Yvonne Caruthers  

What Are You Wearing? Dress Codes Considered

Yvonne Caruthers
February 26, 2019

Editor's Abstract (Click to Hide)

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.

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Comments (Click to Hide)

Men who are uncomfortable with the shoulder pads in their tuxes should consider getting in touch with one of the makers of tuxes for competitive ballroom dancers. These tuxes are specifically made so that the shoulders don't bunch when the arms are raised. They are also made of lighter materials.
fluteme on August 17, 2019 at 9:30 PM

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