Racked is no longer publishing. Thank you to everyone who read our work over the years. The archives will remain available here; for new stories, head over to Vox.com, where our staff is covering consumer culture for The Goods by Vox. You can also see what we’re up to by signing up here.
I don't remember the specifics of the debate, other than that Bob Dole won our school election — hardly a surprise at a Catholic elementary school full of conservative Republican parents — and that a lot of baby powder was sacrificed that day in order to make 14-year-old boys' hair appear gray. But here's what I do remember vividly: the feeling of owning the stage (read: school cafeteria), that the audience laughed at what I said, and that I liked it.
Coming of age in the '90s, I gravitated toward and identified with comedians such as Judy Gold, Paula Poundstone, Rosie O'Donnell, Margaret Cho, Ellen Degeneres, Whoopi Goldberg, Roseanne Barr, and Janeane Garofalo. I admired their ability to stand on a stage with no script or props, and entertain an audience solely using their wit. I also noticed that many of them wore some variation of the '90s female comic uniform: a dark blazer over a light top, paired with jeans or black pants and flats. I don't remember giving it too much thought, but do know that I incorporated blazers into my outfits whenever possible, perhaps a subconscious attempt to emulate my comic heroes and channel their onstage confidence.
Last year, almost two decades after my debate appearance, I started doing comedy in New York City. Admittedly, I did not take the most direct route to comedy. Eleven years in higher education resulted in four advanced degrees, including a Ph.D. in bioethics. As a specialist in reproductive ethics, lecturing and discussing my work involves talking frankly about the ins and outs of procreation and women's right to autonomy. These topics always went down a little more smoothly infused with a bit of humor.
While I enjoyed injecting humor into bioethics, secretly I wondered if it was possible to do the reverse. On a whim, I approached the owner of a comedy and adult-education venue in Astoria, Queens, with the idea of doing a comedic lecture entitled, "Everything I Know About Bioethics I Learned from The Golden Girls," using examples from the classic sitcom as case studies in bioethics. That turned into spots on a few live talk shows to discuss bioethics and eventually, my foray into performing storytelling and stand-up without the crutch of discussing my academic area of expertise.
I incorporated blazers into my outfits whenever possible, a subconscious attempt to emulate my comic heroes.
What I quickly found was that as much as I typically felt comfortable in my everyday wardrobe — best described as a combination of Joan Holloway and Sophia Petrillo (the little one on The Golden Girls); think '60s-inspired sheath dresses, jewel tones, and cardigans — I felt vulnerable and exposed dressing for a show. Despite the fact that I don't tend to think about fashion myopically in real life, I found myself giving considerable thought to what I would wear onstage. I knew style didn't correlate to the quality of the performance, but something told me that this wasn't the common sentiment.
Men aren't expected to dress a certain way onstage — or offstage, for that matter. They can wear a button-down or a T-shirt and jeans, as Jerry Seinfeld and Louis C.K. have done on both the stage and their eponymous TV shows. Women haven't gotten off as easily. From the time women took the stage during the days of vaudeville in the early 20th century, their wardrobe choices have shaped their public personae.
Early female comics tended to fall into two categories: those who were self-deprecating about their appearance, and those who portrayed a character with an identifiable costume, such as Jackie "Moms" Mabley a veteran of the Chitlin' circuit of African-American vaudeville, and Minnie Pearl from Hee Haw, a country-music and comedy variety show that ran from 1969 to 1992.
Phyllis Diller, meanwhile, made a name for herself in the late 1950s and into the 1960s by basing her comedy on the fact that she felt ugly. Diller, who was actually quite conventionally attractive, dressed in garish outfits and made fun of her looks before anyone else had the chance to do so. Similarly, Totie Fields, a popular comedian in the 1960s and 1970s, would frequently joke about her weight, even publishing a satirical diet book in 1972 entitled, I Think I'll Start on Monday: The Official 8½ Oz. Mashed Potato Diet.
While female comedic actors on television such as Lucille Ball, Mary Tyler Moore, or Betty White could appear feminine, wearing flowy dresses, heels, and pearls befitting their roles as sitcom housewives, those working in stand-up had to compete in an ultra-masculine world, and dressed to reflect that.
Joan Rivers made herself the punchline of her own jokes, but in a way that exposed the unreasonable expectations that women faced at the time.
From the start of her comedy career in the early 1960s, Joan Rivers also made herself the punchline of her own jokes, but did so in a way that explicitly exposed the unreasonable expectations and double standards women faced at the time. "I succeeded by saying what everyone else is thinking," she quipped.
Which brings us back to blazers. Not only the article of clothing of choice of many female comics in the '80s and '90s, it was also the signature look of Tina Fey and Amy Poehler when they co-anchored Saturday Night Live's "Weekend Update" from 2004 to 2006.
Today's comedy landscape has tweaked the formula somewhat. If recent stand-up specials currently streaming on Netflix are a fashion barometer, the onstage outfit of choice for female comics including Jen Kirkman, Chelsea Peretti, Iliza Shlesinger, and Heather McDonald is currently a form-fitting top paired with skinny jeans and heels.
Other comics, from Tig Notaro and Maria Bamford to Lea DeLaria and Wanda Sykes, opt for more casual, structured shirts and trousers — sometimes accompanied by an updated blazer or leather jacket. Meanwhile, Amy Schumer, perhaps the most visible comic of the year and someone whose humor includes being self-deprecating about her appearance, opts for little black dresses during the stand-up segments on Inside Amy Schumer as well as during her recent HBO special, Live at the Apollo. And then there's Margaret Cho, known for her unique style on stage, which can range from colorful and glamorous to all-black and casual. Like her stand-up, Cho's onstage fashion is brash and unapologetic, refusing to conform to any established comedy wardrobe tropes or blend into the background. Perhaps unsurprisingly, she recently joined the cast of E!'s Fashion Police, and has her own line of jumpsuits.
But what about someone just starting out in comedy, who doesn't have her own jumpsuit line, or the confidence to walk across a stage in heels? After gaining some weight a few years ago, I stopped wearing pants that do not feature an elastic waistband, and rarely venture beyond a three-block radius of my apartment in my athletic bottoms (which have never seen the inside of a gym or yoga studio). Yet, when I first found out I would be performing comedy onstage in New York, my first thought was that I would need to obtain a pair of effortlessly flattering jeans and, of course, a blazer.
Then I realized it wasn't 1996, and there was no rule dictating that I had to conform to anyone's notions of what a woman in comedy should wear onstage — including my own. Why would I wear something to perform in front of other people that I am not comfortable wearing to brunch?
There was no rule dictating that I had to conform to anyone's notions of what a woman in comedy should wear onstage — including my own.
Most of my stage time thus far has been in the context of being a bioethicist, either with my own Golden Girls lecture, or making appearances on other comedy shows discussing, say, the ethics of transhumanism. This has made my transition from university to comedy fairly seamless: My onstage persona as a snarky, self-deprecating, outspoken feminist bioethicist is essentially indistinguishable from me in real life.
Typically, this involves wearing a blouse tucked into a form-fitting pencil skirt, topped with a stretchy belt and a double strand of celluloid plastic white beads, my black cat-eye glasses, and red lipstick. This particular look makes me feel comfortable for two main reasons: I think it's the most flattering for my body type, and it consists of soft fabric with a lot of give. Given that my act involves discussing complex ethical issues using humor and pop culture references, my everyday academic-inspired look also works for the stage.
Most working female comics would probably agree that the two biggest factors in dressing for the comedy stage are, as comedian and author of The New Rules for Blondes, Selena Coppock, succinctly put it, "practicality and perception."
Comedian and author Sara Benincasa said she would advise any comedian today "to wear what makes her feel comfortable. If that includes a titty top with booty padding, more power to her. If that includes a fine tuxedo, more power to her. If that includes being bare-ass naked onstage, more power to her and please don't get arrested for public indecency in some uptight town when you're doing the road."
On the perception front, what a performer wears onstage is also a cue for the audience, whether she wants it to be or not. "A costume designer considers how clothing can be a shorthand to the viewer to convey status, occupation, and self-image. I try to think of dressing for stand-up the same way," explained Anna Lucero, a Chicago-based comedian who produces The Gogo Show. When selecting an outfit for a performance, she considers her comedic point of view, and whether it's funnier to support or contrast that with her appearance.
"I usually try to have my clothing, hair, and makeup be somewhat ‘tough' and I think it helps me command the room," Coppock explained. "My hair, just with being big and blonde, can have sort-of a sorority WASP look, I think, so I try to balance that by having tougher-looking clothing, jewelry, and make-up."
Comedian Carolyn Castiglia said that the type of show and venue affects her decision of what to wear. "If I'm doing stand-up in a dive bar, I'll wear jeans and a T-shirt. Probably no makeup," she said. And like Coppock, Castiglia gravitates towards a look that makes her "feel tough."
Is "tough" shorthand for "masculine," or whatever makes us feel most confident, regardless of style? Are we so used to being judged on our appearances offstage that when we have the gall to stand up on a stage — a traditionally male space — and tell jokes, we assume we'll fall under withering scrutiny? If that's what we're working with, it's no wonder we tend to prioritize toughness.
As for me, I determined that there was no point in changing my style to conform to someone else's standards of what a woman in comedy should look like. My day job, act, and fashion choices are complementary; after all, I'm an awkward bioethicist attempting to make people laugh. In the end, it's for the best that I won't spend a Saturday afternoon schlepping all over Queens attempting to find that perfect blazer.