A number of Guide readers have asked about the correlation between symphony orchestras and formal wear and while I have not yet found an academic analysis, I do have my own opinions based on my research to date.
In the 15th and 16th centuries, small orchestras entertained guests of nobility at their private homes then in the 17th century they expanded in conjunction with the opera companies that emerged across Europe. Therefore, for the first two hundred years of their existence, orchestras were not only associated exclusively with the upper class but also with the most formal of occasions for that class, short of attending Court. It would have been expected that the entertainment dress in finery befitting of such elite audiences just as the livery of senior household servants was almost as grand as the attire of their masters.
Further, operas and private balls took place in the evening. Because the upper class designated specific clothing for specific occasions, etiquette would dictate that evening dress be worn for such functions. By the time that civic orchestras (such as the New York Philharmonic) began to appear in the early/mid 1800s, evening wear had become highly codified into what we now call White Tie. And so it would be only natural for the orchestra members to don the requisite tailcoat and bow tie when performing for high society after dark.
What’s interesting is that as symphony concerts became more egalitarian throughout the 20th century, orchestras elected to maintain their elite dress standards rather than lowering the bar to match their (d)evolving audiences. I suspect this is because patrons of the high arts (the opera, ballet and symphony) continued to enjoy the association with high social standards, even as they themselves were dressing down in tuxedos and business suits instead of tailcoats. I think that the musicians’ highly formal attire, along with the grandeur of traditional concert halls, represented a link back to the illustrious origins of the classical music they were playing. This ambiance also helped to create a sense of occasion which is what one would expect in return for the relatively high price of a concert versus other middle-class entertainments such as movies.
Not surprisingly, it seems that today orchestras are finally giving up the good fight and descending to the level of modern mainstream attire. Many substitute tuxedos or simple dark suits while others that continue to dress in White Tie are largely oblivious to its rules. Thus waistcoats commonly jut out below the tailcoat’s waistline or are replaced altogether with an incongruously casual cummerbund. Alas, such aesthetic gaffes will only serve to associate White Tie with sophomoric Halloween costumes and further hasten the custom’s demise.
So enjoy it while you can. We may well be the last generation accorded the privilege of seeing an orchestra perform in full-dress glory.
Formal Facts: Conductors traditionally had their tailcoats custom tailored with high arm holes so that the body of the coat would stay in place and not be tugged about by the sleeves during the maestros’ energetic gesticulations. Apparently some (Leonard Bernstein, for example) also opted for a backless shirt so that they wouldn’t overheat over the course of a long concert under hot stage lights.