music, technology & life in pasadena, california

Rethinking Concert Dress

I had been planning an essay on traditional concert dress when I read this on Alex Ross’ blog:

I personally find tuxedos to be a ridiculous and distracting choice of male concert fashion. They fail to convey the intended seriousness and instead make players look like uncomfortable groomsmen. Informal all-black attire would be better.

He gets right to the point and I bet it reflects the thoughts of many members of today’s younger classical audiences.

The Los Angeles Philharmonic’s regular concert dress for men is black tails, white bow tie, white shirt, cumberbund and vest, black shoes and socks. This common mode of concert attire was initiated when Esa-Pekka Salonen took over as music director in 1992. Before that, only a black tuxedo was required. “Tails” provide a somber atmosphere, as serious as the music presented, and confers a respect towards the music, the other members of the orchestra and the audience as well. This “uniform” elevates the musician as “apart” from the audience, as a special conduit for the music, and allows the musician to be seen as one who has risen through life’s accomplishments to a position of respect in their rarefied world.

In September 2005, David Mermelstein, a freelance arts critic for the LA Times, wrote:

The Philharmonic insists that its dress code signals the musicians' professionalism. But would audiences really think less of the players if they swapped their white tie and tails for the dark suits and neckties now worn only at matinees? Or, better yet, what about the comfortable all-black ensembles the orchestra's New Music Group wears for Green Umbrella concerts?

The Philharmonic, in a brilliant attempt to connect with a new audience, currently includes a few Casual Friday concerts during the season, in which audience members are encouraged to “come as you are”, and the orchestra members can wear just about anything except shorts, T-shirts and sneakers. It seems to work out well for all, allowing an intimacy for new listeners who may be intimidated by the “full metal jacket” of concert dress and the atmosphere that surrounds it. However, I don’t feel that “casual” is the way to go all the time.

I have to admit that in recent years, even apart from the concert hall, the tuxedo and its sartorial brethren have been looking a little long in the tooth, easily seen as an anachronism conjuring up images past when Frank, Dean and Sammy were trading yucks at Vegas casinos. Attempts to update the look, which can be seen at every Oscars pre-show telecast, fail miserably and comically. Unless you’re George Clooney, a tuxedo looks just plain awful on most guys. And apart from classical music, tuxedos should be absolutely banned for most other musicians. Contrary to popular belief, tuxedos exude an air of “cheesy”, rather than “classy”.

Alex mentions “informal all-black attire”. Many of the subscription Philharmonic concerts I’ve played in recent years that feature contemporary composers, as well as all Los Angeles Philharmonic New Music Group concerts, have had the musicians in such an outfit. Black pants, black shirt, black shoes. It’s really comfortable, easy to play an instrument in and looks great from the audience. It separates the orchestra members from the audience, looks serious and yet allows the orchestra to be “accessible”. And it seriously updates the old tuxedo look.

I have to admit that musicians aren’t always the most discreet dressers, and would come to work in black chinos that look as though they’ve been washed a hundred times, but maybe orchestras could make some kind of deal with a designer and get everyone in the same hip, black clothes in exchange for a free ad in the program. Can you imagine an orchestra wearing dressy and casual black, outfitted by Armani?

Now if we can only get the Philharmonic to abandon the white dinner jackets at the Hollywood Bowl…

March 29, 2007 | Link to this entry


Paul Viapiano is a guitarist working in film, television and live performance based in sunny Pasadena, California.

You can email me here.

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