“How do you get to Carnegie Hall? - Practice, practice, practice!”
There is a lot of truth to this famous joke, but being a musician is not all about practice. Some aspects of our lives as musicians are seemingly unimportant and definitely less talked about.
One of them is the question of what to wear on stage.
Women performers particularly and often unfairly get evaluated to quite a degree on their concert attire. Comments in the foyer during intermission often sound like: I loved her Brahms, and that green dress just seemed perfect, or her gown was unflattering, or unsuitable to the occasion etc. So no matter if we like it or not, the attire on stage is a subject, and an impression left with the audience for better or worse - especially for women performers.
Let’s take a look at the considerations - fashion, artistic and practical - that go into the ‘what to wear’ decisions artists have to make.
What to wear is a question that definitely can not be answered on the day of a performance. It takes quite some planning and even some tryouts. The mere thought of not knowing what to wear on concert day, of having to think about clothing questions within 24 hours of a big performance is quite unsettling for me. A little planning makes for so much smoother travels, for a focused concert preparation and maybe even for a wonderful impression.
Let me share with you, what has worked well for me so far:
The shoulder free formal dress
What’s not to like? A sleeveless dress means fun mobility, staying cool under hot stage lighting, letting the audience watch the motion of hands and arms, and best of all, there is no need for matching of tops and bottoms.
Exposed shoulders do come however with a downside: backstage areas are often very cold especially in winter time which is prime performance season. I often stand backstage in a down coat and gloves over my sleeveless gown until the very minute I enter the stage.
The sleeveless overall or jumpsuit
Currently a hot fashion item, a jumpsuit has the same benefits as a long gown (no matching needed, free movement of arms etc.), but it looks slightly fresher, a bit more fun and relaxed. The type of venue and the expected audience can help determine if the overall is a good choice for a concert.
Another big decision is which shoes to wear for a performance.
Backstage doors can be a far walk from the stage entrance, and the audience should not have to hear the ‘click-clack’ of heals during an orchestral piece programmed before the piano concerto. Backstage hardwood floors can be surprisingly shiny and slippery from the many years of use, and the area is usually not well lit at all. So some traction can really make a difference. To accommodate all of these considerations, my best choice is a shoe with non slip soles. Lots of brands feature non slip soles even for evening heels, alternatively the non slip layer can be added by a shoe cobbler.
Personally I don’t like pointy tips which can get caught in the pedal mechanism, and I do not like playing in open toe shoes mostly because I don’t fancy the idea of eye level toes presented to an audience. This one is definitely a question of personal taste.
I do have to watch my heel height to allow for my knees to fit under the piano. This actually can be a challenge for tall pianists such as myself. Tall guys have this problem quite a lot, too.
Weight and wrinkle free fabrics
And then dresses and shoes need to go in and out of suitcases relatively easily which means weight considerations for air travel (sequined dresses are remarkably heavy, so are some shoes). Some online retailers indicate weights, which is a great help for an always pressed-for-time and online shopping musician like myself. Luckily wrinkle free dresses are not hard to find and save precious time at the destination, too.
A recent lucky find is a black jumpsuit (see above) fitting many occasions from a small matinee performance to a grand evening concert. I do however remain partial to the full formal gown for concertos for piano and orchestra.
Keeping track of it all
Performing the same repertoire during consecutive seasons in the same venue is an absolute nono. The unwritten but less talked about rule is not to repeat an outfit in the same venue either.
Keeping track of what was worn on which stage is something quite a number of female pianist end up doing to avoid repetition. The photos in my phone have helped me a lot when it comes to remembering what I wore where.
One last thought
All of this talk about clothing can come across quickly as excessive vanity. I don’t think it is. I do consider planning carefully for tasteful concert attires as an important part of my concert life. I view it a sign of appreciation for my audience and for the venue, and it is a beautiful platform for self expression.
If female performers get evaluated and perceived on their outfits to such a prominent degree, we might as well take this amazing opportunity to express a sense of self worth and confidence. Perhaps we can even inspire some members of our audience to feel great about being a woman and to do something deeply gratifying.
What a magnificent opportunity!