Dress code

Jennifer Gersten, writing for VAN magazine, explores the clothing that classical musicians wear in performance, the physical and psychic challenges of playing in long-standard black formal wear, and interesting recent innovations by fashion designers such as Jenny Lai, the focus of Gersten’s article.

“There’s a part of me that respects the restraints and likes the formality and the expectations” of classical-music performance, says Lai, who was a violist before she became a designer. “I’m always trying to find a balance between something that’s recognizable and something that allows the unrecognizable to happen.”

Clothing the Future

Playing instruments that require significant, sometimes awkward, physical movement – strings, trombone, harp, percussion – in formal dress is constricting. Try sawing wood or raking leaves in a tuxedo. So why do musicians dress that way?

Tradition: European classical music was born in the courts of kings, dukes and princes of the church. Musicians were servants, wearing uniforms that denoted their roles in a hierarchy typically organized like a military unit. (Some, indeed, doubled as military bandsmen.) Ease of movement was outweighed by appearance, especially for servants working in the presence of lords and ladies, and musicians were expected to be as formally and uniformly outfitted as footmen or carriage drivers.

The tradition has lingered long after musicales in the ducal court gave way to public performances. Like black-tied waiters in high-end restaurants, orchestra musicians are formally uniformed in concert. (For the Richmond Symphony’s mainstage programs, the men wear white tie and tails.)

Uniform appearance is a visual cue that the musicians are an ensemble, engaged in collective rather than individual activity. And as the uniforms are black – the absence of color – their look presents less visual distraction from the music.

Dressing individualistically is not a taboo for solo performers. The combination of “look at me” and “listen to me” was established by operatic divas singing in concerts and recitals, and female instrumental soloists have followed that lead, typically wearing something like a ball gown. (There’s a downside: How many times have you heard a fellow concertgoer comment on her gown rather than her musicianship?) More recently, male soloists and conductors have ditched tuxedos in favor of less elaborate attire that’s more compatible with physical activity.

I’ve long thought that orchestra musicians should dress like fashionable Italians, looking good without quite dressing up, wearing reasonably loose-fitting but still-shapely shirts and trousers, in black or another dark, neutral shade. Such a look makes an impression while also accommodating the physicality of music-making, especially for musicians whose playing involves a lot of arm and shoulder work.

Those who have to work in formal dress, if they’re smart and can afford it, have good tailors to alter garments for comfort and ease of movement. When I buy a shirt that I’ll wear with a necktie, I choose one that’s a half-size too large in the collar; I’ll bet a lot of male musicians do the same with their tuxedo shirts.

Jenny Lai and other designers making bespoke outfits are too pricey for artists whose incomes haven’t reached six figures. Even prominent soloists earning generous fees have to balance spending on clothing with buying and maintaining their instruments, most of which cost a lot more than a Lai creation, and managing the cost of living in a place that’s home to high culture.

Some orchestras and ensembles have made the move into semi-formal concert attire. Early music groups are rarely seen in formal dress (let alone frilly shirts and periwigs, lest period-authenticity cross the line into visual distraction). Chamber groups and ensembles that focus on modern and contemporary music increasingly go for an informally dressy look. Hardcore avant-gardists perform in jeans, T-shirts and hoodies.

Most symphony orchestras, however, continue to be dressed for a gentrified night out in 1890. Visually complementary to Brahms or Tchaikovsky, I suppose, but increasingly dissonant to the eye as they play more recent repertory. In newer music, much of which is more technically demanding and physically strenuous, antique garb makes it still more difficult to play.

Orchestras are now putting a lot of effort into making their art form relevant in the 21st century. One of the easiest and least expensive updates would be a change of dress code.

Long-time concertgoers might complain; but they should look around them on symphony night. How many men still wear suits and ties? How many women still wear dresses? Oh, and how many of those coveted younger patrons, told they should dress up to go the symphony, look (and undoubtedly feel) out of their element, for no good reason?

For better or worse, we live in a time of comfortable clothing. (Better because it’s comfortable; worse because a lot of it isn’t fit to be worn in public, at least as it’s worn by much of the public.) Most employers no longer expect their workforce to wear clothes that impede physically active work. Not many houses of worship still expect congregants to dress up. Even the most uniformed in society, in the military and law enforcement, have different uniforms for parade and work.

While there’s something to be said for performers looking better than or different from their audiences, there’s no good reason for them to be stuck in clothing from a distant past.