For stand-up comics, choosing what to wear onstage isn’t always as easy as, Does this look good? There’s the embodiment factor (if they’re doing a broke, down-on-my-luck bit, for instance, they probably shouldn’t wear bright Balenciaga), the comfort level (it has to withstand a long, often physical set), and, of course, confidence. When you’re a woman in comedy, you have the added burden of having to anticipate how an audience might react to your appearance, based on preexisting notions or perceptions of femininity. Like, if you show cleavage, will you be dismissed immediately? Or if you wear a blazer and jeans, is it more likely you’ll be taken seriously?
Comedy writer Jena Friedman remembers a festival booker once saying he “tunes out” women who go onstage wearing heels—“I don’t really wear heels in my daily life anyway, [but it] stuck with me,” she says. “[Women] have to be under this microscope in everyday life, so onstage it’s just magnified.”
“I’ve heard male comedians say, ‘I never wear shorts on stage,’ but I feel like that’s kind of a general rule for everybody,” comic Jamie Lee adds. “You never hear guy comedians saying, ‘I’m showing too much skin’ or ‘I look too manly.’”
Saturday Night Live alum Sasheer Zamata remembers dressing down at the start of her career despite wanting to dress up: “I think maybe at first I was just trying to do what everyone else is doing, like, ‘Oh, everyone else is trying to look casual and is very chill and they’re doing one liners,’” she says. “And then eventually…I just realized that I would rather feel comfortable and better in my own skin than try to feel like I’m putting on this comedy costume before I go onstage.”
Here seven female comics talk about the complicated art of dressing for the stage—and for themselves.
These interviews have been edited and condensed.