Formal dress footnote

When I was younger, into the 1960s, the president of the US never appeared in public without a suit and tie. Or at least a jacket and tie.

Then late in the ’70s Jimmy Carter went on TV wearing a sweater. That was the beginning of a huge change. Now it’s routine to see presidents and presidential candidates in shirtsleeves. Our society, in other words, has gotten lots less formal.

So why shouldn’t classical music follow suit? And if the might and majesty of the U.S. government now doesn’t have to be represented by a gentleman in business clothes, why should classical music need to underline its importance with the kind of clothing even presidents would never wear?

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  1. Yvonne says

    And in 1930s/40s Australian public radio (ABC) studio musicians and broadcasters wore “evening dress” after 6pm. For radio.

    This has always intrigued and amused me. It also says that dress can’t have just been about/for the “viewers” because in this case there wouldn’t have been any.

    Why hasn’t classical music followed society? Pragmatic reasons abound, but I wonder if it’s mainly because, while society has become less formal, the repertoire that orchestras play (even much new music for orchestra) has not. The dress might seem disconnected from in the informality of much of modern life but it’s in accord with the formality intrinsic to what’s being heard.

    So, chicken and egg: will a wholesale change in concert dress practices lead to fresher, more energised performances of more imaginatively conceived programs? Or will it take a consistent diet of fresh, energised, imaginative concert presentations to lead to a natural, inevitable and uncontroversial change of dress?

  2. says

    Actually, I don’t think concert dress

    matters all that much; it’s basically a red herring. I never really paid much attention to it when going to or playing concerts myself, or seeing them on television. As long as the musicians are comfortable, I don’t mind what they waer.

    I don’t think that formal wear makes

    concerts “stuffy”. That’s a myth.

    When such great Jazz musicians as Duke

    Ellington and Cab Calloway performed, they

    and their bands dressed quite elegantly,

    and nobody ever objected. Why should it be any different with classical music?

    If orchestras, conductors, and soloists

    want to dress less formally, I have no problem with that. It’s the music that

    matters, and that the audience enjoys it.

    But I’m appalled that some people might avoid going to concerts just because

    of formal wear.

  3. says

    But I’m appalled that some people might avoid going to concerts just because of formal wear.

    I don’t think anyone’s avoiding classical music because of formal wear. I think the point being made by most of the proponents of deformalization is that formal wear is part and parcel to the overall “image problem” classical music suffers – that of something stuffy and outdated. Also, equally important, is does it affect the musicians? Some might be perfectly happy playing in tuxes. Others not so much. They’re hot, can be a little uncomfortable, and there’s no question one has more freedom of movement in a shirt vs. a jacket. No one is going to be physically less comfortable in shirtsleeves than a suit.

    Even in the most formal of service industries, suits are beginning to disappear. Let’s take high end restaurants as an example – one rarely sees suits on the waiters anymore. The maitre’d and sommelier, perhaps, but the regular staff at most will be wearing dress shirt and vest. In retail, studies have shown that customers react more positively to salespeople who, while not entirely informal, are not quite powdered and primped either. A suit sans tie is considered fine nowadays. Ties, the “appendix” of men’s clothing, are going the way of the dinosaur.

    But classical music holds on tight to tradition. The trappings aren’t merely outdated – they was outdated fifty years ago. All they do is add to the image that this is something stuffy, old, not even music for your parents but your grandparents. Or, in the case of kids today, great-grandparents.

    Using Duke and Cab as counter-examples… um, does anyone else see the humor in using two guys who were at their peak popularity fifty-plus years ago? It almost makes the other side’s point.

    No one is suggesting (I don’t think) a “wear whatever you want” situation. An orchestra needs a cohesive look, or the visual chaos can be distracting. But setting certain parameters – all black, or white shirt / black pants – and allowing freedom within them is going to be better for everyone involved.

    The season ticket holders won’t care. Most of them can barely see two feet in front of them in the first place.

  4. Rob says

    A distinction needs to be made between formal dress and tuxes/tails. Classical music would not do itself a service by shedding formal wear or a formal image, but it would help itself by adopting the style of the last 10-30 years. Tails make us look silly. They are preposterously outdated.And for a reason.

    A large ensemble with expensive tickets that plays in fancy halls needs refined dress. Some might even say a refined uniform. Casual dress would be more out of place than tails in the concert hall I think regardless of your perspective on the issue.

    It is doubtful that tails are the one reason why people are not lined up around the block to hear us.But it may be in the top three. Traditions on the whole keep many people away or at least keep them from enjoying the concert as much as they could. For the record, programming massive concerts of long and to most people boring and incomprehensible music falls in the tradition category that should be trashed. I think the industry needs to absorb some of the trends of the larger world. That means something as simple as dress and things more subtle like what music to play.

    Holding on to tails as a tradition is not timeless, it is stubborn and lazy. It is a symptom of a larger problem.

  5. says

    The first is that I’m reminded of something I heard David Bowie say on Fresh Air about 10 years ago. Terry Gross was asking him about the crazy outfits he wore on stage back in the day and his response was that he felt less fake in those outfits than he would have in jeans and a t-shirt. His reasoning was that the people who were wearing casual clothes were in costume too–they had deliberately chosen street clothes as a way of projecting a particular image, but the image they were trying to project was “I don’t care what I look like on stage.” Bowie felt that his costumes were no less artificial, but that they were honest because he wasn’t pretending not to be in costume. Classical concert dress is similar–the musicians are in costume no matter what they wear, the question is what message they want to send with that costume and what does the audience think about that message.

    Presidents started wearing less formal clothing because the culture shifted such that it was important that they appear to be “of the people” instead of part of the elitist upper class. People who want classical musicians to appear to be “of the people,” part of “normal” society, non-elitist, etc., are going to prefer that musicians dress less formally. But the problem is that so many people are classical music chauvinists who believe that the music shouldn’t be treated in a populist manner. Those people are getting what they want from the formal dress and are going to be awfully hard to persuade. The argument that society has gotten less formal isn’t going to work on them.

  6. says

    Just about any orchestral concert you go to will have as many men as women performing. Women don’t wear “formal wear” in the tux or tails sense of the word, and normally-shaped women who wanted to wear traditional male formal wear would have a horrible time finding anything that would fit or would allow the freedom of movement necessary for playing stringed instruments.

    Since some women like to “dress” when they play, you will see many varieties of black on a stage: some of it stylish, and some of it not. And it really doesn’t matter. The fact that everyone is wearing something that is black makes an ensemble look uniform to the audience, drawing the audience’s attention to the music and the uniformity of the ensemble, which (I believe) enhances the experience of the concert.

    Men’s black fashions simply haven’t kept up with women’s fashions. If somebody were to design a softly-draping jacket for men to wear when playing concerts, very few men would wear such a jacket because it would look too feminine. Some women like to wear nice shoes when they perform, and they wear them in a variety of heel heights because they can. Men are usually limited to one heel height and have limited styles of shoes to choose from. And sneakers look stupid with a jacket, whether you are on stage or not.

    The idea of using a tux jacket and black pants is an easy answer for men who don’t play in the upper-echelon, larger-city orchestras, where the pay is not high enough for anybody to afford to buy a white tie and tails outfit to use for work. It is pretty easy to buy a fully-functional second-hand tux since most non-musicians only wear them once in a while. On stage style is unimportant, so an out-of-style tux functions as well as an up-to-date one.

    I personally find it pretentious when I see people coming on stage to play wearing extremely casual “street clothes” like a pop musician would. I know that their “street clothes” are carefully chosen to give a certain look. It usually says “I’m an iconoclast” (which translates for me as “supreme egotist”).

  7. Paul H. Muller says

    Formal dress for classical musicians has one advantage for the audience: after a few minutes, no one is looking at what the players are wearing. I think this helps the audience to focus on the listening because that is what defines the performance.

    A rock concert, by contrast, is a whole other paradigm – the costume is part of the entertainment.

  8. Jeff says

    @Paul H. Muller

    Paul, just as a point of interest, if you look at some of the comments in the previous concert attire post, it appears as if some people actually do consider the tux as part of the experience.

    [i]“I disagree compleatly Alex. Clothing plays a role in the preformance.

    If I attended a Minnesota Orchestra concert and they were not in their regular performance attire I would be disappointed. I don’t think it looks weird at all, but normal. I’ve never been distracted by their clothing, which only enhances the performance.” – Tony Pistilli[/i]

    It’s an opinion I find perplexing to be sure. I don’t disagree with the notion that “symphony implies unity” as someone else pointed out. I hate the tails because I would like to be perceived as a professional, and the tux is costume.

  9. says

    Isn’t there a middle ground? Granted, this is chamber music and tickets are only $20, but this is how my group dresses: http://radiusensemble.org/members.htm. Not super formal, but not casual either, and certainly unified.

    To me, formal dress, especially all black, seems intended to make the musicians disappear (like the stagehands at a rock show), and is another brick in the “fourth wall.” In our experience, audiences crave a connection not just to the music, but to the performers and their unique interpretations.

  10. says

    Ugh, the link above is broken because the “.” at the end of my sentence was also hyper linked.

    http://radiusensemble.org/members.htm

    Jen, good call on this one. I like the way your ensemble dresses. Seems lively and honest, and because it’s so nicely varied — and yet consistent from one musician to the next — it’s bound to make a good impression onstage.

    That said, might I suggest that the photo might be livelier? I just saw it on a postcard advertising your season, and that’s what I thought. Dress wonderful, photo conventional. Why not something that shows more of the personalities of the players? And ditch the instruments! You might disagree, but for me it’s something of a cliché to show chamber musicians holding their instruments. I mean, we know they play these instruments, so why clutter the photo with them? Unless something interesting was happening with them, which I don’t think is the case in your photo.

    My two cents, for whatever it’s worth. Thanks so much for commenting here — and for sharing a point of view that’s far more than theoretical.

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