dress for improv

The author in her natural habitat.

Hi, I’m Vic. I stopped wearing dresses for improv, if I can avoid it.

My favourite red lippie too (Gabrielle by Chanel, if you’re asking).

Dresses make up a glorious 80% of my wardrobe. Yet, I force myself to dress as androgynously as possible when I’m practising or performing improv.

Why? Well, no, my predilections have not changed at all.

Believe me when I tell you that these choices go against all types of grains.

You see, I came to realise that dresses and skirts subconsciously limit the diversity of the characters I choose to embody.

Author (centre of photo) proposing.

Where the idea germinated

This awareness was activated at the Singapore Improv Festival this year.

Very new to improvisation, I had signed up for the Play Like A Girl workshop by Alison Coriell.

I arrived late, in a blowy flower-printed bright red dress.

Everyone was sitting in a circle, there I was, all flustered, and the first thing Alison said when she turned to me was “Do you have any pants you can change into?”

Defensively grumbling to myself in the toilet, I changed into my special occasions jeans that I’d had at hand for my first improv show later that afternoon.

My group had decided on a t-shirt and jeans uniform for the show, but I still felt more comfortable moving in a dress – and the workshop details did request participants to wear clothing we could move comfortably in.

play like a girl workshop

Play Like A Girl workshop participants. Instructor, Alison, in the middle with a pink lanyard.
Photo credit: Hellena Jiang

Why the pants

Alison explained that as improvisers, we want to be able to be as free to express ourselves physically as possible and that that freedom is inhibited when we are self-conscious about onstage wardrobe mishaps.

This self-consciousness can be mitigated by wearing reliable (“boring” to my flamboyant mind) clothes such as track pants and t-shirts instead of skirts, dresses, and tops with low necklines.

Naturally, she advocated for comfortable sneakers and sandals over heels as well.

At this point, my inner third-wave feminist was rioting. Thoughts ran through my mind.

  • I can dress how I want to!
  • So what if I ‘zao geng?’ [Author’s note: Singlish for “to unintentionally reveal a piece of undergarment”]
  • I defy society’s expectations of propriety in skin exposure!
  • This does not apply to me as I care not for people’s opinions and wardrobe mishaps do not faze me!

The realisation…

But during the workshop, as I crawled and leaped and laid and sat and became generally more involved and reflective in improv practices, the word “free” echoed in my head.

I became hyper-aware of my unconscious bodily self-censorship. As time went by, I registered minute hesitancy in plunging into unrestrained postures.

As much as my spirit felt free to embody different genders and god knows how much I resist the notion of gender-specific clothing, I noticed that incentivized by the swishing fabric, I was inclined to perform femininity.

I also noticed that it was harder to establish to my scene partners that I was not a woman when wearing a dress. I noticed that I was more frequently endowed as female than when I was in trousers.

Plus, I can’t deny that it’s easier to improvise a skirt while wearing trousers than to improvise trousers while wearing a skirt.

The thespian’s blank slate uniform of black-tee-black-pants makes more sense to me now.

Idealistically, I want gender-specific clothing to be a non-issue in improvising a range of characters and genders, but sensibly I know that, in our time, it is.

Besides, in improv, there are so many other factors working against the improvisor’s ability to convince the audience of the world they are creating. Messy object work, missed offers, plotholes, even bad lighting… I now value every infinitesimal opportunity to reduce the audience’s effort to suspend their disbelief.

That’s why I stopped wearing dresses for improv…if I can avoid it.


About the author
Vic Ong started learning improv at The Improv Company in December 2017. She performed with ‘Group Photo Here’ at the 2018 Singapore Improv Festival and with ‘The Revengers’ at the 2018 NLB Read! Fest. She is a new member of ‘Les Musicables’ and is currently improvising with up-and-coming teams ‘Photo Spam’ and ‘Sometimes Trouble’.


Further reading: A follow-up article by someone who only wears dresses for improv.


Categories: Learning improvShows

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