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 ...
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?
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