Should orchestras ditch concert attire and adopt a more casual dress code?
In 1958, Leonard Bernstein made one of the most radical and controversial decisions of his life. And for once, it had nothing to do with sex, drugs, or Mahler’s slower movements than anyone else. He decided that for one concert a week, on Thursday nights, he and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra would ditch formal evening dress and wear something a little more casual.
Slightly more laid back, but perhaps no less quirky. The orchestra dressed in blue slacks, blue shirts, and the kind of collarless blue jackets popular in pre-war barbershop bands. The good thing was that the musicians didn’t sound like a bunch of penguins anymore. The downside was that the new look was just as strictly enforced, and just as sure to erase individuality, as the bearskins of the Grenadier Guards.
He was also ridiculed by the players, the public and the press. And several guest conductors refused to wear it, including Herbert von Karajan – which was funny, as he was happy enough to wear all sorts of unattractive uniforms in the 1930s. Eventually Lenny admitted defeat and told everyone to consider the experiment “Bernstein’s madness”. The penguin look has been restored.
Since then, unsurprisingly, most of the world’s great orchestras have been reluctant to alter their traditional appearance too drastically. Almost 20 years ago, it’s true, the BBC Symphony Orchestra tried something their bosses called the “smooth jazz look”, which turned out to be as hip as the name suggests – it’s i.e. not really at all. It included all the guys buying a black shirt instead of a white one and leaving the top button undone, while the women were allowed – shock, horror – to wear pants, as long as they were (you guessed it ) black.
For the The last night of the balls in recent years, this crude sartorial license has been further extended. The women of the BBC Symphony Orchestra were encouraged to don garishly colored dresses, making the orchestra look like an explosion at a Smarties factory.
Among the younger and hipper orchestras like Aurora and the Manchester Camerata, it is true that the dress code has been relaxed a bit. But it’s still code. No one shows up in ripped jeans. Or not until now, maybe – because a British ensemble, the London Chamber Orchestra (LCO), announced in October that it was getting rid of its dress code altogether.
His reasons are interesting. The LCO says its decision will “promote inclusivity, equality and diversity within the organization.” Going forward, says its general manager Jocelyn Lightfoot, musicians will be encouraged “to reflect the culture with which they identify and how they interpret the occasion for which they perform.” The implication is that the LCO will feature such a multicultural array of musicians that the platform will be a riot of outfits. “It’s crucial that we reflect the community that joins us at our live events,” continues Lightfoot.
Clearly, this touches on issues that go way beyond whether you wear a saree, kaftan, or (as I suspect most of the men in the band will choose) a smooth jazz black shirt. You don’t have to be a high priest of Woke to believe that bands need to change their white middle-class image if they want to win new followers from a wider social spectrum. Perhaps going without a formal evening dress will help with this; maybe that won’t change anything.
But two things come to mind. The first is that, although we live in a visual age, it would be a shame if what an orchestra wears distracts attention from its musical creation or, psychologically, subverts the musicians’ sense of being a united team rather than a ad hoc group of people.
And the second point? In my 40 or so years leading a church choir, the most confrontational and angry reaction I have ever encountered was when I mildly suggested that we stop wearing the cassocks and surplices that made us look like Victorian ghouls, and instead found a mode of dress that recognized that the world had changed a bit since 19th century clergymen imposed this anachronistic garb on church choirs. It turned out that many of our singers (most of them, it must be said, older altos) thought that looking like Victorian ghouls was the choir’s only reason for being. purpose.
The moral of this tale? Whatever the level of musical life, you tamper with the rags traditionally worn by an ensemble at your own risk. The LCO could yet find itself recreating “Bernstein’s madness.”
Top photo by Getty Images