Dress Codes: The Topic With Staying Power

I wish I had a time machine. Among other uses, I would like to travel back in time to talk to orchestral musicians from the 1920s through 1950s to find out what they thought of concert attire, and not just for themselves but for the audience as well. Did they have wardrobe expectations when they looked out into the crowd or did they complain about their tuxedos and formal dresses (not that there were that many women orchestra musicians in the 20s –thankfully, times have changed)? I wonder because although there is nothing new about musicians complaining about concert attire, the frequency and gravity of those discussions seem to increase from one year to the next…

Case in point, Holly Mulcahy published an article at The Partial Observer entitled “Dress Codes Suck’… Or Do They?” She doesn’t restrict the conversation to musicians but she takes full measure of what patrons are wearing as well. All in all, it is a thought provoking read. Nevertheless, I’ll be happy so long as I never have to hear another story like this one.


Don’t forget to check out Sticks and Stones; two conductors, on the beat. jointly authored by Bill Eddins and Ron Spigelman. It is the first in a series of new blogs to appear under the auspices of Adaptistration!

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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5 thoughts on “Dress Codes: The Topic With Staying Power

  1. A few decades back, one of the Big Star conductors of a NY orchestra (NBC? NYPO?) put the musicians into Nehru jackets. That didn’t last long.

    I don’t see how musicians can perform at all in the tailcoats or tuxes they have to wear, but somehow they do. Nevertheless, I would like to see them in uniforms that are more functional. But, nevertheless, I don’t want to lose the sheer visual beauty of orchestral concerts.

    The bronze, gold, red, rich browns, silver, et al instruments show off against the black suits and dresses. I’d like to maintain that visual showcasing, so the costumes should be in whatever color can achieve the same effect. Another caveat should be that only the soloists wear non-uniform colors; bright colors within the orchestra itself would distract.

    When my daughter was about age four, we took her out to see some Christmas windows. One featured an orchestra of penguins — amazing how much they resembled the soup and fish of real musicians. A day or so later, PBS broadcast a symphony concert on TV. My daughter walked into the room, glanced at the picture, said “penguins,” and walked out.

    Orchestras don’t have to look like penguins, and the should not have to wear costumes that are physically constrictive (and expensive to keep clean), but we should do what we can to maintain a visual aesthetic.

    Paul Alter

  2. Not sure how relevant this is, but a famous piano soloist currently touring the world has all of his concert attire created by a big-name fashion designer. This fact is acknowledged in said performer’s printed program bio. It’s like the credits from a gameshow (Pat Sajack’s wardrobe provided by…)

  3. Apparently Mr. Alter does not know how little is really spent on keeping some of those tuxedo’s clean. I won’t speak for the women of any orchestra.

  4. Well, I’ve do remember being in the green room at Constitution Hall when the Chicago SO toured through Washington, DC, and hearing the orchestra manager plead with some of the musicians to have their suits cleaned or — at the very least — do something about the white (allegedly) shirts, collars, bibs, cuffs, et al.

    His pleas were met with overwhelming indifference.

    Paul

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