While I was away, I had many thoughts I could have posted in the blog. Here’s one of them:
This photo was taken in 1937. It shows two boys from Eton, one of England’s leading public schools (we’d call them prep schools in the USA). They’re visiting London — not to go to the opera, or meet the king, but to attend a cricket match, with Eton’s rival, Harrow. Working-class boys are gawking at them.
The photo ran in the Guardian, the British paper, at the end of August. They used it to illustrate a piece on continuing inequality in British education. But the classical music implications are about formal dress. In 1937 — when the classical music audience was the same age as the population at large, and classical music played a much larger part in everyday life than it does now — it also made more sense for classical musicians to wear formal dress. As the photo shows, people outside classical music wore formal dress, too. It wasn’t just Eton boys. Men in the British upper class might wear tuxedos when they ate at leading restaurants, or at theater openings, or even at dinner at home. In American films from that era, we can see men wearing white tie and tails as evening dress.
So formal dress for classical musicians had some social roots. We might find those social roots too upper-class — I know I do. Men in orchestras look like old-line British aristocrats, or else like those artistocrats’ highest-ranking servants. But still there was a context, when musicians dressed that way.
There isn’t any context now. Formal dress for classical performances just looks weird, and ancient. Time to put a stop to it.