM was making a promotional video and they wanted to get some footage of us playing gamelan. We’d be playing a piece that we’d already performed and that I, nervous about some particularly exposed sections of my part, had practiced almost to the point of memorization.1

“Okay,” I said and then I lay down.

A few hours and a dance class later, we were all bustling around trying to find costumes that fit us. I, having forgotten the text message when I’d packed to go to campus that morning, had not brought any of the usual supplies that I employ when trying to put on a sarong. I was going to have to make do with only a piece of string and no large elastic band to wrap around my torso and disguise all the bunching in the fabric. Luckily, I wasn’t tying the sarong for dance, meaning that I had a much wider margin of error. A little looser around the legs? No problem at all.

Where I did run into problems was with the kebaya. The girls’ shirt was cut into a low V—nothing indecent in the US, but enough to show a good amount of the blue t-shirt that I was wearing underneath. I briefly considered taking the t-shirt off, but there was no way I was going to flash that much skin, especially on video. I looked at the other girls to see how they were dealing with this problem. As it turned out every single other girl was wearing a jilbab, effectively eliminating the problem as they just tucked the extra material in the front of their jilbabs into their shirts.

It was at this point that I started wishing fervently that I had a nice, simple black jilbab of my own. I’ve never worn a jilbab in public, never having run into a situation that necessitated it. I once almost wore a jilbab to go to Eid-al-Adha celebrations, but they were too early in the morning for me to reasonably get out of the house and when I walked by my neighborhood mosque later I saw that several of the women still working there weren’t covering their hair anyway. Still, in principle I have nothing against wearing a headscarf, especially when it would make me a lot less noticeable in a performance situation.

But there were no headscarves to be had, so I turned to the boys’ clothes instead. “Is it okay if I wear a boys’ shirt2?” I asked my friend in charge of the gamelan group. “Because you can really see my t-shirt if I wear a kebaya.”

“I think so,” he said. “Let me ask the teacher.”

Our teacher agreed as well, as long as I wore the hat that went along with the boys’ costume.

I was fine with that. I’m all about uniformity in a performance setting and also the hats are just really cool.

We set off from the student union together, riding motorbikes in small groups to the big auditorium and administrative building on campus. It took a few trips to get everyone there, but eventually we’d all found each other again and made our way upstairs to the auditorium.

I’ll spare you the details of how we sat and waited and sat and waited and took pictures of each other, largely out of boredom, and sat and waited. The next interesting thing happened when, an hour or so later, someone came in and started doing everyone’s makeup. The girls submitted willingly to the foundation and lipstick. The boys needed a little more convincing. I hung back as well, hoping to avoid the makeup removal process later.

While I was tapping out notes on the peking with the tips of my fingers and shooting furtive glances at the girl with the makeup, the gamelan teacher came over, trailed by the student in charge of the group.

“They want you to change,” he told me, “So that it can be seen that you’re a girl.”

“Change?” I said. “Oh, it’s not a problem for me if people think I’m a boy.”

But it quickly became clear that it had somehow turned into a problem for other people. My concerns about a plunging neckline were met with the decision that we would try to pin it closed.

Unhappily, I changed and then presented myself to one of my friends who’d helped me with costumes before. “Can you help me?” I asked, giving him the shiny brooch we’d found. “So that you can’t see my t-shirt.”

“Just take it off,” he said.

I rolled my eyes.

He did pin it, though, and it did look alright, even if the sleeves bunched a little around my biceps.

Then I submitted to the makeup.

“You know,” the girl said as she dabbed foundation on my cheeks, “When I first saw you, I couldn’t tell if you were a girl or a boy.”

I didn’t bother answering that and I spent the rest of the night in something of a bad mood. I was the only person—female or male—who had his or her hair showing, and it made me extremely uncomfortable. I kept weighing things back and forth. Why was it better that I stand out so starkly as opposed to looking vaguely androgynous but blending in? Why were clear gender divisions more important than the unity of a performing group? Why didn’t I say anything if I felt so uncomfortable?

I only had an answer to the last one. This was a performance, and in agreeing to participate in it, I agreed to do what I was told. And if that meant changing my costume then I had to change my costume. That’s just the way that performing is.

I don’t know what to say about the other things. I know that Indonesia, compared to the US, is in most ways more conservative. I know that this was a small problem compared to what other people have to go through every day. I know that this same kind of thing happens in the US too. Still. Still. Why should it matter if I look too much like a boy? Who is it hurting?3

1Mainly by looking over my music and playing the song in my head, just about the only method of practice available when you’re not sitting in front of a gamelan.
2Just for future reference, this would not be the first time in the history of the group that a girl wore the boys’ outfit. I was working with a precedent.
3Also, how ironic is it that wearing a headscarf would have solved the whole problem?

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