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.



13 thoughts on “Tailgate”

  1. The dress code is simply another orchestral anachronism. In the past the aristocratic patrons of the arts dressed their servants (including the orchestra)in clothes that looked similar to their own. In the 19th century most upper class folks dressed in tails (later tuxedos)in the evening. Orchestras followed suit (pardon the pun). Also – so did the butler and all the other servants. So here we are, locked in an irrelevant past. The only people in our society who now have to dress in formal wear are musicians, waiters and the catering staff…

    Given the new patrons of the arts, the orchestra should be wearing a business suit in the evening and jeans and T shirts for community outreach concerts…

    • Thanks for your comment. I agree tails are a throwback to an era where most people wore them much more frequently, and there’s not much use for them now.
      I think there’s a way for orchestras to keep some sort of formal protocol regarding dress without looking so detached and dated. But someone has to be bold enough to take that step…

  2. One could really get imaginative with this…I mean, why not make the performances more like shows and wear costumes? Powdered wigs and knickers for the men in Baroque and Classical, ladies in hooped skirts and corsets; tails and such for Romantic settings; au natural for Minimalist programs, and mix ‘n match for the Avant-Garde.

  3. “Women have much more leeway”

    I do agree about the tails, but you stumbled on my pet peeve. In our local (but internationally known) band, the women are not allowed to wear pants for evening performances. It ups the frump-factor to no end. I visit Boston every year & usually catch a BSO concert. I always think that the women there look very classy.

  4. ps- Marjorie- I’m thinkin’ a lot of orchestras would have to provide in-house gyms and personal trainers real quick before they could do any minimalist programs!

  5. Oh, wow, surprising from you! I thought you would like it. I love the tails because they are so formal. I don’t think you seen enough formality these days.
    Pin the tail on the orchestra! Maybe a tailor could invent a tail that would be removable so you wont look like a waiter.

    I will agree with you that the women have it easier, but what bothers me about that is they don’t look uniform. Each member has a different outfit, whereas the men tend to look more identical.
    However, it doesn’t matter much to me, I think a tux is just as classy.

  6. This has to be the only instance where women have it easier in terms of sartorial choices!

    I wouldn’t object to seeing a new formal uniform for men in the orchestra, but from the audience at least the tails look kind of spiffy. It’s not up there on the ridiculous charts with things such as the silly wigs that lawyers in England sometimes wear in court.

    But I agree. A modern look is overdue.

  7. Great!!!… as an orchestral player I absolutely loved what you wrote, I can not agree more, tails are uncomfortable and on the salary some of us make in regional orchestras we usually have to buy the used off rental kind which usually are less than desirable when it comes to comfort while playing. We rehearse in comfy clothing and then when the performance comes we are constricted and yes, stiff… makes for tricky proposition. I hope the powers that be read your blog and may act accordingly… although as we all know they are the ones that like the pompous look. Thanks again for your postings, they are all thought provoking and enjoyable.



  8. So does it bother you that you have to go through the trouble to dress ultra proper (and uncomfortably) yet some in the audience show up in T-shirts and jeans, making no effort at all to dress their best?

    • Hey, at least people show up; I can’t tell them what to wear. There are always people who dress down, but we usually have a nice counterbalance. My problem is simple- tails are too formal, and basically irrelevant to our culture. In fact, that sort of dress alienates a lot of people.


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