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:
- No sequins
- No slits
- No cleavage
- No lace
- No sheer material
- No short sleeve or sleeveless
- No exposed calves or ankles
- No sandals or open toed shoes
- No form fitting pants
- 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:
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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!
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