Symphony in Black and White

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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.

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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.

7 Comments

  1. William Wright

    Hello, I find this post very interesting. As a Symphony going person, I find that I prefer to look at my local Symphony musicians dressing in uniform style and that means the women in black dress and the men in tails (although few male members who are students do dress in tuxedos and try to pass it off as a tail suit since the local colleges require their music majors to dress in formal wear for college orchestra, band and choir concerts, but don’t require them to wear white tie like the main orchestra).
    I also wear Black Tie to every concert I attend, find myself being complimented on it and hearing the other males saying that they wish they would have worn a tux. It takes no longer to get into a tux vs. a regular suit, so my answer/retort is why didn’t you? It beats looking at males who come into our orchestra’s home in ball caps, jeans, and even (gad!) cut-offs! And I believe the biggest reason I do wear my tux-which I prefer over any other dress for dressing up-is that it shows respect to the musicians who had worked very hard to prepare the concerts.
    So, I wrap by asking why do so many males feel it unnecessary to even wear dress shirt/tie but find it necessary to wear jeans and ball caps to dressy affairs? I think their wives/partners would be appalled to be seen in their company.

    Reply
  2. Charles Henry Wolfenbloode

    John Wilson is probably the only conductor to wear proper white tie and understand what the details are.

    Reply
  3. William D. Wright

    I know what you mean. The last Symphony Concert our Musical Director conducted, he showed up at the Pre-Concert talk in his tux but without a cummerbund or vest. And the guy doesn’t even wear proper cufflinks or studs either. The sight of him without proper waist covering though was something to behold. And I was not the only one who noticed, but I was wearing my tuxedo properly along with several other male guests-at least 85 broke their tuxedos out of mothballs to wear them at the Valentine’s Day concert. So, I think he got the message, but next week will tell.

    Reply
  4. glendonnelly

    such an interesting and informative post! I’m a young string player who’s doing work experience in the London Symphony Orchestra, and yes they require it.

    I’ve fallen in love with white tie and I must say, it’s the best thing a man can ever wear. the men look better than the ladies when they wear proper white tie!! It’s just a shame there’s hardly ever occasion to wear it – either play in the LSO or be invited to an evening event hosted by the queen.

    After reading up on the proper purpose and history of white tie it seems so strange to me that the LSO and other orchestras wear it. it almost seems pretentious of them, as if they impose themselves to be as important as the most formal occasions in society. Music is not (necessarily) about traditions, it’s about life, emotion, stories, and to have it as the default for all of LSO’s formal concerts sort of diminishes the meaning of white tie to me. I’ll also be far from being the only player in the LSO with this opinion.

    When getting my first tailcoat, since I’m a poor postgraduate student I just bought a cheap £100 one from an online store (design is ok, it’s just cheaper polyster blend i think). I must say, that the default fitting just can’t cater to the playing of a violin (I exchanged sizes twice in trying to get it right). There’s just not enough slack around the upper back and shoulder blades, to allow your arms to stretch to the places they need to (without lifting up the whole coat from off your shoulders, looking like a dork in the process).

    So down the track once I can aford to buy my ‘for life’ tailcoat, just like conductors do and I’m sure many other musicians and soloists, I’ll be having mine custom fit so that it’s both a good slim fit, AND can cater to my physical needs. will cost me £2000+, I’m sure. but worth it. :)

    Also, thank you for your white tie guide, it helped me the first time I had to do it and I’ll refer to it in future when I’m ready to improve the way I wear it (with upgrades etc) :). E.g. I’ve not yet progressed to self-tied bow tie!

    Reply
  5. Don A.

    I don’t know if the orchestras from the other side of the Iron Curtain wore white tie despite its bourgeois associations. Would it be safe to say that they did?

    Reply
  6. Dan

    DOes anyone know who tailored John Wilson’s white tie and tails?

    Reply
  7. Pingback: Black Only | Blumenkinder Heirlooms

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