Does your mother know that you’re out?

When I interviewed for my first job out of college, I wore these big, silver, clip-on earrings that my glam Iranian grandmother gave me. I thought sporting them would help me stand out, which I would need because I obviously considered the marketing internship at McCarter Theatre–like I do most things–as a Chorus Line howmanypeopledoesheneedhowmanyboyshowmanygirlshowmanypeopledoeshe—I really need, this job, please God I need, this job–situation.

I got the job, and my boss later asked, “What was up with those earrings you wore to your interview? I was like, ‘this girl is either really trashy or really mean. Hopefully both.'”


The last two reviews that I’ve seen of 24-year-old pianist Yuja Wang‘s performances mention her concert dresses. Or lack thereof, more accurately. The most recent, from the Los Angeles Times’ Mark Swed, spends two-ish paragraphs on the outfit:

But it was Yuja Wang’s orange dress for which Tuesday night is likely to remembered. The Chinese pianist, who opened the concert with Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto, is also 24 and already a star. Her most recent recital CD is called “Transformation.” On the back, she is quoted as saying that her album “reflects the endless transformations in life and music.”

Endless transformations, indeed. Her latest life transformation is in the direction of startling glamour. Her dress Tuesday was so short and tight that had there been any less of it, the Bowl might have been forced to restrict admission to any music lover under 18 not accompanied by an adult. Had her heels been any higher, walking, to say nothing of her sensitive pedaling, would have been unfeasible. The infernal helicopters that brazenly buzz the Bowl seemed, on this night, like long-necked paparazzi wanting a good look.

Yes, she’s beautiful. Yes, that’s some makeover. And, yes, she’s still the same tasteful, technically impeccable, confident and extraordinary pianist she was when she first appeared, somewhat more modestly, with the L.A. Philharmonic in 2009.

He goes on to give her performance a glowing review, as did the Mercury News in June, after also spending two paragraphs on the dress:

The only bit of upstaging that transpired was Wang’s double-barreled, eye-popping fashion choices for the evening. She slipped swiftly onstage, an elfinlike gamin in a flame-colored, shirred tube dress with side vents and dramatic black V accenting on the back. It was a sexy little number that could not respectably have been any tighter or any shorter.

After the intermission, for the Brahms, it was an almost-as-brief, off-one-shoulder black affair with a single silvery epaulet, paired with impossibly high-stacked, strappy sandals that left us perplexed over how she would pull off all that tricky pedaling.

I’ve only seen Wang play once, when she won an Avery Fisher career grant in spring 2010. She was wearing a short, strapless dress and huge shoes. I’ve never been fussy about sitting keyboard side, but boy I regretted not doing so that night! My poor eyes did not need to see the things they saw.

Let’s take a gander at the LA Phil dress:

Other than my simply not liking the dresses personally, why do I find them “inappropriate”? Why are the critics spending review-time on them? Shouldn’t she be able to wear whatever she wants, as long as she can play the piano to the best of her (considerable) abilities for the people who are paying to see her? We’ve revered Lady Gaga and Madonna before her for their bold fashion choices: is a classical musician prohibited from that club? Somehow denied that outlet for personal expression?

The difference, I think, is that Lady Gaga’s music is about getting attention, so her fashion is the best kind of projection. Do Wang’s dresses contribute to the music-making going on on stage in any way? Do they enhance the experience of any given concert? Is there any benefit other than attention? Stepping back: why are soloists allowed/encouraged to wear different clothes than an orchestra at all? What are the factors that go into clothing choice for soloists? Functionality, for one thing. This is a uniform. People aren’t paying to see you stand or sit on stage looking good. They’re paying to hear you play, to hear you do something that is your job. We’re all expected to dress “appropriately” for work.  The “hear you play”/”see you play” divide is interesting. I always say “see”: I “saw” that concert on Friday night. I often think most classical musicians would prefer we say I “heard” that concert on Friday night, but the fact of the matter is, we are seeing them on stage, and hearing them, unless we’re sitting at home listening to recordings, so the seeing has to be part of it.

Perhaps part of my problem is that Wang is playing Rachmaninoff in front of a group of musicians working very hard in their black and white. A concerto is a collaborative artistic effort with orchestra, conductor and soloist: is it fair to the LA Phil, or to conductor Lionel Bringuier, that so many column inches in their review were taken up by the soloist’s concert dress?

I don’t know Wang, so I have to wonder only if this is a calculated, attention-getting maneuver like my (apparently) trashy clip-ons at that interview. Perhaps this is neither strategy nor statement, and she simply thinks she looks hot in these clothes and wants to wear them. Let’s call that argument, “it’s my concert, I can wear what I want to, wear what I want to, wear what I want to.”  Violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter probably still gets press questions about the strapless dresses she started wearing many years ago. For example, July 1, 2011 saw a blog post titled, “Anne Sophie Mutter, Superb Violinist in a Strapless Gown“, and a Wall Street Journal profile in January of this year mentions strapless gowns as well, albeit fleetingly.  Does Mutter regret wearing them–what, 30 years ago?–or has she benefited from the attention they’ve gotten her? In her case, there is sound (sound, get it?) reasoning as to how having bare shoulders makes it easier to play the violin. Additionally, it’s hard to imagine strapless dresses causing a stir today. Maybe 30 years from now, every female classical artist will be wearing short dresses and clunky heels. Maybe the men, too: who among us can tell the future?

I have a sound designer friend who once said to me that the best sound design is that which you don’t notice. If you leave a performance commenting on the sound design, the designer hasn’t done his or her job. The very point of sound design (lighting design, costume design, and so on) is to enhance the work and to contribute to an artistic whole, not distract from it. I tend to think it’s the same with clothes (make-up, shoes, hair-cuts, scents): we want people to notice us, to remember us, to like us, but not to be able to put a finger on exactly why.

I remain torn, though, and I think, ultimately, I side with the young woman in question. Do I think the dresses are an odd choice? Yes. Do I think wearing them is unfair to her artistic partners on stage? Possibly. Do I think that, as long as they don’t prevent her from playing the piano, she should wear them if she wants to? I do, so long as she accepts that it will be all people want to talk about, for better or worse.

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  1. Jen says

    So instead of boring formal dress codes, or Ms. Wang’s sexy formal glam style, how about going the other way with supercasual dress in a classical concert? I want to see a soloist in tank top/jeans/barefeet come onstage and just play.

    IMO the performer can wear whatever they want as long as the performance is top notch. When I used to perform I hated dressing up and as a concertgoer I dress very casually. The attire is irrelevant.

    • jen says

      Hmm I just learned that pianist Alice Sara Ott always performs in bare feet (but not jeans sadly). Gotta go to one of her concerts sometime..

  2. Ann Marie says

    I find the dress to be wildly inappropriate, and it definitely serves as a distraction and a gimmick. Plus, it’s just ugly! The true test will be if Wang still has a career 20 years from now, when she might not have the shape to pull off spandex and platforms. When a concert is reduced to being a fashion show, instead of about presenting a musical work, it is automatically devalued as a musical artform. The comment about Lady Gaga instigating attention, with her bizarre fashions, proves that people will remember you more for your meat dress/mini dress/hoof heels, etc, than for your musical artistry. With the kind of generic performances people put on today, of course they need a gimmic to separate them from the rest of the pack. Think of the true artists, whose names stand the test of time -Heifetz, Rubinstein, Jacqueline du Pre…. their own individual playing spoke for itself. No need for gimmicks, or distractions. Just pure, unadulterated talent. THAT is what is missing (in addition to the bottom of Ms Wang’s dress).

  3. Andy says

    Reading this, I was getting all ready to write a comment about how wrong you are to talk about this, and then I got to the end, remembered that your blog is about PR, and ended up basically agreeing with you, whilst still seething a little.

    I find it disappointing that so many column-inches are devoted to what women wear on stage.

    Is it sexist? Well, men don’t show up to concerts dressed like this. Men get to wear suits. Women get vague guidance and the opportunity to search (often in vain) for the middle ground between “lesbian” and “prostitute”.

    Indulge me, though, in a little thought experiment: Imagine a party where the women are dressed this way. You should be able to find plenty of them within a cab ride of the Hollywood Bowl. What are the men wearing? They’re all dressed like Lang Lang, and nobody writes much about his ridiculous suits.

    If I was Yuja’s publicist, I’d tell her to put some damn clothes on because, like it or not, this sort of coverage* is not good for one’s career.

    Both reviewers write that her outfits were very nearly indecent without actually stepping over that line. If I was Yuja, I might be tempted to point out that commenting on an artist’s attire isn’t lazy, bitchy or irrelevant in the context of a concert review, but it very nearly is.

    *no pun intended

    But they do comment on men’s clothes, all the time! Lang Lang’s and the like. The difference here is how little clothing Wang is wearing, not the style. If a man came on stage with an unbuttoned shirt, the “is it appropriate”/”does it distract from the music-making” reaction would be the same. Also, there’s the question of whether or not one can play the piano in a dress that short/tight and heels that big. Apparently she can, but no one would question that a male artist could play in a suit; no matter how flamboyant that suit may be, it’s most likely still functional. -AA

    • Ann Marie says

      As far as male performers, the violinist Hahn-Bin dresses in some of the most wild outfits to ever grace a concert stage. His concerts are more like circus acts. I’ve heard him play, and the only reason he is famous is because of his outfits. His playing is nothing special – no better than most other soloists out there, and his outfits seem to get in the way of his playing, so they probably hold him back from performing his best. Even he admitted to having trouble standing on 4 inch platform heels. The problem with all of this is that artists feel that they need a gimmick in order to reach their audiences. We need to get the industry back to the point where people actually LISTEN, and can think for themselves. It’s going to get to the point where people read concert line-ups, and decide if they want to go see te chick in the mini skirt who plays piano, or the Asian dude who dresses like a circus clown, and plays the violin. It’s supposed to be about the MUSIC!!!!!

  4. Laura says

    Some of us in the orchestra business have long had a phrase for this attire: “Gownless Evening Straps.” The soloist can get a GES “award” for a really sexy dress; the critics are reviewed (post publication) for how many sentences or paragraphs describe the attire, compared to the number of lines devoted to the performance. Generally speaking, the quality of the review is in inverse proportion to the number of lines devoted to the garment(s) in question.

    As for your musings on whether the players onstage are upset/disrespected by this particular soloist’s dress: absolutely not. I can’t begin to describe the depth of yearning among many, many orchestral musicians for an updated dress code. Tuxes/tails are cumbersome, hot, and no longer speak to the upscale dress of the everyday guy (tails especially). Most women would prefer to not be limited to gownage that was last popular in 1895. We’re waiting for someone smart to turn orchestra dress codes into a “Project Runway” challenge, and then license the resulting designs to our orchestras.

  5. Erik says

    This doesn’t bother me at all. Sex sells, and surveys show that most people at classical performance events are not there for the music. If this is what gets middle-aged and older men to buy subscriptions to what amounts to a social event, so be it.

    If this is what Ms. Wang feels comfortable in and is an appropriate way to market herself, that’s fine too. It doesn’t bother me that Uchida always has to wear her pajama-jammies when she performs. As an amateur pianist who always practices at home without shoes, I’d probably have to go barefoot or in socks if I was to perform in public.

  6. Gene says

    My high school piano teacher often said, rather shrewdly, that “fifty percent of what an audience thinks they hear, they actually see.” She even had her teenaged students wear short skirts when playing for auditions or competitions if there were male judges! (She was the most successful piano teacher in our large metropolitan area, by the way.) If you’re in show business, a category that would even include classical music, then how you look is clearly part of the equation. But beyond that, this is really about how sex sells.

    Someone could write a dissertation on the recent phenomenon of provocatively-dressed young Asian women performing on the piano or violin. Probably the most egregious example would be Vanessa Mae, who has sold a million CDs largely because of the cover art of her posing in a wet t-shirt. (I hear she is not without musical talent, as well.) This sort of thing – concert artist as geisha – demeans and objectifies the performer and does nothing to enhance the music.

  7. says

    I think the most important criterion for clothes for musicians is that they should be comfortable. It’s nice to see everyone similarly dressed, and I don’t personally mind in the slightest whether the soloists dress like the rest of the ensemble or wear something different, just as long as they can reasonably play or sing in whatever they’re wearing. By those criteria, if she’s comfortable in that dress and not worried that something’s going to slip or go “ping” while she’s playing, I don’t have a problem with it (and I wouldn’t bother mentioning it in a review), but I am definitely raising an eyebrow at those heels. Is there any pianist here who would feel comfortable playing in those?

    There is definitely such a thing as too much formality in music, and it can cause quite unnecessary problems. I recall attending a performance of Handel’s “Alexander’s Feast” in which the conductor and the male soloists all wore cummerbunds. This looked very splendid, but it was extremely impractical. The tenor soloist, who, like many baroque tenors, was a small wiry man, was giving it his all and working his diaphragm as it needed to be worked; due to the shape of his frame, this caused the cummerbund to rise gradually up his rib cage as the performance progressed, until by the end it was in such a position that if he had been any taller it would have been in danger of untucking his shirt. I would have been perfectly happy if they had all been wearing matching T-shirts, and the unfortunate tenor (who sang magnificently despite this distraction) would almost certainly have been even happier!

  8. Leo says

    Well, for my senior flute recital (1972) I wore a long white dress (modest) and performed barefoot. The hall had just been re-floored and the wood was VERY slippery. My father begged me to wear shoes but I refused and walked out confidently and felt comfortable! It ended up being a non-issue.

  9. Connor says

    As a young college student, I am all about sex appeal, but I am not on Yuja Wang’s side here.

    Female empowerment is definitely a good thing, and if this sort of sexiness is how Wang identifies, all the power to her if she wants to dress that way going to a nightclub or anywhere else. I’d probably end up flirting with her. But it does not belong on the concert stage, and here’s why.

    When a performer walks onto the concert stage, it is not about the performer, but something greater – the great composers, and the entire grand tradition. The performer is merely a messenger. Being such a messenger takes incredible skill and talent, and a good musician deserves recognition, but nonetheless it is not completely about them. Audiences should leave classical music performances primarily admiring Beethoven, or Rachmaninoff, or Ravel, and secondarily being grateful that such talented musicians exist to bring the music of these composers to them. Sensationalism, be it about sex or fame, will always be a distraction. Sensationalist performers reverse the attention from the music to themselves. Such a sensation will always garner huge attention, because people are vain and love sex and sensation. But it does not mean the performer has contributed in any way to art.

    A performer should be dressed in a way that is respectful to the music and the audience – that does not distract the audience with the physical characteristics of the performer or the outfit – but it also formal enough to show respect for the occasion.

    • Cindy says

      Why shouldn’t a performance be just as much about the performer as about the composer? The “grand tradition” is fine if you are a student of history but for a lover of music – classical music especially – the performer has a vital role in bringing the music to life. He/she (or they) are hardly only a “messenger”. A messenger would just hand out the sheet music. To someone who can’t read music it would be meaningless. Those who work as hard as some of these performers do definitely deserve credit!

      As to Yuja’s dress choice, no, I’m not a fan, but that is simply personal opinion. It doesn’t seem to have hampered her playing. Even the reviewer admitted that her heels didn’t take anything away from her “sensitive pedaling.” If it is truly distracting to a listener, couldn’t they close their eyes and just enjoy the playing?

      If Yuja was a very physical player (like Lang Lang) I might be concerned about a “wardrobe malfunction.” But Yuja is a very controlled pianist. As long as she doesn’t trip and fall crossing the stage… But then she would learn a very valuable lesson and hopefully the well-mannered audience would politely close their eyes wile she learned it.

      • Connor says

        I can only repeat my point, hopefully more clearly in response to you.

        A performance will always be “about” the performer in that that particular performer is the sole focus of the evening, but the thoughts and emotions of the audience should be in experiencing the music and feelings of the composer being featured, and not being charmed or wowed or disgusted or interested by the personal characteristics of the performer. A performance shouldn’t be as much about the performer as about the composer, as when a musician sits down to perform a work of a great composer, their goal is to project as truly as possible the intents of the composer – this is the goal of every great musician. When I speak of the “grand tradition”, I mean that a classical music performance deals in showing the masterpieces of great composers throughout different eras in history – perhaps starting with a glimpse into classicism with Mozart, moving forward an era to something Romantic like Brahms, and forward another era to Stravinsky – and thus has the effect of connecting the audience with an expansive history of different traditions and style and emotions. This profound glimpse into history is ruined if a sensationalist performer makes the evening about himself. A performer is a messenger because an audience cannot experience the message of Rachmaninoff or Beethoven until a great performer can walk on stage and project their music and ideas truly – and they have failed if they turn the message of another, great human being into a sensation of themselves! And I did say quite specifically in my first comment that great performers deserve extreme recognition – for serving the great composers and music.
        The fact is that a performer’s outfit is important, because they DO walk on stage and people, whether vain or not, will see an outfit and react. A proper outfit will not shock or particularly claim the audience’s attention. An improper outfit will do so, and the audience should not have to willfully ignore it – and many will fail to do so.

  10. Andrew says

    I’m all for performers wearing whatever they like, especially if they can pull a particular outfit off; but…. performers should remember that audiences “worry” if an outfit looks like it is going to turn into a “wardrobe malfunction”. As a fella, I totally enjoy Yuja Wang’s dress at the LA Phil. As an audience member I don’t want to worry throught the Rachmaninoff that the dress is going to ride up too high, or if the cellos and bases (and anyone sitting far audience right) might be getting more of a show than they bargained for. And I think she needs to Tweet and explain how she pedals in those shoes……

  11. Leon Van Dyke says

    The artist captured everyone’s attention beyond her performing talents. We recognize pop stars and remember them as much for their costumng as their talents. In an era where there is a profusion of classical artistry and less and less opportunity to perform, making a statement of individuality beyond the music may be simply another means of making a lasting impression on audiences and administrators. “Let’s bring that one back, the audience loved her and the press will remember her!”

  12. Kurt says

    Leaving the concert …
    Her: “Well, how did you like the Rachmaninoff?”
    Him: “Rachmaninoff?”
    Her: “The concerto.”
    Him: “Concerto?”

    If all it’s come down to is putting butts in seats (hey, we all gotta make a living), then the next question is:

    Why bother with Rachmaninoff?

  13. says

    I’m one of those critics who has commented on Wang’s concert attire. I thought about it before I did it — I asked myself whether it was “sexist” to mention it. But then I said to myself, “I’ve never seen a soloist wearing less in an orchestral concert,” and did it. I don’t want to impugn Ms Wang’s character for her choice of attire — and maybe it does, somehow, help her play better. As well, I acknowledge that classical concerts do have a theatrical element — we are there to watch as well as listen. But it disturbs me to see the values of Hollywood creeping into the classical music world. If being attractive (and displaying it) becomes part of the job, where does that leave people (especially women) who are excellent musicians but who might not look so appealing in a skimpy little dress? i know of at least one female concert pianist who was turned down by a major record label because someone important didn’t think she’d look appealing on the front of a CD. Fortunately, she went on to have a very successful career anyway.

  14. says

    As audiences shift in age during the next 5-10 years, clothing and fashion do as well. I never tell anyone what to do, and, if an artist feels that they are projecting their best performance combining the elements of the music, their instrument, their hairstyle, their clothing, it all goes together. One element must not distract from the other. Clothing must enhance the experience, or collaborate to make the performance visually inspiring. What we see is often what we hear. The eyes account for a great deal of our overall impression. So, if any artist finds the proper clothing to suit the occasion, wear it. It is a delicate matter, given the fact there is a wide range of age factor of performers and in the audience. Last thing we want to do is create a negative effect. Moreover, well respected artists can also start trends in the industry, so it is important to remember your fellow artist. If our performing friends prefer to stick with traditional attire, they should be seen in their own attire with mutual respect. In turn, their attire, if traditional, cannot be diluted by other artist’s choice of more daring costume. As long as it is in the right delivery, and enhances the visual and musical experience, why not. The bottom line is the music, and nothing should ever distract or detract from that.

  15. Rik Malone says

    Amanda, you said it yourself: “They come to hear you play.” But the emphasis should have been on another word: “They come to hear YOU play.” A soloist is the star, after all, and the audience is interested in hearing him/her play. If they weren’t interested in the soloist, they’d stay home and listen to CDs. So why not dress like the star of the show? As long as it doesn’t interfere with the music, why not inject a little glamor into the occasion? As an audience member, if the dress bothers you, or you’re worried about a “wardrobe malfunction,” you can always close your eyes. And I second Laura’s comments about concert dress – it’s time to update the formality. Make it work!

  16. says

    I must say that I still love those trashy, glam earrings from your Iranian grandmother. They had me at hello. And if you hadn’t worn them to that interview, who knows where you’d be today?

  17. David Srebnik says

    Each time I’ve heard and seen Yuja Wang play — it has always been about the music and her performance. That’s the first and last impression, from the moment she begins to play to the moment you walk out of the hall.

  18. Rory Williams says

    Did anyone catch her tweet? “a girl should always be two things: classy and fabulous. -coco chanel”
    Party on, Wang.

  19. says

    I have a little different take on this that I go into in this post:

    The problem I see is that there are probably some stupendous musicians out there that are being elbowed aside because they don’t have the looks. I take a musical look at Yuja Wang’s playing and at another pianist’s, Khatia Buniatishvili, and come to the conclusion that the image overshadows the music. Everyone says “oh yes, wonderful playing, but what about the dress?” I say, sorry, not so wonderful playing after all. And I ask the really important question, could people like Martha Argerich, who really is a wonderful player, actually get noticed today?

  20. Tom Vignieri says

    Too much ink is being wasted on this subject.

    Was it provocative? Yes. Was it risky (as opposed to risqué)? Yes. Did it have anything to do with how she played? Not really. (Unless it gave her MORE confidence.)

    Moreover, there is very little point of comparison. And I don’t mean male vs female performers. I mean female vs. female performers. How many other concert pianists have her body type and could even consider such a choice? I can’t think of another currently on the scene. So she is simply making a choice for herself. One that is reflective of her generation, the times we live in, and her sense of style (the one point that is open to debate, imho).

    To suggest that it’s inappropriate (or worse, ahem Mr Swed) for a classical music program is simply and sadly a reflection of the age old strictures, insecurities and pompousness of the classical music scene. We continue to behave in such a way at our own peril.

  21. Tom G says

    Set aside all questions assumptions about what is appropriate dress. If one does that, Wang’s costume (all forms of concert dress are costumes in the generic sense) is entirely appropriate to the occasion. It was at the Hollywood Bowl, helicopters and all, a festive summer evening: who cares what a performer’s dress protocols are? For heaven’s sake, why so serious? Isn’t that exactly what we talk about, that we want to get away from the dull, dreary seriousness of classical music. I don’t know what the fuss is. Remember, the newspaper photos were close-up. Who goes to the Bowl to get a front row seat. Only a few performance goers, dedicated to seeing/hearing everything, for whatever the reason, insist on having a front row seat. If you want larger crowds for Hollywood Bowl classical concerts, let them enjoy the show however they like. It isn’t Disney Hall.

  22. says

    a late comment. That month, I performed some very thrown together piano compositions/improvisation of my own, for a pole dancer. I played a smidge of Le Grand Tango accomp. I have met Gary Graffman onstage (@2001). I asked what to wear for the “bar/club” performance in Hawaii. The Burlesque troop MC instructed me to wear a gown (my black 40’s nostolgia gown), and not club wear, pants & a tank, or other dress at the Honkey tonk piano. My shoes, gunmetal glitter. An event closed to those under 21 drinking age. Mind that I was accompanying a beautiful pole dancer wearing a Vegas Showgirl Costume for the entire performance.

    So then tell me. Rachmaninoff, Ruth Laredo did so much justice to and had gowns made $5000+ if designer labeled. When do we get another more elegant and powerful woman?