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A couple years ago, ModCloth put out an ad for a collarless button-down dubbed the “Podcast Co-Host Long Sleeve Top,” and instantly, the shirt hit the fan on Twitter. Pressing questions popped up about the suggestion that a woman couldn’t host alone. “So, what then?” women asked. Would you have to buy two and hire a friend real fast? What about producers, huh? Where was their shirt? And why was it so reminiscent of something a ’70s singer-songwriter would wear?
No, but really. And then ModCloth released a tank top version and, in early March 2018, the process started all over. The good-natured dragging is because ModCloth’s blousy delineation is in direct opposition to a major perk of podcasting: freedom from dress code. The practice of defining women’s worth in the workplace by their appearance is largely absent in podcasting; a woman can be heard and not seen instead, freed from the Saw-like traps placed on the acceptable feminine. But if society isn’t watching, what are women wearing to podcast?
I have personal experience with this as the only core female podcaster on the roleplaying series The Film Reroll, where I escape my “sweet Midwesterner” appearance to become a spicy ball of destruction — some people tune in just to hear what I managed to destroy that week. But while I agree it’s a bit dogmatic to prescribe that every gal grab a mic and a Soundcloud account to find herself, those I spoke to shared some delightful insights.
Janelle Bentley, who helms We Brunch, a monthly podcast recorded at local brunch spots, where she and her guests chat and rate the food, spoke commandingly about owning her podcast instead of it owning her. “I usually dress nicely, so not that much [is] different. I don’t wear makeup and power suits, but I have to make it interesting for the listener.” When a necklace or bangle jangles, she leaves the sound in, along with the clink of table service, as a back-up track for the most important element. “I must rely on my voice... my voice is what shines over everything else.”
Kat O’Leary, co-host of Business Christmas, with her fellow MBA Nicole Lindenbaum, agrees. She also acknowledges frustrating “feminine” vocal issues, such as vocal fry and squeaky pitch, that lower perception of authority not only on a podcast, but also in business, where women must present themselves a certain way to stay competitive. Their pod digs into the “businesswoman goes to a small town to rediscover her love of Christmas” trope found in Hallmark-style movies and shows; the topic is a fun departure from meetings and management, and a platform to drag moments a film gets wrong. “We both love Converse sneakers,” they explain of their critiques of the films invariably plucky heroines. “It’s just that if you’re going to cover the royal family, at least have a minimum of decorum; throw some flats in your bag!” But that’s not to say they wear business attire for their own show. Kat recently wore Christmas fleece pajamas for recording: “On one hand I’m being very casual, on the other hand I’m being very on theme.”
Maybe it isn’t pajamas for all, but comfort is often key to fostering conversation. Jacqueline Raposo, a podcaster with a chronic illness, finds that yet another privilege of being a voice in someone’s ear is the choice to share. She and her friend Ben Rosenblatt co-host Love Bites, a podcast about modern love and food. “Especially as women, we’re trying to find our power suit,” Raposo says. “Sometimes the right shade of lipstick feels perfect, but that same shade of lipstick on another day doesn’t feel perfect. And that’s frustrating... If I have to wear five layers because it’s cold and rainy and I’m in pain, I talk to the guest so they are aware of it.”
Raposo says that simply sharing that frustrated journey is the best way to honestly connect to others. “That’s my power suit, figuring out who the hell I am, being a stronger woman. ... That’s a lot of responsibility, but a lot of a freedom. You can talk about sex toys and also interview a psychologist on the neurological effects of Twitter on dopamine levels, and people take you seriously on both accounts.”
Avery Trufelman — producer of 99% Invisible, a show that unpacks human intention in the design of everyday things — comes from a background with a more rigorous uniform: architecture. “People expect architects to look a specific way,” she says, “which is to say, wear all black. That’s an easy way to be like, ‘See? I work for an architecture podcast: I’m wearing all black.’”
Her path included interning at NPR, where women commuted in sneakers but changed into high heels for a game-time mindset. She described hosts at another station who wore a specific shade of bright pink lipstick when recording. “It’s one of the few times that lipstick is actually practical,” she says. “You can’t eat with it, you can’t drink with it, you have to reapply it, but if you want to feel confident for 20 minutes, you’re golden. And also it keeps your distance from the mic if you can’t get too close and you’re worried about smudging. It’s actually the perfect tool.” (She’s also responsible for introducing me to the “bookish, yet feminine” Podcast Co-Host Shirt, though it was one tool she didn’t think she’d use.)
And Amanda Mitchell, who recaps episodes of ANTM on America’s Next Top Best Friend with her buddy Hillary Sussman, agreed about turning fashion into a tool. “I podcast from my bedroom,” she says. “I usually put my wig on, just to be generous. I don’t have to, but I do. Whatever I’m feeling that day — right now it’s middle of winter so I’m wearing silver hair. I look like Storm. Imagine Jeffrey Tambor in Transparent — like a chic version of that.”
Mitchell is making a very specific comment on what society takes for granted as “being female”: “I’m into performing the art of gender femininity. I’m into looking at my face and trying to figure out what I like.” She sees makeup as everyday war-paint, saying, “You don’t want to send out to the world ‘I’m not confident.’ You want to enhance what you like about yourself.” Irked by different standards on cis men, she says, “I love Mark Cuban from Shark Tank, but he looks like a schlub! And it’s like, ‘Come on dude! Show up and respect me because I respect you.’ I get dressed up so you should get dressed up. And it’s not just a dress code, it’s a moral code.”
But the other side of “practicing the art of gender femininity” can be bewildering. It’s not something women are just born knowing, nor do all of us figure it out along the way. Lindsey Weber, who brings Who? Weekly to life with her friend Bobby Finger, discussing “everything you need to know about the celebrities you don’t,” instantly admits, “We went on tour for the first time this year, and it was very anxiety provoking, because no one had ever seen me.”
She couldn’t figure out the best way to look like herself. “I started off wearing heels, but I realized I wanted to be able to move around the stage and not be nervous about falling, so I stopped. And it was really funny because Bobby is really tall and I’m really short, and we look crazy in real life next to each other. And I didn’t even have a makeup artist or hair person — I mean, who does? But I kind of wanted one because it felt like such a big deal.”
Weber ultimately let go of stress and expectations and honored herself with comfort. “By the end, I wound up in jeans and a sweatshirt with my hair in a ponytail,” she says. Sometimes it really is just about making room for your particular voice.
And me, how do I dress for success? Mostly in yoga pants and a bra tank. I’m often defending play choices from my male co-hosts, so athlesiure makes sense as my mostly subconscious choice. I see it like preparing for a #swole sesh at a gym where I flex female opinions instead of screeching muscle fibers, wondering why we’re chasing that perfect #peach.
We’re all involved in the same industry, but blissfully, no two women have the same story (re-read that, Hollywood and Broadway). As much as we poke fun, the Podcast Co-Host Shirt seems a decent basic blouse you could absolutely record in, if that’s your thing. But that’s the thing: each woman defines the spirit of her podcast through her point of view, and these unleashed female voices affirm that the most valuable thing a woman offers is not what you see: it’s what she has to say.