Oh Those Dress Codes

I read with interest the thread that went through Orchestra-l recently about many symphony musicians who feel that orchestras just dress too formally to relate to their public.

Well, I have the absolute opposite opinion — many of us dress way too informally.

Yes, white-tie and tails are an anachronism from another century and perhaps should be replaced by at least the tux, but formal black dress for women is elegant and, I think, part of the concert-going experience for our audience. If you’re paying $100+ for a ticket in the orchestra section, you should expect the folks on stage to look worthy of that price.

My complaint is with the women (men have no choice — tux or tails means something very explicit). What makes some women (usually young) think that wearing a pair of spandex black pants and a skin-tight black top, with boots, is appropriate when you’re sitting next to a man wearing tails??? Our contract states something about women wearing something like ‘equivalent to the attire of the men.’

Personally, I hardly ever wear a skirt as a “civvy,” but I wouldn’t consider performing a Masterworks concert without wearing formal attire, always a skirt. It’s “my uniform,” just like the men have their tails and tuxes. (I do wear velvet pants and a very fancy top for Sunday matinees.)

One of my female colleagues wears pants — the type I’d wear to a business meeting — with loafers and a nice blouse and she figures she’s dressed up — sitting next to a man in tails! I want to scream, sometimes.

I don’t know how to educate people about this. My orchestra was hired to play a New Year’s Eve performance a few years ago with the group that was doing those Vienna concerts around the country — I, as then OC Chair, had to go around and personally ask every woman to wear a skirt — to get dressed up! Some were really angry with me. My point was to try to get us rehired next year — if we looked bad on stage, they wouldn’t ask us again. (Most complied and we were indeed rehired the next year — some women wore beautiful gowns, but almost everyone wore a skirt.)

But why couldn’t they have done the same thing the next week, when we had a Masterworks concert, in terms of getting dressed up? It’s a continuing problem and I don’t have any answers. I welcome your comments.

Yvonne Caruthers wrote an article about dress codes a while back, and she quoted one of my colleagues in the HSO, Carole Olefsksy, who is a vigilante about trying to maintain our dress code.  Sadly, I think we’re just where we were when Yvonne and Carole talked about this a few years ago.

Performing is really a bit  about show biz, no? So we should dress the part!

About the author

Ann Drinan
Ann Drinan

Ann Drinan, Senior Editor, has been a member of the Hartford Symphony viola section for over 30 years. She is a former Chair of the Orchestra Committee, former member of the HSO Board, and has served on many HSO committees. She is also the Executive Director of CONCORA (CT Choral Artists), a professional chorus based in Hartford and New Britain, founded by Artistic Director Richard Coffey. Ann was a member of the Advisory Board of the Symphony Orchestra Institute (SOI), and was the HSO ROPA delegate for 14 years, serving as both Vice President and President of ROPA. In addition to playing the viola and running CONCORA, Ann is a professional writer and editor, and has worked as a consultant and technical writer for software companies in a wide variety of industries for over 3 decades. (She worked for the Yale Computer Science Department in the late 70s, and thus has been on the Internet, then called the DARPAnet, since 1977!) She is married to Algis Kaupas, a sound recordist, and lives a block from Long Island Sound in Branford CT. Together they create websites for musicians: shortbeachwebdesign.com.

Ann holds a BA in Music from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and an MA in International Relations from Yale University.

Read Ann Drinan's blog here. web.esm.rochester.edu/poly/author/ann-drinan


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  • I think part of the problem is in the way a dress code is worded. I think that the missing concept is for the degree of formality, rather than how many inches above or below the ankle bone. For men, the difference of tails or tux is mandated, but for women it’s important to clarify that masters series require “evening dress” whereas pops concerts may require “cocktail dress” and school concerts may be “daywear” (rather than just “black with long sleeves”). I think it helps people to visualize or interpret what is appropriate. There also seems to be a willing blindness to the appearance of different fabrics. Cotton and some rayons tend to reflect light in such a way as to look brown and shabby under stage lights, making people look far worse on stage than they would in the same outfit in a rehearsal room. It is very easy to buy palazzo or dress pants in stretch velour or georgette, – really no excuse for gabardine pants onstage – even for the most elegance-aversive amongst us. Not to mention the great skirts that are possible. Anyway, it certainly is frustrating to see skillful women who are all beautiful in their individual ways, look frumpy and unkempt onstage.

  • Yvonne here: I think the problem has gotten worse since Carol and I wrote our piece for Polyphonic. One of my roles with the NSO is to act as a backstage producer/director for our children’s concerts. I follow along with a score, and direct the camera operators, telling them what their next shot should be. It bugs the heck out of me to see a camera shot perfectly framed, but the person playing didn’t bother to comb their hair, or they are wearing casual shoes, or a yellowed shirt. I’ve also seen players drinking from water bottles, chewing gum, or even talking—during the concert! Since we’re playing for the next generation of concert-goers, I would think we’d want to inspire kids with our music, but when I see such casual behavior I wonder how we can inspire anyone.

    Maybe I’m too idealistic?

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