Can We Update Our Look To This Century….Please.

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What we wear on stage is the first thing audiences absorb. Before the first note is played, even before the orchestra tunes. As musicians filter onto a stage, they are showing the audience information.

Why is this important to bring up? Because audiences come to concerts to see and watch while they hear the music. It is important that orchestral musicians look neat and somewhat uniformed because visually, it reinforces that the whole orchestra generates the impact.

“Formal Black” is what most musicians understand as Tails or Tux for men and the expectation that women will be on par with equal formality.

There are many problems with Formal Black though. Besides informing the audience that musicians are dressing in a tradition that nods to centuries old ideals, the dress itself smacks of everything this industry is trying to separate itself from: elitism and classism.

Besides the general stuffy look, most men complain about the lack of comfort since tux and tails are both restrictive and hot to wear.

For women, the problems are a bit more complicated. Restrictive dress codes drastically limit options. The goal is to match the level of formality of men, but finding a stylish outfit that conforms to any given orchestral dress code proves to be a challenge. Shopping for a gown that checks off all the requirements while not spending over $150 is a lofty goal/challenge. Some of the limitations from various orchestras I’ve worked with involve:

  1. No sequins
  2. No slits
  3. No cleavage
  4. No lace
  5. No sheer material
  6. No short sleeve or sleeveless
  7. No exposed calves or ankles
  8. No sandals or open toed shoes
  9. No form fitting pants
  10. If wearing pants, jacket must come below the rear.

Finding an affordable option that covers all those requirements is a monumental challenge. Additionally, the cost of cleaning needs to be considered. While men can typically wear a tux or tails jackets for weeks (some for months, that’s a different blog!) before sending to the dry cleaner, most women’s options don’t involve formal jackets that can be worn for extensive times.

Men can rotate tux shirts; women must either send a gown to the dry cleaner or hand wash. There are a few formal looks that I’ve found that can be machine washed, but most things that fall in machine wash category tend to be less formal.

It is time for change, but we don’t need special uniforms. Uniforms are a pipe dream. They look great if everyone is wearing them, but not everyone will have access to them. Think about the last-minute substitute player.

After several years of thinking about the problems and solutions as well as hearing from colleagues all over the country, let’s look to what Seattle Symphony is doing.

They have lightened up on the restrictions for women, all but eliminated the old-fashioned white tie and tux except for gala performances, and they’ve really put an emphasis on sleek and stylish mixed with comfort. I’ve received permission from the players to share their dress code. They’ve put so much specific thought into this, it’s most impressive!


Seattle Symphony’s Dress Code:

Women

Standard Dress

  • All Black
  • Dresses or Skirts: Formal; Full-length or with hemlines that cover both knees while seated. If skirt or dress has a slit, the slit must be in the back, or on the side facing away from the audience.
  • Blouse or dress: Formal: Sleeveless tops are permissible, but shoulder should be at about 2-3 inches wide (i.e. wider than a strap.) No plunging necklines, front or back. The back must be high enough to cover a normal slip or bra back. No exposed bra-straps ever. No casual knits, fabrics, or styles.
  • Pants: Must be formal. Not stirrups, leggings, or denim (except when expressly permitted) or other casual fabrics. Should cover anklebones when standing.
  • Dark black hose required
  • Formal black shoes
  • Modest black-on-black decorations such as sequins or beading is acceptable.

Untuxed: (Vibe—Friday night out on the town, NOT an orchestra rehearsal)

  • Standard dress -or-
  • Solid colored blouses, no patterns
  • Dark, dressy jeans; no holes or frayed edges, etc. or dark dress slacks
  • Dressy shoes

Galas/NYE:

  • Standard Dress but with full-length hemlines if skirt or dress, or formal full-length gowns, in solid color or color blocks (no patterns)
  • Formal shoes

Men

Standard Dress

  • All black suit with black dress shirt and long black tie, or black Nehru style jacket with dress pants
  • Black socks that cover any exposed leg while seated
  • Polished black dress shoes
  • No charcoal or grey, and no pinstripes

Galas/NYE:

  • Long tails, white tie, white vest or cummerbund, patent leather black shoes
  • Black socks that cover any exposed leg while seated

Untuxed: (Vibe—Friday night on the town, NOT an orchestra rehearsal)

  • Dark, dressy jeans or black dress pants; no holes or frayed edges, etc.
  • Solid colored long sleeved dress shirt, solid turtleneck; if shirt has a tail, it must be tucked in; no patterns
  • Solid, dark colored jackets optional
  • No ties
  • Black or dark dress shoes

For all the above, there is an emphasis on FORMAL. No casual fabrics and styles, no tank tops, no twill pants, no casual knits that turn charcoal grey, etc. And for further reference, there is an invitation to think of how one would dress in the Golden Globes, weddings, Grammy’s, etc. It couldn’t be clearer in my opinion!

If your orchestra has a variation, share in the comments. If your orchestra is thinking of changing, stay tuned because the next blog will be about how to form a dress code committee to make sure everyone’s concerns are addressed. Together we can upgrade our style and comfort across the country!

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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6 thoughts on “Can We Update Our Look To This Century….Please.”

  1. Building a men’s orchestra wardrobe is not cheap. It’s not easy to find a tailcoat without resorting to costume or rental quality. Those are usually made from thick synthetic blends for durability, which is a big reason why they wear so hot.

    This got me curious, so I decided to price out the minimum wardrobe I’d need to properly cover most standard orchestra dress codes. I went with Jos. A. Bank because that’s the cheapest place I could find an all-wool, non-costume tailcoat.

    The shopping list: tailcoat, tuxedo jacket, white dinner jacket, tux pants, black suit; tux shirt, white dress shirt, black dress shirt, white short sleeve shirt; white vest, black cummerbund; white bow tie, black bow tie, necktie; patent leather shoes, regular dress shoes; black socks; white suspenders, black belt.

    I just added all of this to my cart at Jos. A. Bank, and the total for the cheapest items available, taking advantage of all available sales, comes out to…

    $2474.74

    I’m not writing this to complain; buying work clothes is something everyone has to budget for. But the real-world result is that most musicians (especially freelancers) have to cut corners.

    Reply
  2. I like the dress code, and I think it’s a step up from the usual, but considering how progressive it is, I’m surprised to see the words “Women” and “Men” at the top of each section. Some Canadian orchestras have been eliminating gendered dress codes, including one that just ratified a new collective agreement with language on that topic. I think the idea is coming down the pipeline in negotiations at a couple of other orchestras as well. I’m fully in favour of the trend – personally, I’m going to continue dressing a traditionally “male” manner for shows, but there’s no reason my trans colleagues (or my women colleagues who wear tails!!!) should need a special exception to dress according to their gender identity, provided that the outfit looks professional. (I even know of one Canadian orchestra where a woman wore tails in violation of the dress code – it doesn’t seem that anyone had an issue with it, so why was it against the rules in the first place?)

    Reply
  3. I had a Nehru jacket back in the ’60s. I wish I had kept it – who would have thought that it would come back in style!!

    What is meant by “No casual knits, fabrics or styles?”

    Reply
  4. As long women can choose either a dress, blouse & skirt or pants, you’ll never have true “uniformity” in appearance, if that’s the goal. I’m not saying that is bad. For men, I think white tie and tails should be abolished. It looks like the 18th century. But a tuxedo, which is something that (theoretically) men in the audience also wear, looks great and professional, is not too terribly expensive and is much more “this century.”

    Reply
  5. orchestras look ridiculous to the modern world and need to get out of their pretentious bubble – better to throw all dress codes out the window and let every member of the orchestra express themselves however they like – it’s the music that binds the group together, not the clothing

    Reply

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