Artists' Concert Attire: Can Sexy Be Serious Too?

Some Artists' Looks Mirror the (Gasp!) Pop World, Fueling Worries of Style over Substance

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Read through the fall brochures and web sites of many American symphony orchestras and concert halls and one common theme soon grabs the eye: Youth and sex appeal are the order of the day, especially for female soloists. It’s not necessarily a new phenomenon but it does continue to make waves.

Recently, the pianist Yuja Wang made jaws drop with an orange minidress and high heels she wore onstage at the Hollywood Bowl with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Some felt that the dress distracted from the music at hand, while others argued that it was entirely appropriate to the setting and repertoire.

In this podcast, host Naomi Lewin welcomes three guests to talk music, fashion – and the lack thereof: Anne Midgette, the classical music critic of the Washington Post; Patrick D. McCoy, a singer, organist and host of a show on Blog Talk Radio; and Amy Frawley, the executive vice-president of Concert Artists Guild, a management firm that guides the careers of young artists.

Podcast producer: Brian Wise; Engineer: Bill O'Neill

Weigh in: What type of attire is appropriate for the concert stage? Should music critics discuss clothing and appearance? View this slideshow of performers' outfits and leave a comment below:


Joshua Bell Performs an afternoon outreach event at the White House on Nov. 4, 2010. Bell changed into more formal attire of black shirt and trousers for the evening concert at which President Obama spoke.

Rhys Frampton
Scottish Violinist Niccola Benedetti
Christoph Eschenbach frequently wears a Nehru jacket when he conducts
Dario Acosta
Baritone Nathan Gunn opts for a casual look offstage
Decca/Uwe Arens
Violinist Julia Fischer
Johannes Simon/Getty Images

Austrian actor Nicholas Ofczarek, Russian soprano Anna Netrebko and her husband baritone Erwin Schrott in Salzburg, Austria, August 26, 2010.

Workroom K
Violinist Hahn-Bin favors a flamboyant look on and off stage
Chris Dunlop/Decca
Soprano Danielle de Niesse

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Comments [37]

John King from Calgary, Alberta Canada

Khatia Buniatishvili is certainly 'outstanding', and I must say I like her Concerto In 34D Major!

Jan. 05 2017 10:24 AM
Patrick D. McCoy from Washington, D. C.

Hello Everyone,

Since this broadcast, I had the opportunity to interview Joshua Bell for the November issue of Washington Life Magazine, in which he speaks specifically about his struggle with concert attire. Here is a link to a preview of our chat.

Oct. 30 2012 10:02 AM
Daniel Hannemann from Winchester, VA

I'm a great fan of Joshua Bell's playing, but I can't imagine it ever being appropriate, regardless of the heights of fame one has justly achieved, to appear at any time of day at the White House in jeans.

Oct. 15 2012 03:03 PM
Andrew from Edgewater, NJ

Was the performance intoxicating ? The music is what matters, other analysis is mostly just noise. Fat, skinny, black, white, gay, straight, dressed like a nun, dressed like a hooker - who cares. The performer either kills it or they don't.

Feb. 02 2012 12:00 PM
David Simmons from Portland, OR

Nothing wrong with looking as good as you sound: opera singers have been corseting up, eating tapeworms and finding ways to sweat for centuries. My question is, where is Helene Grimaud? Hands down, the best-looking musician, bar none. And I'm including Beyonce. With honorable mention to Dmitri Hvorostovsky. And Hilary Hahn. And Natalie Dessay...

Aug. 23 2011 12:05 PM
Michael Meltzer

Mr. Christiano's questions are right on. However, I"m not sure it's "we" that need to be in question on delivery to the audience. I spent enought time in upscale quality sales to know weak selling when I see it.
Sex and sensation in sales are reminiscent of Samuel Johnson's, "Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel." The real sales, advertising and marketing talent for music has deserted to the pop field, where there is big money. Classical music hasn't seen anyone to replace Sol Hurok in a couple of generations. Classical music marketing and sales is dominated by misfits who use the excuse of "public indifference to the arts" to cover up their own inability to present quality to those who seek it.

Aug. 22 2011 03:44 PM
John J. Christiano from Franklin NJ

We need to ask very basic questions, probabaly some that will not get truly honest answers....

"What exactly are we trying to deliver to the audience?"

"Is the music not memorable enough that some other form of showmanship is needed?"

Aug. 22 2011 08:51 AM
richard makman from montana

i saw her perform in santa barbara and she is beautiful fully dressed. i was more interested in watching her hands than worrying about clothes but either fashion is fine. saw rene fleming in gorgeous gowns-2 per concert, more distracting than a mini skirt. saw graves in a tight fitting leather but floor length skirt but every time she inhaled the whole audience was certain her breasts would pop out, that was distracting....

Aug. 21 2011 11:36 PM
eric from california

"fashion" is another form of communication and there should be decorum about it.

Aug. 21 2011 10:51 AM
gloria from maspeth

I see that the caption under Joshua Bell's photo was changed to co-incide with my comment. For that particular photo, I was screaming at the computer screen: "shame on you WQXR!! you took a photo out of context!" Thanks for correcting the caption.

Aug. 20 2011 11:05 AM
Barry Owen Furrer

This topic is nothing new. Over 100 years ago, John Philip Sousa made it a point and was quite public about his "qualifications" for his female soloists - first and foremost, musical ability followed by beauty and stage presence. The "uniform" or dress code for the period was usually a long, white gown that added visual appeal against the backdrop of the band member's black uniforms. They were known as "the women in white" and traveled with Sousa apart from the rest of the band in a separate train car nicknamed "the imperial suite."

Aug. 20 2011 07:13 AM
michael from usa

looks unfortunately count all the more in this increasingly visual digital age. think this was one of gidon kramer's points re: his cancellation this year at verbier. yuja wang also flaunted ALL her considerable assets this year a verbier as did her college khatia buniatishvili who seems in love with her hair every bit as much as the piano. is it merely youthful vanity or what? - obviously they're committed to their art! beauty and sex obviously sells as i'm sure agents all too well realize.

Aug. 19 2011 11:42 PM
NYC Matters from NY, NY

I say if you got it, flaunt it while playing the hell out of it…Great article, by the way!

Aug. 19 2011 10:42 PM
David from Flushing

I recall the Monte Python show featured a keyboard artist that gave up on clothing altogether. That might bring 'em in.

Aug. 19 2011 06:07 PM
Winston Canilao from Las Vegas

Being a young musician (22) that listens to both pop music and classical music and performs classical musica daily. I feel like haveing to dress up is such a hassel, esp because I am a violist. It is so hard to perform technique when my tux jacket is restricting my movement. I envy pop musician that they can wear whatever they want. They just go out and perform there music, which is what I think the original perpose. I heard a story that Brahms would have such a huge beard just so he wouldn't have to wear a bow tie.

Aug. 19 2011 05:16 PM
Mort from Teaneck, NJ

Yuja Wang is scheduled to play Prokofiev with the NY Phil in April. Of course the house will sell out. Some of you reading this are already reaching for your credit cards.Don't forget your camera.I already have a ticket and am anxious to check out the average age of the audience which last year averaged 63. If Ms Wang brings youth to the house, it can only be a good thing. The lucky attendees will see Yuja, but they will get to hear Prokofiev and Mahler. This can only be good for music

Aug. 19 2011 04:32 PM
Al Luna from Bronx, NY

I agree with Charles Buchner. If you got it... This is why classical music thrives in the UK and Europe. Is this really an issue!? I think the current trend of the entire orchestra dressed in funeral black is not appropriate either, if you are going to wear "Gothic Black" put on some heavy eye liner!!!! Jeeez! Ridiculous, I know! Again, is this really a problem? Being a "commoner" I express myself bluntly. Heck! sometimes I know the name of 'the fellow playing the violin'. These are not faceless people!!! If I wanted to close my eyes and just listen to the music, I'd stay home and listen to the CD. Yes, I pay to be entertained, but I see and hear music, opera or orchestral. If you hear music that's dead and faceless, they're probably dressed that way!

Aug. 19 2011 03:07 PM

The sexiest performer in the hottest performance I have ever seen was dressed in full conductor-formal: Riccardo Muti at Carnegie Hall, November1984. Have to fan myself whenever I remember ...

Aug. 19 2011 02:35 PM
Moishe from Harrison

How classical musicians dress should depend upon the forum in which they are performing. Teaching an enrichment class at a youth center is not the same as a full performance at Carnegie Hall. In a first tier venue I would prefer more modest attire. Leave the short dresses and jeans at home.

Aug. 19 2011 02:22 PM
Michael Meltzer

Everything you say makes sense to me, except your trust in management.
At Yuja Wang's level of proficiency and artistry, it's hard to believe that she would even have had time or inclination to think about any of this stuff. Of course it's my conjecture, but I would believe that her management told her exactly what to wear for the occasion in question, and that is exactly what she did.

Aug. 19 2011 02:06 PM
yichihara from NJ

Baby boomers, Gen X, Gen Y, Millenniums … There’s probably nothing else than one’s fashion that reflects his/her generation visibly, vocally ; values and attitudes distinctive to those in that generation, which often lift eye blows of older generations. If you study developmental psychology, you would know young people go through the stage of being rebellious, provocative, and outrageous. Do not expect them to be obedient, molded in your standards, to be good boys and good girls. Most importantly, I believe, the true gifts/extraordinary performance transcends, outshines what the performer wears. The performance would linger, haunt in the memory of the audience, not his/her attire.

Also, if the attire alienates the classical music fans from the artist, then their management office should say something to him/her.

Aug. 19 2011 01:42 PM
Frank Feldman

This non-issue is deeply misogynistic, and that's the more important point.

Aug. 19 2011 12:37 PM
Pamela from Queens

I agree with Ronald Myers' well-stated point that we have lost something with the present-day trend of musicians wearing either "provocative" or very casual attire for their performances. I see this is another unfortunate manifestation of increased self-revelation and decline of restraint in both dress and behavior. The concert black or more conservative attire removes attention from the musician so that the audience can attend to the music, which is as it should be. The young woman at the piano in the photo is, to my mind, inappropriately dressed for the occasion.

Aug. 19 2011 10:02 AM
Michael Meltzer

I don't think that Mr. Myers need worry, the concert stage still remains the bastion of elegance.
The "fall brochures and websites of symphony orchestras and concert halls" are NOT a reflection of the state of things, they are the default output of marketing and advertising people devoid of any really creative ideas. If you can't think of anything else, sex always attracts attention. The quality of that attention is another matter.
Also bear in mind that every year, marketing and advertising people have conventions and give each other awards. So much advertising is written for them to entertain each other, rather than to encourage the public to spend money. That is why there are so many radio ads with ludicrous contexts and unfunny jokes.

Aug. 19 2011 03:55 AM
Ronald Myers from Norfolk, Virginia

I don't care how times change, good taste, dignity, and elegance in concert attire should be expected on the concert stage. There is a place for sexiness, but the classical concert stage is not the place for it! Serve the music, be in the music, and dress appropriately. The classical concert stage WAS one of the final societal bastions of elegance, and that is one of the things I liked about the great singers from the last decades of the 20th century. Leontyne Price and Grace Bumbry immediately come to mind; they were ALWAYS GRAND and perfect in appearance, which enhanced their already MAGNIFICENT artistry and vocal prowess!!! Most performers of that era were elegant and opulent on stage; I miss that!!! When I was a voice major in college we were taught how to dress and and how to PRESENT ourselves on stage, and somebody needs to require those attributes today!!!

Aug. 19 2011 03:03 AM
Michael Meltzer

I'm sorry, I don't buy the premise that in classical music performance, "Youth and sex appeal are the order of the day."
I"m sure there always were and always will be instances of provocative dress and/or behavior. Generally and overall, I think it's a non issue and this proposition is a waste of everyone's time and attention.
I also believe that WQXR's constant search for sensational issues for posting takes the station further and further from what should be its primary mission of presenting the finest in recorded classical music, past and present.

Aug. 19 2011 01:33 AM
gloria from maspeth

I don't believe the photo of Joshua Bell is from the actual concert at the White House, but rather from earlier in the day where young people were present. The White House videos of the concert show Joshua Bell in his "concert blacks", and Awadigan Pratt in his usual concert attire.

Aug. 18 2011 09:14 PM
charles buchner

I you got it, flaunt it. That includes both talent and looks.

Aug. 18 2011 09:04 PM
ryan w from new york

wear whatever you want, as long as you are comfortable. society already does, and look at the shabby state it's in. like the old song- "anything goes". i would like to add my vote that the above two photos of these performers are disgusting- an insult to the music.

Aug. 18 2011 08:27 PM
shontise from Atlanta, GA

Why stress about the what she is wearing? Her attire might bring more young people to Classical music because they think it looks cool. Let judge the music not what they are wearing.

Aug. 18 2011 06:17 PM
David from Flushing

One rule of thumb for concert dress might be that it should be at least as formal as what the audience is wearing.

It strikes me as odd for Joshua Bell to show up at the White House in jeans if the President, et al., are all in white tie or tux. Normally an invitiation to the While House specifies dress for guests--performers should do as much.

I have seen great changes in dress standards in the last 60 years. I still find it hard to accept people showing up at funerals in casual dress.

Aug. 18 2011 05:02 PM
robin kennedy from Spoleto

Joshua Bell can wear whatever he wants.

Aug. 18 2011 04:01 PM

Missing from this conversation is an awareness of the fact that this is what young women wear now. Is a young performer actually required to look unattractive to herself?

Aug. 18 2011 03:36 PM
marc eisen from nj

Like the theater, if you pay too much attention to the costumes or scenery, it does not reflect well on the play. It is the same in concerts. The music is paramount. Anything that takes your mind away from the music, including the dress, is a distraction (think cellphones, candy wrappers, talking, etc.).

Aug. 18 2011 03:35 PM

If attire reflects caliber of performance then we should be worried but if what a musician wears is not directly connected to their performance thenit doesn't matter

Aug. 18 2011 02:46 PM
Neil Schnall

It IS possible to look classy and "sexy" at the same time. There are at least a couple of examples in the photos provided.

I would agree about Mr. Bell's attire... but I also remember one of his earliest album covers (maybe the first one?) where he was still a kid and wearing jeans with the zipper artfully positioned about a centimeter below the top.

Aug. 18 2011 01:33 PM
kayk from Morristown, NJ

I did not vote for the present administration, but if I were invited to the White House, I would still wear something more respectful than Mr. Bell's outfit.

Aug. 18 2011 01:15 PM

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