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August 29, 2011

Monday Musings: What should classical musicians wear onstage?

The music season is getting closer, which seems as good an occasion as any for addressing the issue of dressing -- what classical musicians wear onstage.

It's an old, old issue, of course, but one that never loses its ability to generate different, often very strong views.

There was a flurry of chatter on the subject a few weeks ago after the gifted young pianist Yuja Wang performed at the Hollywood Bowl.

Audiences don't always get so much -- or, in this case, so little -- of a fashion statement when they hear a Rachmaninoff concerto. The pianist's red mini-mini-mini-dress had eyes bugging out like crazy, from all reports.

Soloists typically are granted considerable leeway when it comes to attire. Same for conductors. Individuality is quite common, and is likely to remain that way.

Time was when male soloists and conductors didn't look much different from each other, fashion-wise, or from men who played in orchestras. White tie and tails ruled.

Now, lots of variety is seen, from the untucked, open-neck black shirts of Joshua Bell to the snazzy, specially designed suits sported by Jean-Yves Thibaudet.

Women have long had more freedom. A woman dressed in a conservative black dress to give a recital or perform a concerto would, I think, be a decided anomaly now. A woman changing at intermission into a second take-notice outfit for the rest of a concert isn't uncommon at all.

The public probably ...

wants and expects classical soloists to have a touch of glamour. I think that can add a fun little extra to the concert experience, most of the time. Seems like common sense should rule, though. If an outfit -- whether worn by a man or woman -- is so in-your-face that the audience is likely to talk about it more than your music-making, don't wear it. Save it for the post-concert reception.

The art, not the artist, is still supposed to be numero uno.

But what of orchestra members? Isn't it about time they got out of those 19th century clothes and into something that screams "today"? Maybe.

Not that orchestras haven't tried before. An article early this year by Judith Kogan in Symphony Magazine, listed quite a few attempts by orchestras to look hip. Most, like "the blue crushed velour and with ruffled shirts" sported by the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra in the '70s, faded away -- fortunately.

But, as Kogan notes, "in our increasingly visual world, where young people -- whom orchestras are avid to attract -- find formal dress off-putting; where less formal entertainment options have exploded; and where the very future of orchestras is in question, a reconsideration of orchestra 'dress code' seems necessary."

Personally, I don't mind the old white tie look, especially if the programming is likewise dated or super-serious. I don't mind seeing just plain business attire, either.

Switching to less formal wear for less formal music makes a certain sense -- and I don't just mean pops or casual concerts, where that is already done, but, say, a program heavy on the Gershwin, Copland, or Glass. Matching the attire to the music at hand might be gimmicky, but it could hit the right visual note, too.

Given how many conductors eschew the conventional look, it seems kind of unfair that the orchestra members have to stick with the old-fashioned duds. (Conversely, I'm always rather bugged by the sight of conductors who insist on wearing white tie and tails while their orchestras are in regular suits. I don't get that at all.)

I hasten to add that the assorted physical shapes of the typical orchestra need to be taken into account when any new fashion decision is made. Sorry, but a lot of players are simply not going to be a good match for, say, T shirts (let alone mini-dresses) "in our increasingly visual world."

If the traditional look of orchestra musicians is off-putting to newbies (or seasoned concertgoers, for that matter), the matter should be seriously and sensibly considered. If the more people would truly find concerts more inviting just by changing what players wear, orchestras would be crazy not to try. The problem is that no one can know for sure. And there isn't loads of money to spend on experimenting.

Maybe one of those fashion designer "reality" shows could make the contestants figure out great new outfits for symphony members and clothing companies could be talked into manufacturing them for free, as a test run. Not too likely, though. And, as the Saint Paul example reminds us, what is with-it one year can come across as terribly dated the next.

There's a reason some folks look at white-tie-tails for men, black and conservative attire for women as a timeless look. It has endured.

If the old look should go, what would you like to see take its place?


Posted by Tim Smith at 9:21 AM | | Comments (5)
Categories: Clef Notes, Monday Musings


It's also an easy standard look for everyone to accommodate. In addition to contract members, there are always substitutes and extras in the orchestra that need to wear exactly what the rest of the orchestra wears. If an orchestra is wearing something “unique” it may be hard to get everyone to wear the same thing unless there’s a closet full of clothes for non members to use.

Ah, the practical side. You're so right. I think that if orchestras do move away from tails at some point (at least for certain programs), business attire or even, in occasional circumstances, business casual, makes the most sense (to me). In that case, subs would have little difficulty fitting in. TIM

That's the first time I've seen a picture of the notorious Yuja Wang dress -- that's going too far, I think. As for general orchestral attire, perhaps when orchestra members want to get away from the formal look they could wear whatever they want from their personal wardrobes but agree to stay in a certain range of colors and styles. (And nobody, not nobody, whether in the orchestra or audience, should wear cell phones!)

Amen. TIM

As a working musician, I appreciate the fact that one needs only a few different sets of clothing to play at a number of venues.

From the viewpoint of the audience, I think it would be distracting to have each member of a large ensemble dressed differently, irrespective of the style. Particularly in what we loosely call "classical" music, the focus should remain on the aural, not the visual element. Otherwise you might argue that new, younger audiences could be attracted by adding light shows, fog machines and the like. Which while they might appeal to some, would change the experience altogether for the core audience. Having just attended the opening of the new Cirque show, I found the lights and fog/smoke to be a little overwhelming.

Honestly, do you think merely changing the orchestra's wardrobe would be sufficient to attract "newbies?" I think it's worth exploring other ways to relieve the perception that this music is pretentious and about as much fun as castor oil. But on the other hand, the Baltimore Opera Company's catchy slogan ("Opera--it's better than you think--it has to be") and breezy radio ads failed to save it.

What I believe would attract new audiences would be some insights into the lives of the composers, revealing how so many of them were considered "bad boys" in their own lifetimes.

Though if you wanted to try a relatively simple visual experiment, I'd suggest having the BSO turn out for a concert in the usual attire, but with everyone wearing red Jack Purcells.

I love the shoe idea. Thanks. TIM

Regardless of the style of dress, I've got to think that it can't be easy to use the pedals in those heels.


In honor of the beginning of the school year, I think all of the musicians should wear inappropriate t-shirts and shorts pulled down low on their butts.

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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