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What Are You Wearing? Dress Codes Considered

dress_code Editor's Abstract

Orchestra dress codes provide an endless source of conversation and debate among its musicians and management. Yvonne Caruthers offers up some interesting observations in this short overview.

Ramon Ricker

Dress codes have been part of the orchestral musician’s life since Haydn’s musicians wore the uniform of the Esterhazy family. Today, more than 200 year later, when I’m asked to perform for private events, I’m asked to wear clothes that match the degree of formality of the guests. No host or hostess wants the musicians to look under-dressed (underpaid?) or unprofessional, but when orchestras require a dress code, it’s not because of what the audience is wearing, but rather that the organization is striving for a certain “look.”


One reason orchestra managements give when asked why a dress code is necessary is that they want their musicians to present a uniform appearance to the audience. It’s been customary to define that ‘uniform appearance’ to mean full formal dress: white tie and tails for men, and long black gowns or pantsuits for women.

I don’t know exactly when the first attempt was made to change the dress code for an orchestra in order to break down a perceived barrier between musicians and audiences. Several orchestras have tried “blue jeans” for casual concerts, allowing their musicians to perform in casual clothes and encouraging audiences to even sit on the floor during the concert—anti-elitism in the extreme.

Gloria Lum, a cellist in the LA Philharmonic reports, “We have ‘Casual Friday’ concerts where we can wear whatever we want except for shorts and white tennis shoes.” During my first year in the Denver Symphony (before it became the Colorado Symphony), women were asked to wear black skirts (or slacks) with pastel-colored blouses for our matinee concerts. The scheme was dropped because it was too difficult to define “pastel” and a few audience members complained that the effect was sometimes garish. Carole Olefsky in the Hartford Symphony outlined a similar experience in her orchestra. “We tried jewel-colored tops for the women for the Pops concerts for a couple of seasons and had all kinds of colors that weren’t jewel tones, so we gave up on that and went back to black and white.”

Every orchestral player’s wardrobe (except for the above-mentioned concerts) centers around some kind and some degree of formal black clothing. Martin Anderson, a violinist in the NJ Symphony, told me that his orchestra recently created a dress code committee to review their policies. One of their recent discussions focused on whether the men should wear tuxedos for afternoon concerts. It can be difficult to find consensus when so many people are involved, and Martin reported that three main objections were raised:

  1. other orchestras don’t do it.
  2. tuxedos aren’t supposed to be worn before 6 PM (thus one company’s name: After Six)
  3. a lot of men feel they resemble waiters if they wear tuxes during the day

Martin’s own personal preference? “As far as wearing tux or tails or a suit to perform in—what really matters is the fit, rather than the garment itself—although tails can bunch up around the lumbar area after leaning forward to turn a page. Not wearing a jacket at all is more comfortable; but one gets used to it. And yes, wearing wool jackets on a hot stage is no fun—but our main hall has good climate control. Depending on the season, other halls we perform in can be either too hot or too cold. In the latter case, the wool is welcome!”

Which brings me to my second point.


Robert Levine, principal violist of the Milwaukee Symphony (and another Senior Editor at Polyphonic) raised the issue of comfort while playing. “For me the overwhelming problem is the change in the geometric relationship between viola, shoulder rest, chin rest, head and shoulder when wearing a coat and tie. It’s funny, though, that I’ve never heard anyone else talk about it. For me it’s huge. Obviously it’s not a problem for anyone other than violinists or violists (although that’s about half a typical orchestra, of course). Tails are not too bad in other respects, however; if I can take my tie off (and better yet, unbutton my collar), I’m pretty comfortable. Heat can become an issue. What’s nice about tails in particular, though, is that they’re not fastened in front, so they don’t restrict arm movements nearly as much as would a coat with buttons.”

If comfort is a factor in our dress codes (and shouldn’t it be?), I think it’s useful to look at athletic clothing for inspiration.

In early October, 2007, I ran the Army 10 Miler in Washington, DC, the biggest 10 mile race in the country. Over 17,000 runners finished the race (in unseasonably warm temperatures). Sporting apparel manufacturers have taken notice of the large numbers of amateur athletes and they have made fortunes designing special clothing for athletes. (Have you tried shopping for “sneakers” lately?) Fabrics have been designed to wick moisture away from the skin. New techniques of construction eliminate seams and therefore bulkiness or friction. It’s now possible to buy specific items of clothing for every athletic need, whether you are a pole-vaulter, an ice skater, or a swimmer. In fact, if you compete in those sports, you are able to buy clothing that improves your performance! (I’m waiting for someone to design a black jacket that increases my endurance for pages of tremolo.)

The design and fabrics of my running togs are completely different from my symphonic onstage “work” wardrobe, yet I sweat almost as much when I’m playing the cello as when I’m running. Some of my concert slacks are wool. Jackets can be velvet or polyester or wool blends, and blouses can be satin or silk. Worst of all are polyester blends that look great (and launder easily) but that cling to my skin when I start to sweat. Men’s tail coats are usually wool, with several layers of linings and underlinings. Formal trousers are made from sturdy fabrics, intended to last for several seasons. White shirts worn under tails must be buttoned to the top, with a tie over the collar. My personal fantasy is that some enterprising designer will come up with formal wear that breathes, is light-weight, allows for freedom of movement, AND can be easily laundered!


Probably the hardest part of any dress code is enforcing it. “Maybe it is just the particular culture among the women here at the Philharmonic, but I don’t remember hearing women complain about the dress code,” says Gloria Lum. “I do sense a measure of pride in how we look. In my opinion, dressing well is part of the overall presentation of the concert and although we seek to be comfortable and unrestricted when we play, it is possible to do so and still look stylish and elegant. I also think that playing in a hall like Walt Disney Concert Hall, which has the audience really close and [seated around us] may also affect how we dress. I know that I dress to ‘match the hall.’ I don’t want to not dress well and detract from the overall look. Having watched the orchestra onstage from the hall, it’s amazing how well you see the musicians in this hall.”

Not all orchestral musicians share her viewpoint. Carole Olefsky drew up a list of the most common violations in the Hartford Symphony. It includes tops made of T-shirt material, pants that show too much leg when the player sits down, denim pants, clogs, boots, worn-out shoes, off-white tops, yellowed jackets, purses hanging from the backs of chairs, etc. How yellowed can a man’s white jacket get before he’s told to send it to the cleaners? Does a backpack onstage qualify as an “unobtrusive black bag”? Should cap sleeves be allowed for a “short-sleeved” shirt? Where does one draw the line between “black dress shoes” and “clunky” shoes?

These are not easy judgment calls, but I can’t help thinking that conductors and soloists are somewhat to blame. More and more of them are dressing for personal comfort and their own sense of style. This fall our music director, Leonard Slatkin, has been wearing a black suit with a black shirt and black (long) tie, even at our evening subscription concerts when the men of the orchestra are required to wear tails. When Joshua Bell last appeared with us, he wore black slacks and a loose black shirt, open at the neck and not tucked in. For his October appearances with the NSO, flutist Emmanuel Pahud wore the same thing for both the evening and matinee concerts: a black suit, white shirt with wing-tip collar, and a silver tie (not “black tie” or “white tie”). Pianist Lang-Lang likes to wear colorful jackets/shirts with black slacks (or were those tux pants?). Violinist Nicolaj Znaider also appeared with the NSO this fall—he wore a dark suit and an open-necked white shirt with no tie. The lining of his jacket was red, and when he reached in his pocket for a handkerchief, the lining flashed dramatically.

What’s an orchestra musician, required to dress according to a specific dress code, supposed to think? I asked the NSO’s Artistic Administrator, Erin Kacenga Ozment, if she discusses concert dress with artists and guest conductors. She told me that it never comes up. She added that they sometimes ask her whether the musicians wear different clothes for the matinee (if one is scheduled) so they can “match” the orchestra’s dress code.

I’ve gone on too long but I haven’t run out of issues. Climate plays a role in what we wear to the hall (contrast LA’s sunny skies with Buffalo’s endless snowstorms), and another factor is whether orchestra musicians have dressing room facilities available to them. (The last time the NSO played in Chicago, we were all in awe of the backstage dressing rooms at Orchestra Hall!)

We’d love to hear comments about your orchestra’s dress code. Post them below this article, or surf on over to our Backstage area and let us know what you think.

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1 Comment feed top ↑

  1. Comment by Naomi Lutz
    February 9, 2019 at 2:34 PM

    I play in several symphony orchestras. One is a community symphony and therefore not technically professional. The stated dress code is all black, at least 3/4 length sleeves, dress pants, or long skirts, and closed toe shoes with black stockings for women. black dress shirt and slacks with black socks and dress shoes for men. In another, the dress code is tuxedos for men, and floor length pants or skirts for women. at least 3/4 length sleeves, no low necklines, and closed toe dress shoes with black stockings. i have seen people violate this dress code, but nothing has been mentioned to my knowledge. a dress code is something to be honored. if it’s not, musicians need to be addressed.