Anytime there is discussion about changing orchestral dress codes, my ears perk up. Initially, the thought of change is a positive; how wonderful it will be to finally have a uniform appearance on stage with everyone looking sharp.
But then reality sets in. Everyone has their own opinion, and debates range from how body types dictate personal choice in attire to whether or not the tuxedo should remain the king of onstage attire.
The latest page in this decades long story is from the Baltimore Symphony, who managed to generate some news attention by touting their relationship with a design school to create new and thrilling concert attire.
Like I mentioned above, when I first heard about the what was going I perked up. And then the long-established thoughts started to seep into my brain with questions like:
- Who has to pay for the new uniforms?
- What about the extras and substitute players?
- Will female brass players be able to change mutes quickly?
Don’t laugh, I’ve seen skirts made from an ill-suited material send a brass player’s mute cascading off of a lap or slide out from between the knees at the most delicate and quiet moment possible.
On one hand, it helps to understand that most professional orchestra musicians don’t get a budget or stipend for our required “uniforms.” We are expected to buy and maintain our own concert attire and in most cases cannot deduct the cost on our taxes because while they are concert clothes, they can be used on other occasions.
And since most orchestra musicians don’t earn the sort of salary you hear about at the big orchestra in New York and LA, one of the most complicated issues is who is going to pay to get the orchestra into a “fresh new look.”
Just like most expenses associated with the musicians, there’s more to consider beyond the surface.
If the orchestras find a donor or decides to purchase the new attire for musicians, will they also purchase multiple outfits in a variety of sizes for substitutes or extra players? If the new uniforms aren’t designed to be custom tailored, will the orchestra be solving this problem like a bowling alley by having extra shoes, tops and bottoms ready in many common sizes? Probably not.
And speaking from personal experience, many still expect substitute and extra musicians to meet unique dress code requirements, even if the individual is only hired once.
Personally, I am so ready for orchestras to walk out on stage with a good crisp look. People pay a lot of money to see performers play on stage and it is paramount for us to look our best while representing the orchestra and the music.
But even when you set aside the very difficult issues mentioned already, orchestras today are struggling to pay musicians on time, even when musicians have accepted concessions (albeit while maintaining the same expense structure for purchasing and maintain dress code mandated attire). Those same groups are struggling to keep audiences coming in and this discussion keeps popping up to force the focus on reinventing a look in earnest hopes to bring a buzz that will ultimately contribute to helping save orchestras.
Frankly, I’m not sure what I think about the Baltimore Symphony’s efforts but it did bring to mind a recent experience I want to share.
I hosted a dinner party a few months back and one of the topics of conversation was orchestra musician dress codes. One of the couples at the table (non musicians) had recently returned from a trip to Boston to hear the Boston Symphony Orchestra and had this to share:
We had front and center seats at Symphony Hall, but I found that I couldn’t focus on the music because one of the front stand violinists didn’t have matching socks. I kept wondering “Was he in a hurry, did he lose the other half, did he get dressed in the dark, or did he care or even know?” the point here is that it distracted me from the reason I was there in the first place.
While it was a fun dinner conversation, it made me wonder about all of the dress code changes, enforcement, and new ideas that are cycled in and out of a typical orchestra musician’s career. While there are a number of options and fun ideas, I hope that we can at least collectively match our own socks and go from there.
On that note, I’d like to collect your thoughts, ideas, and stories about dress codes from the perspective of managers, audience, and musicians. Send along what you have to share either privately or as a comment below. I will compile it all and share some of the real gems next month.