There’s certainly been lots of talk about the relevancy of classical music lately, with various industry writers, administration types and orchestral musicians weighing in on the associated issues. “Community engagement”, the role of an orchestra in today’s 24/7 hyper-connected society, long-term sustainability, and how to engage a broader audience have all been hot topics. So I have a question: why are we still wearing these ridiculous costumes for performances?
Most male orchestral musicians are still forced to wear tails for evening concerts. Not only that, they are expected to purchase and maintain them; not so easy when you think about it. Why? Because nobody wears tails anymore. Well, almost nobody. According to “The Black Tie Guide”:
“White Tie requires full dress which, as its name implies, is the highest order of male civilian attire. With a patrician pedigree dating back to the English Regency its rules are as rigid as its clothes are resplendent. The dress code is also extremely rare these days as it is associated with only the most ceremonious of occasions.”
In the US, that means things like, well, nothing. I guess you can get away with it for certain turbo-formal weddings or (I’m told) some Masonic events. But hasn’t the tuxedo replaced “white tie” for even the most formal affairs? I’ve noticed that for State dinners and the Presidential Inaugural Ball, the Academy Awards, etc. tails are generally absent. Why? Because they haven’t changed much since the 1870s, and they project an image of formality and 19-century sensibility that feels extremely dated and stiff. Certainly not fashionable (or relevant) unless you happen to be Prince Charles. And he won’t even wear them most of the time.
So why do orchestras continue to look dated, stiff, and formal while at the same time incessantly reminding everyone how relevant and modern they are? Some smaller groups and chamber orchestras have noted this paradox, and opt instead for either hipster all-black, or just basic tuxedo, which (unlike tails) generally makes most people look both formal and fashionable. Tails are pretty constricting for most guys as well, which is why many soloists and conductors now simply wear tasteful (and formal) black, often without a jacket.
Women have much more leeway; the options are much more plentiful, and female orchestral dress can be simultaneously formal, functional and fashionable. It’s also much easier to purchase a black dress than a set of tails, and you can wear it to dinner afterwards without everyone thinking you work there.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had non-musician friends ask me about this antiquated dress code, and I never have a good answer. It’s just another wall between the classical music world and everyone else, and (I feel) an easy one to break down. I’m all for certain traditions and protocol, but maybe it’s time to dump this one. How about just a tux for evening concerts, period? Or better yet, what if some orchestra teamed up with a clever designer (preferably Italian) to create a palatable and affordable alternative?
Fred Astaire looked great, but it’s time to move on.