Can We Please Wear Matching Socks


Anytime there is discussion about changing orchestral dress codes, my ears perk up. Initially, the thought of change is a positive; how wonderful it will be to finally have a uniform appearance on stage with everyone looking sharp.

But then reality sets in. Everyone has their own opinion, and debates range from how body types dictate personal choice in attire to whether or not the tuxedo should remain the king of onstage attire.

The latest page in this decades long story is from the Baltimore Symphony, who managed to generate some news attention by touting their relationship with a design school to create new and thrilling concert attire.

Like I mentioned above, when I first heard about the what was going I perked up. And then the long-established thoughts started to seep into my brain with questions like:

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  • Who has to pay for the new uniforms?
  • What about the extras and substitute players?
  • Will female brass players be able to change mutes quickly?
    Don’t laugh, I’ve seen skirts made from an ill-suited material send a brass player’s mute cascading off of a lap or slide out from between the knees at the most delicate and quiet moment possible.


On one hand, it helps to understand that most professional orchestra musicians don’t get a budget or stipend for our required “uniforms.” We are expected to buy and maintain our own concert attire and in most cases cannot deduct the cost on our taxes because while they are concert clothes, they can be used on other occasions.

And since most orchestra musicians don’t earn the sort of salary you hear about at the big orchestra in New York and LA, one of the most complicated issues is who is going to pay to get the orchestra into a “fresh new look.”

Just like most expenses associated with the musicians, there’s more to consider beyond the surface.

If the orchestras find a donor or decides to purchase the new attire for musicians, will they also purchase multiple outfits in a variety of sizes for substitutes or extra players? If the new uniforms aren’t designed to be custom tailored, will the orchestra be solving this problem like a bowling alley by having extra shoes, tops and bottoms ready in many common sizes? Probably not.

And speaking from personal experience, many still expect substitute and extra musicians to meet unique dress code requirements, even if the individual is only hired once.

Personally, I am so ready for orchestras to walk out on stage with a good crisp look. People pay a lot of money to see performers play on stage and it is paramount for us to look our best while representing the orchestra and the music.

But even when you set aside the very difficult issues mentioned already, orchestras today are struggling to pay musicians on time, even when musicians have accepted concessions (albeit while maintaining the same expense structure for purchasing and maintain dress code mandated attire). Those same groups are  struggling to keep audiences coming in and this discussion keeps popping up to force the focus on reinventing a look in earnest hopes to bring a buzz that will ultimately contribute to helping save orchestras.

Frankly, I’m not sure what I think about the Baltimore Symphony’s efforts but it did bring to mind a recent experience I want to share.

I hosted a dinner party a few months back and one of the topics of conversation was orchestra musician dress codes. One of the couples at the table (non musicians) had recently returned from a trip to Boston to hear the Boston Symphony Orchestra and had this to share:

We had front and center seats at Symphony Hall, but I found that I couldn’t focus on the music because one of the front stand violinists didn’t have matching socks. I kept wondering “Was he in a hurry, did he lose the other half,  did he get dressed in the dark, or did he care or even know?” the point here is that it distracted me from the reason I was there in the first place.

While it was a fun dinner conversation, it made me wonder about all of the dress code changes, enforcement, and new ideas that are cycled in and out of a typical orchestra musician’s career. While there are a number of options and fun ideas, I hope that we can at least collectively match our own socks and go from there.

On that note, I’d like to collect your thoughts, ideas, and stories about dress codes from the perspective of managers, audience, and musicians. Send along what you have to share either privately or as a comment below. I will compile it all and share some of the real gems next month.

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About Holly Mulcahy

After hearing Scheherazade at an early age, Holly Mulcahy fell in love with the violin and knew it would be her future. She currently serves as concertmaster of the Wichita Symphony Orchestra and the Chattanooga Symphony Orchestra. She spends her summers at the celebrated Grand Teton Music Festival. Believing in music as a healing and coping source, Holly founded Arts Capacity, a charitable 501(c)3 which focuses on bringing live chamber music, art, artists, and composers to prisons. Arts Capacity addresses many emotional and character-building issues people face as they prepare for release into society. Holly performs on a 1917 Giovanni Cavani violin, previously owned by the late renowned soloist Eugene Fodor, and a bespoke bow made by award winning master bow maker, Douglas Raguse.

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3 thoughts on “Can We Please Wear Matching Socks”

  1. Finding appropriate (in my mind that means dressy) concert wear is a challenge. I prefer to wear pants, as I tend to sit with my legs apart when playing. A wide flowing skirt would work well, however, I just haven’t found one I like lately. What about sparkles? I like sparkly things, but they need to be black sparkles, as others would stand out to the audience. Now about shoes……I am no longer a fan of high heels, as I have had some foot issues in the past, and they just hurt. I wear dressy Danskos with black dress socks, or black flats with dark hose. I want to look both professional and dressed up, and I hope that all my combinations of black dress pants and blouses look attractive from the audience. I think that trying to find four or five “uniforms” for women is a recipe for disaster, especially for subs and musicians who play less often.

  2. There’s another issue: I’m a former bassoonist and in one of the orchestras I was playing the dresscode for women was “black, long skirt”. One day I bought a rather beautiful, long, black kind of pleated skirt which was rather wide. By getting the thing I didn’t think of our “home” concert hall having a stage where the wood and brass section had to four steps up for arriving at our places.
    Have you ever tried to get up a stair in a very wide, long skirt? You need at least one hand to keep the thing up. Only I didn’t have a free hand. At the left I was carrying the little glass with my reeds, in the right the bassoon – and so what to do with my skirt? My grandmother solved the problem finally with sewing a little “sling” to the skirt’s hem so I could put it on my wrist for getting up the stairs.
    However after this experience I mostly wore black trousers. 😉

    Nowadays I’m always discussing what to wear to a concert with my beloved who’s a singer. I love to see him in tails in which he looks great. He hates wearing tails, saying he’d look in them like “a pregnant penguin” (nonsense!). Besides he finds tails uncomfortable – which makes me wonder because most of my male colleagues in the orchestra liked tails better as when they had to wear suits. They said the tails with the rather short jackets would give them more room to move (especially the violinists and cellos said so) while the suits would constrict them. Yet there’s obviously one thing about tails all men I know are in agreement about: Patent leather shoes are a pain in the neck and they hate them. 😉


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