Sunday, August 23, 2009

Pick a job and then become the person that does it.

I think I can safely say that most female fans of AMC's Mad Men would like to resemble either Joan Holloway or Betty Draper (a dichotomy that mirrors Sterling Cooper's own Marilyn-Jackie ad campaign). Christina Hendricks' Joan sashays confidently through the office looking impossibly curvy in her hip-defying jewel-toned dresses and high heels. Betty Draper, as played by January Jones, is the epitome of cool blond beauty, perfectly coiffed with a tiny waist in gorgeous floral prints and impeccably tailored horseback-riding clothes.

We all want to be Joan or Betty, and the current Mad Men craze at stores like Banana Republic caters to those desires. But I suspect that most of us, myself included, are actually more like Peggy Olson, Sterling Cooper's slightly-less-than-stunning secretary-turned-copywriter. We began our Mad Men infatuation the day she joined the firm, and so even when it gets overshadowed by the intrigues of Jon Hamm's Don Draper, we care deeply about her journey.

When she arrived, she was pretty dowdy, with curly bangs and a bouncy ponytail. Her clothes were sensible and girlish, in drab colors. She was unassuming and eager to please. None of this was helped, of course, by her mysterious weight gain in season one. But in the season finale, she was promoted to the position of copywriter, and in season two, Peggy began to become a little more sophisticated and self-confident. She started calling Don by his first name; she asked Roger Sterling for her own office--and she got it. But the most interesting shift, and the most subtle, was the change in her wardrobe. It didn't happen all at once. Advice came from all quarters--most notably from Bobbie Barrett, who told her to embrace the power she had as a woman, not to try to be a man, and from Joan, who said, "You want to be taken seriously? Stop dressing like a little girl." And then there was the surprising scene when Peggy joined her male colleagues at a strip club, in a dress that we would have expected to see on Joan or even Betty.

At the end of season 2, Peggy got a haircut and a makeover from the gay German import to the art department, Kurt. The premiere of the current season saw Peggy in sleeker clothing--according to one style blog, she has a slight Katharine Hepburn edge to her style, with a hint of femininity.

Now, anybody who knows me can tell you that I love dresses, and being a singer, it can never hurt to have too many. But a few days ago, I decided to clean out my closet. I sold four dresses to a used clothing store in town, along with a couple of tops and sweaters I'll never wear again. What made this notable is that the dresses I chose to get rid of were the ones that made me look young, like a little girl. Floaty, poofy skirts, ruffles, buttons down the front, pastels, white gauzy material with bows in the back. They were good purchases at the time--one light pink dress I wore for a recital I gave freshman year, age 18, another blue polka-dotted dress I wore last summer for performances, age 20.

But now I'm going to take Joan's advice and
stop dressing young. I have a round face, rosy cheeks and curly hair--I don't need to project "young," because it's obvious. My new goal as far as audition-wear goes is sophistication--more Joan than pre-makeover Peggy. Like Peggy, I also cut my hair. When I began college, it was long, below my shoulders, and I usually wore it in a ponytail, or half-up. In April of junior year, I cut it to a chin-length bob, and a year later, I went pixie and did away with hair in my face forever. I'm ready to present myself as an adult.

As much as we'd like auditions to be entirely about the singing, they're not. They're about the whole package. I don't want to be labelled as "young" before I open my mouth to sing, or before they get to know me. I want to be seen as a grown woman, a mature and talented musician who can handle any challenge, not as a girl who thinks that wearing "cute" clothes to an audition will win her the "cute" roles, like Susanna or Zerlina. I heard in a workshop once that the clothes we wear to an audition should help the auditioners remember us, but they shouldn't be the only thing they remember. Now I choose beautifully cut dresses in rich colors that fit me perfectly; with black dresses, I wear distinctive shoes. Auditioners should turn to each other and say, "Remember that soprano in the pink shoes? What a voice!" At least, that's what I'd like them to say.

I think the reason that self-representation plays such a huge part in Peggy's professional journey is because it is in itself a kind of advertising. When we walk into an audition, we are essentially advertising a product--ourselves. As a copywriter, Peggy's wardrobe and demeanor needs to convey confidence to clients; she needs to present herself as someone who can be trusted with an account. In opera workshop this past fall, our professor criticized several of my classmates for their choice of clothing. "No one will believe you're serious if you wear sweatpants to class," he chastised them. As singers, we need to project self-confidence so that the auditioners will have confidence in our abilities. And that self-confidence starts with the perfect audition look, even before we open our mouths to sing. Believing that I am going to be taken seriously has always made me feel better about my singing.

But what's even more important than being taken seriously is taking ourselves seriously. Until Peggy could see herself as a serious copywriter, the equal of Don Draper and Pete Campbell, no one else would. We need first and foremost to believe in ourselves as opera singers--not as children playing dress-up and singing in front of the mirror.

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