Jacket Not Required

Recently, I had the good fortune to attend a Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra concert in their home venue which included a performance of Wieniawski’s 2nd violin concerto, featuring MSO concertmaster, Frank Almond, as soloist. The concerto was programmed as the second piece that evening and up until Frank walked out, everything about the concert was just like what you would expect from any orchestra concert…

The orchestra musicians were dressed in white tie, tails, and formal black dresses. The conductor, Andreas Delfs, wore a more contemporary outfit with a frock jacket but it was decidedly formal in the same aspect as the traditional white tie attire. Nevertheless, things took a decidedly different turn when Frank walked out on stage for his concerto; he was dressed in a simple pair of black trousers and a tasteful open collar black shirt.

It was simple, relaxed, and (without a doubt) must have been more comfortable and cooler to wear than a wool and/or polyester tuxedo. No one in my immediate seating area seemed concerned that Frank was dressed this way and at a post concert reception party attended by high profile patrons, no one seemed put off that Frank was in his shirt and trousers while everyone else, including Andreas, were still dressed in formal concert attire.

I contacted Frank and asked him if there was any motive behind his choice of attire,

“I don’t know why soloists and orchestra members wear tails at concerts any longer,” Frank said. “Historically, when orchestras began to emerge as a dominant form of entertainment throughout Europe, the audience actually wore tails but that was more than one hundred years ago. Can you image an audience member wearing tails to a concert these days, even Prince Charles doesn’t wear tails to orchestra concerts so why do we?

Then there’s the expense. When I performed in Holland, the orchestra actually supplied a set of tails for every player, so why can’t orchestras do that here by securing the services of a designer? It’s paradoxical on one hand that younger, hip orchestra managers of today come up with ideas like martinis bars in the lobby and coffee mug giveaways but we musicians still sit one stage with tails for masterworks concerts. There must be a way to get a designer like Versace or Zegna interested in something like this.”

I followed up by asking Frank what sort of image he thought white tie and tails conveyed to an audience,

“Personally, I can’t think of a costume which transmits a stuffier image,” Frank said. “I think the business has seen soloists move away from traditional wear due to the issues of comfort, style, and image. As a matter of fact, I don’t think I’ve ever seen Josh Bell in tails before and as for me, I always get more compliments when I don’t wear standard tails on stage performing as soloist.”

So what’s the big deal, who cares that much about dress anyway? We all know the clothes don’t make the player sound any better or worse (case in point, I attended a concert several weeks ago where the violin soloist wore a beautiful gold dress but she was one of the worst performers I’ve ever heard). However, a performer’s level of comfort on stage does impact their performance in one aspect or another.

Recent Developments
Not long ago, a company in the U.K. developed a tuxedo for the London Philharmonic made from a material they call Coolmax, which sounds a great deal like the material used by manufactures of sporting good attire such as Under Armor. According to the makers of Coolmax, the tuxedo is significantly cooler and lighter in weight than a wool tuxedo and it can also be machine washed.

I was curious to know what a tuxedo which could be thrown into a washing machine would look like (I was secretly hoping it would look somewhat different than a normal tuxedo) so I contacted Anna Moore, a representative from Susan McHugh Associates (a PR firm representing Coolmax), and she sent me a photo of the tuxedo. As you can see, the outfits look just like a standard tuxedo.

According to the manufacturer, the focus was not on design so much as comfort. Coolmax keeps the wearer from overheating by moving moisture (sweat) away from the body, which is precisely how garments from Under Armor function. Since I own several pieces of Under Armor clothing, I can attest to the fact that they do exactly that; efficiently move sweat away from the body. Now, one of the downsides is that since the garment moves copious amounts of sweat away from your body it also means that you end up smelling pretty ripe in a short amount of time.

I haven’t discovered whether or not that’s an issue with the LPO Coolmax tuxedos, but I am curious to know if it’s something players have noticed. Nevertheless, it’s great to see that someone is taking the time to rethink how stage attire is designed. Furthermore, it’s good to see that the Coolmax tuxedos were provided for the players.

It would have been even more interesting to see if the Coolmax designers could have come up with something besides the standard tuxedo. I’m willing to bet that in the end, the level of creativity and talent among clothing designers would produce some outfits which are comfortable, stylish, allow musicians the mobility they need to play their instruments, and don’t look like standard tuxedos and black dresses.

Uniforms and dress codes are typically a hot button issue among orchestras at one point or another. In particular, the variety of women’s clothing makes designing and implementing a dress code more difficult than not (as demonstrated in an Adaptistration article from November, 2003).

However, I still believe that if the issue becomes important enough, a clever orchestra manager will find a way to fund research toward designing a new stage uniform (or at least one or two types of stage uniforms) which can be directed by significant musician input. It really isn’t all that difficult, even the United Stated Military Bands change the look of their uniforms from time to time based on musician input and changing playing environments. The U.S. Army Band even maintains a display of their uniforms over the years at their base in Ft. Meyer, VA.

Until things change, it appears that in order for most musicians to wear something besides tails on stage for Masterworks concerts, they’ll have to get themselves featured as soloists (or become a conductor).

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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