Monday, October 6, 2008

Classical Music Dress and YOU

Lately Sandow has been writing a bit in his own blog about the dress code for classical music performers. Basically he thinks people should be more fashionable, but you can check that out for yourself. He has several more entries on the topic if you browse the basic time frame.

Reading, I can't help but be intrigued by the topic because I feel that it is an aspect of music that is changing in some arenas but remaining stagnant in others. On the one hand, we are experiencing, as Sandow describes, much variety in dress, but on the other hand my experience as a student is to always be told how what I am wearing to perform does not fit into the code.

In our reading by Cook (25-26), he describes musicians as dressing much like waiters, meant to be unnoticed conveyors of the goods to be consumed, but I wonder if this idea is changing.

Sandow notes: "And new music... doesn't go well with formality. Bill, I think, implied something like that when he cited the Kronos Quartet as an ensemble that defines its brand -- so to speak -- and also supports its art by dressing in an individual way. Which reminds me that, as far as I know, very few chamber ensembles -- and certainly very few made up of young musicians -- dress formally for concerts. For new music, white tie and tails (and the women's equivalent) really doesn't seem to fit. Especially if a piece sounds and moves with echoes of pop culture, or is a happy or devastating assault of noise. What's the meaning then of tails? Irony wouldn't begin to be the word that might describe the disconnect" (

Here we see the trend of individuality that has permeated society as a whole. Wasn't it Time magazine that gave "You" the honor of person of the year? They might have even said person of the era. It is no coincidence that now is when the writers of YOU: the Owner's Manual find it lucrative to lavish upon us installment after installment of their book series dedicated solely to each individual in the world. Every person matters as a person. I say all this as I sit blogging, a new word made up to describe our new ability to actually participate as individuals in the media rather than as observers.

Performing cannot possibly sit apart from this phenomenon forever. I believe that dress is one way the idea of the individual may be presenting itself, and I predict much more change. We don't want to dress how everyone has always dressed before. We want to dress as ourselves. We are not just the portrayors of an art created by someone else. We are the art.

I wonder how else might the "You" obsession creep into our performance practices.


Jessica S. said...

Amanda –

Great ideas and inquiries about dress for performers! It’s given me quite a bit to think about as well!

The tux and tails does seem to be yet another fossil from the late 19th century, along with so much else we have discovered through our reading. One could argue that they are, in fact, period costumes from that era. Does this formal attire serve to ‘elevate’ classical music above the every day mundanity? Is it yet another act of preservation? Purification? Subjugation in service to music (as Cook mentions)?

The larger question, I think, is not what we wear, but why we wear it. Dressy or not dressy are just two sides of the same coin. The real question is, what purpose does a dress code serve?

What performers wear on stage is just as much a part of the performance as the lights, the hall, the way the stage is set and with what kinds of equipment, and, of course, the music. Here in classical music land, like you say, we are so used to being told what to wear – yet another facet of the hierarchical structures set up in classical music. A conversation about concert dress, then, must also be a conversation about these structures; about all the rituals and traditions we take for granted with regard to performance.

So, what purpose does dress code serve? In my thinking, what performers wear should reflect the spirit of the performance. For an orchestra, I want to see a unified group that goes along with what I’m hearing. Same thing with a chamber ensemble. There are an infinite number of ways to achieve this end and that’s where things could get interesting. Said in another way, I don’t care what people wear, as long as their manner of dress reflects some sense of the nature of the performance – if a group plays together, I want a visual experience of it that goes along with my auditory experience. Would we expect anything less from a sports team or a dance troupe? Would it be jarring if all we saw were a collection of individuals inhabiting the same space at the same time?

I am also wondering (and not without trepidation!) about the influence of this ‘it’s all about you’ obsession. To argue that we, as performers, should be able to express our individuality through our dress, or that a strict dress code inhibits our individuality is just an extension of the consumer culture propaganda that wants us to believe we can ‘express’ who we are through what we can buy. Frankly, I don’t want to see this in performance; I already see it everywhere else. One of the things I love about any ensemble is that they transcend this obsession with ourselves as isolated individuals. I love playing in ensemble because it reminds me that what we achieve as a whole is greater than the sum of our parts. Perhaps to be a mere ‘conveyor of goods’ is a much more powerful and necessary experience than we realize or value…

IJ said...

Pls construct the links.