To Tux or Not? Concert Attire Redesign Focuses on Musicians' Comfort

Monday, May 06, 2013 - 06:00 PM

Musicians from the Mannes College of Music model new orchestra garments at the Parsons School Musicians from the Mannes College of Music model new orchestra garments at the Parsons School (Brian Wise/WQXR)

Sleek leather and decorative lace for women. Breathable mesh and stretchy wool for men. These were the calling cards of new orchestral garments unveiled Sunday evening in a concert and runway show at Parsons The New School for Design.

The outfits are the product of a year-long project between Parsons, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and the Mannes College the New School for Music, intended to create new concepts for fashionable orchestra attire.

The project, which involved students in the Parsons’ fashion and design technology programs, started with a challenge from Marin Alsop, the music director of the Baltimore Symphony: to envision how symphony orchestras can project a fresher, more contemporary image, and to make garments better suited to the physicality of performance. The eventual goal: to outfit the musicians of the Baltimore Symphony.

Sunday’s concert also underscored some of the challenges when it comes to rethinking traditional attire, not just because it is so familiar to audiences, but also because it raises questions of what follows next.

The evening featured three chamber music performances, ending with a Mannes string quintet wearing the students' prototypes. On the surface, the men's tuxes were nearly indistinguishable from the standard white tie and tails now seen on most orchestra stages. One had a fitted, tailored look; another was slightly more modern and boxy. Two women quartet members wore variations on traditional full-length evening gowns, albeit with more modern fabric and tailoring.  

In an interview after the concert, Alsop said the designs ranged from the "pretty far out" to the "almost too traditional." But she said the project has helped to generate discussion. “This is a long-range idea to re-conceptualize and rethink what’s been tradition for two or three hundred years,” Alsop said.

Alsop admitted she hoped for a bolder men's look. “I loved the women’s looks,” she said. “They are feasible and viable. I’d like to see a little more edginess in the men’s wear now that they know how to rework the existing garments."

The conductor proposed a looser, more deconstructed look for the men, who currently wear many layers and a bow tie. “Maybe that could be streamlined, or one could integrate the shirt into the jacket. I don’t think we’re talking about huge changes but just simplifying things a little bit.”

The Parsons project evolved over two semesters, starting in the fall with a class taught by Sabine Seymour, where the focus was on fashion and technology. In January, the emphasis shifted to musicians' comfort in a fashion and design course taught by Gabi Asfour. “I’m realizing that we are dealing with an old-fashioned way of doing things,” said Asfour, who also runs his own label, Threeasfour. “So it’s basically figuring out how the old-fashioned way of doing things can have the technology in it.”

Asfour and his students focused on traditional tailoring reminiscent of Savile Row designers and adding performance fabrics such as mesh vents into the back and underarm areas – elements that would aid a cellist’s rapid bowing or a trombonist's reach for seventh position.

Joseph Gotoff, a Master’s student in cello performance at Mannes who modeled the jackets in Sunday’s concert, said he feels constricted by conventional tuxedos. “I generally refuse to wear jackets just because it’s impossible to get the range of motion that you want," he said.

Along with traditional concert garb, a group of Parsons students developed experimental garments featuring “wearable media.” Two percussionists wore shirts embedded with transmitters that generated space-age animations based on the music's rhythms. And Shulin Guo, a pianist, wore a dress and cape while a camera captured her contour as she played. A projected real-time generative animation featured wiggling worms and psychedelic flourishes:

In his preconcert remarks, Richard Kessler, the dean of Mannes, said he anticipates that some of the wearable technology will be adapted by the Mannes iOrchestra, a new technology-based ensemble that will debut in the fall. Kessler, a trombone player, said he welcomed a more user-friendly concert garb "that fits better, that looks better, that works for the actual player that has to reach like this or reach like that."

Alsop has previously indicated that she hopes a usable design will emerge in time for the orchestra’s centenary in 2016. On Sunday night, she acknowledged that more research is needed, and getting 100 musicians adopt a single look raises questions of aesthetics and cost. (There are also substitute players who work with an orchestra at any given time and would have to be considered.) Orchestra patrons, too, would have to be sold on the concept.

But Alsop hopes the project will prompt a reconsideration of other aspects of orchestra stage design, from lighting to music stands. "I’d like to see a prototype for a new kind of music stand that’s much more modern and hip” she said. “The chairs that the musicians sit on are really problematic for them. It would be nice to see an ergonomic, contemporary design."

View a slideshow from the Parsons project and tell us what you think in the comments box below:

Above photos by Martin Seck/Parsons

Brian Wise/WQXR
Parsons student adds stretchable fabrics to an otherwise traditional tux jacket
Brian Wise/WQXR
A percussionist will wear reflective-sleeved oxfords, embedded with transmitters
Brian Wise/WQXR
Fashion designer Gabi Asfour teaches the class at the Parsons School of Design
Brian Wise/WQXR
Joseph Gotoff, a Master’s student in cello performance at Mannes, is fitted for a jacket prototype at the Parsons School of Design
Martin Seck/Parsons
Mannes Students Meredith Ramsay and Katherine Liccardo model the Parsons's prototypes at the New School.
Brian Wise/WQXR
The back of the tuxedo features breathable, elastic fabrics to allow for greater movement.
Martin Seck/Parsons
Two Mannes percussionists wear motion sensors in their arms to create a real-time projection on the rear screen.

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Comments [16]

Laura from Boston from Boston, MA

It's ridiculous to see the comments stating that the musicians aren't "respecting" their talent by not conforming to a ridiculously antiquated way of dress. As others have stated, the formality and the perceived "stuffiness" of the orchestra prevents young people from attending. I also have to wonder about those so offended by the jeans and khakis of young patrons; I suppose instead those commenters would like to exclude the only patron base who has the capacity to continue the tradition of the symphony orchestra into the future? Should we further isolate those young people who are making a conscious choice to choose to experience the wonderful sounds and the culture of the symphony when it is most certainly an unpopular choice amongst their peers?

I think the greatest respect a musician can give to the tradition of the symphony and to classical music is to pursue a career as a performing musician. Let's pay the players what they deserve, wear whatever makes us comfortable to the concerts, and attempt to keep the great American symphonies playing in their halls for future generations to enjoy.

Jun. 01 2013 12:01 PM
CoolObserver from Manhattan, New York

And one further thought on the claim that traditional clothing is "restricting" performers' playing. Are our contemporary musicians less able than generations of their predecessors who seem to have managed superbly in their traditional attire? All BLACK is NOT the simplistic answer to everything. It is BORING!!! Black tie and white tie (or the most current casual black suits, even with black shirts and no ties) allow for different levels of occasion and provide for the small flourishes of distinctiveness and individuality. Look closely at the lapels, the pocket squares, the vests, the shirt collars, even the way ties are tied. People who claim these are some sort of restrictive uniform actually want to put the players in really mundane, soulless uniforms without a chance for individuality!

May. 09 2013 03:56 PM
CoolObserver from Manhattan, New York

"Modern and hip?" Then please go elsewhere. I am getting disgusted with WQXR promoting this kind of thing. Every tradition and custom seems open to attack. I think we are being very patient with lots of slobs who come to great performances looking like they belong in their garage, a bar (cheap bar) or a sports match. I mean some haven't even washed in days (or weeks for their stinky and stained clothing). I am tired of dumbing down everything to make the lazy, the ignorant and the idiots among us feel more comfortable. Often one is going to a performance that was originally for court or the cream of a society, just because now our "richies" are slobs and don't set any decent example or know any better does not mean that standards and traditions don't matter. It is a proven fact that school children that wear uniforms or at least have a dress code do better. Well, it is the same for adults!!! And, believe me, the adults these days need to learn better social behavior and respect for others in performance halls and outside too. The orchestra traditionally sets the example and dresses as it does to mark the occasion. On extreme and gala performances sometimes, but mostly the age old tradition is that the audience is dressed one level below the performers --but most people nowadays probably don't know White Tie from Black Tie, dark suits from sport coats as is evident in the above piece when someone remarks that the Tux look is not much different from White Ties and Tails! Maybe like men not much different from women? I was in a restaurant once with a dress code and some bore came in with a silk shirt which he loudly proclaimed cost more than the maitre''d's tux. Money? Price tags? Pretty vulgar! That is NOT the point and NOT an acceptable standard, but these people don't understand what civic style and social respect means. We have become such a , lazy, casual society that manners and responsibilities and common sense respect have gone out the window. However, I certainly agree that there is a double standard in men's and women's clothing in the orchestra pit and beyond. If men wear tuxes, women should be in long dresses. If men wear White Tie women should be in fuller elegant gowns. Suits, cocktail dresses...etc. How many times do you see a woman in a gown and her escort in tea shirt and jeans or sports coat? GROSS and totally inappropriate. Of course the Met fashion Institute and the media promote this with all their hype and shows about women's fashion without much attention to the complementary fashion, style and levels of dress proper for men. Sadly, when it is job interview time, people are really sorted by the impression their clothes make. We have x'd jerks who leave their hats on, don't wear a suit or horrible, outrageous tie. These things speak volumes about someone, and the fools don't even know it!

May. 09 2013 03:46 PM
Faust from Manhattan - New York

Who cares what they look like? It's all about how they sound.

The people complaining about appearance, are the same who would pass up Joshua bell playing in the subway because he was not in a tux. Despite having an extremely rare and valuable violin.

Talk about Pearls before swine. This sounds suspiciously like the middle class, who do not regularly attend - never mind support - their own orchestra. The same who get dressed up in the summer at Lincoln Center to go see the orchestra off season.

Appearance and fashion are all a scam. There is an over emphasis on fashion, and now it appears it has even penetrated the concert hall. People there is no correlation to the sound of a musician and his dress.

And to those that agree with me please enjoy:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hnOPu0_YWhw

And the article done by the post:
http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/04/04/AR2007040401721.html

May. 09 2013 07:20 AM
Pete from Europe

People! Can't you read? They are designing new TAILS and GOWNS. It will look the same (sort of) but be more comfortable. But I guess that is not to be expected of a musician. The musician needs to suffer for his art.
Reading some comments makes one think some people are just a few steps behind in the evolution. Oh wait, you probably don't believe in evolution anyway.

May. 09 2013 05:12 AM

I'm a violist with a short neck, and for me personally, it's a real challenge to perform with my already limited neck-shoulder space encumbered with a stiff collar, a bow tie, a shirt, a vest, and a formal jacket lapel.

I applaud Marin Alsop for encouraging creative people to address designing sharp-looking clothing that gives performers room to do what they need to do, physically.

And I hope the people complaining about "shabby appearance" or "the race to the bottom" are supporting musicians when it comes time to defend their pay.

May. 08 2013 02:21 PM
Nilsa from New York

A shame if we have to see folks in the orchestra looking shabby and messy. the music demands beauty all around from the audio to the visual. Young folks today have absolutely no class nor appreciation of beauty and it has nothing to do with money. perhaps seeing beautiful orchestra and beautiful music will inspire them to excellence contrary to the garbage they are being exposed to on television and MTV... Please do not take away the beauty.

May. 08 2013 08:33 AM
Alec from Park Slope

I don't quite get what the critics are complaining about. The picture at the top, which primarily shows the two women musicians, has them wearing absolutely stunning outfits. I don't see anything that nice when I go to the NY Philharmonic. And if you don't like the video display with the pianist, well, you probably don't like anything about concert music after the turn of the century. And, I mean the 20th century.

Me. I like Laurie Anderson and Phillip Glass and I like hearing the Bach masses and Mozart piano concerti. As I kid I went to the rug concerts that Boulez organized and remember all the people complaining about Bernstein speaking from the stage. It is 2013 after all, not 1813. With all sorts of orchestras playing to empty seats, it seems to me that trying things is a worthy endeavor.

Seeing classical music organizations working with fashion designers and technologists is to me a very good thing. Gotta give Marin Alsop and her friends at Parsons and Mannes lots of credit.

I love it!

May. 08 2013 08:31 AM
kayk from Morristown, NJ

Such a lovely sentiment on the t-shirt worn by the young man in Slide 3. Indeed, we seem to be winning the "race to the bottom" mentioned by Jean above.

May. 07 2013 11:03 PM
Bernie from UWS

Why tails and gowns? Let's step back and think about what kind of image that projects to a potential young person who is considering whether to buy a ticket. It suggests that orchestras are elite bastions where old money, privilege and stodginess reign. A newcomer sees that and thinks, "I don't know how to act around this fancy atmosphere. How should I behave? How should I dress? On second thought, I think I'll go to a movie or a rock concert where I can just be myself."

Before reflexively saying that tradition is the be all and end all, think about all of this in a broader context.

May. 07 2013 08:48 PM
Louise from New York City

It's more than just about the attire. It's about posture, style, carriage, grooming, strength, vitality, energy. I admire those orchestras of the world that value the visual pleasure derived from impeccable presentation of the physical as well as the musical and artistic. How sublime to attend such a performance. Get the right tailors to make the clothes fit for movement, even use performance fabrics; get makeovers for some of the women and their wardrobes; and get some movement and posture training. I am so disappointed in the shabbiness of some American orchestras. They look so tired and uninspired. It comes through in the music. As a patron, I want to watch beauty as well as hear it. Tails and gowns, please.

May. 07 2013 08:30 PM
John Porter

For those who don't like the idea of new, maybe the orchestra should return to powdered wigs and gut strings. I am not a big fan of tails, either to play in or look at. I think it a good idea to look at some other ideas, and frankly, better fitting clothes might just make for better performances.

Bravo to the Baltimore Symphony and the teachers and students from The New School for daring to challenge conventions that most people don't even know the reasons for.

May. 07 2013 02:51 PM
Jean from Baltimore

I cringe at the thought of the orchestra joining the race to the bottom. Let the audience continue to show up in jeans or sweatpants, as I indeed witness regularly at the BSO's concerts, -- I want to feel inspired by the musicians. I want to look at them and know that they treasure the traditions that created their institution and their art form, that they respect the lifetime of discipline and dedication that the development of their significant talents required of them, and that they respect me, too, as a member of their community who thought it worth my time and my money to join them in an evening's rapture -- or to make a donation to support their music-making. If it was the advancement of bold fashion design that I wanted to fund, I would make other choices. No, I want to see orchestral musicians in tails. May they be comfortable, but also dignified. May we all aspire to be less casual about the immensity of talent and history that is being presented to us in concert halls. It is stupendous, monumental, and worthy of both exceptional effort and reverence.
This falls too easily in step with that other trait of American society that mystifies and dismays me today: that we prefer to elect as President the man we feel like we could have a beer with rather than the man who would knock our socks off in a conversation, the man who far exceeds our own level of intellectual or behavioral comfort. When did the appearance of aspiration to the arts and letters of the elite become more worthy of disdain than the lethargic slump of the populist gutter?

May. 07 2013 02:28 PM
Dennis monk from Annapolis

Is there any evidence that this silliness will make the music better?

May. 07 2013 01:09 PM
Frank from UWS

About time indeed. Orchestras started wearing tuxes in the 19th century because that's what patrons used to wear when they went out on the town. Nowadays, no one dresses like that.

I agree with the conductor. These are still too formal. I'd be perfectly happy to see a variation "business casual" on stage - less stuffy, less elitist.

May. 07 2013 11:50 AM

"About time", is my immediate response.

When even the "Suits" really get down to work (rarely to be sure) they shed their jackets and ties and roll up their sleeves. Formal attire has one purpose only - to signal the wearers importance, yet we know that everyone in the orchestra is important.

Perhaps reason will spread from Baltimore to the rest of the world's ensembles.

Martin Mendelson

May. 07 2013 04:53 AM

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