What Are the Different Types of Orchestra Attire?

Wanda Marie Thibodeaux

Orchestra concerts are special occasions, and so orchestra attire always deviates from everyday dress. The tendency in most cases is to lean to conservative black clothing, but the level of formality in the clothing depends on the situation and the director's preference. Soloists have more liberties in what they wear but still must address jewelry carefully.

A tuxedo, formal orchestra attire for men.
A tuxedo, formal orchestra attire for men.

For men, the traditional, most formal orchestra attire means tuxedos, complete with cummerbund, white shirt, bow tie and vest. Some organizations differentiate between tuxedo jackets with "tails" and those without. A jacket with tails extends down in the back in two sections, covering the pant seat of the wearer. Jackets without tails are slightly less formal. Men often have two tuxedo jackets, one with tails and one without, to accommodate the situation and the preference of the orchestra director.

Conductors often wear white gloves during a performance.
Conductors often wear white gloves during a performance.

For women, orchestra attire traditionally is a black dress of at least mid-calf length, with floor-length dresses preferred. These dresses have no low cut fronts, three-quarter or full sleeves and no ornate beading or design. Alternately, some directors allow dress suits, which consist of a long black skirt and matching blouse. Most directors frown on dresses or skirts with high slits.

Both men and women wear closed-toe, completely black shoes during orchestra concerts. Men wear socks, while women usually wear black nylons. Generally, directors do not want shoes that make noise, so they discourage hard-bottom shoes.

The second type of orchestra attire is "pit wear." When members of an orchestra are in a pit, such as for an opera or musical, they are not as visible to the audience. Directors sometimes tell their pit orchestra members just to wear semi-formal black clothing, although jeans are typically still not allowed. Under this rule, a black button-down shirt with black dress pants would be acceptable instead of a tuxedo or dress. This dress code sometimes is adopted for student groups even if the group appears on stage, as many students do not have the resources to purchase more formal clothing.

For both "on-stage" and pit orchestras, directors vary on what they consider acceptable, with tradition competing with changing times. For instance, some directors do not want their female musicians to wear pants. Many directors agree that both men and women look poor in any clothing that makes the player look overweight and therefore encourage proper fitting attire.

The last type of orchestra attire applies only to soloists. Male soloists usually adopt the tuxedo with tails, sometimes opting for a colorful vest, cummerbund or tie to differentiate themselves from members of the general orchestra. Women often wear full gowns of any color, but this depends on the soloist. For example, a female cellist, because she must play with her instrument between her knees, may opt for a pant suit. Soloists may opt to go sleeveless and even strapless if desired but still are expected to display some degree of modesty.

One rule applies to all forms of orchestra attire: No one should wear any jewelry or accessories that would distract members of the audience. Soloists often do wear jewelry as they dress "to the nines," but they take care that the jewelry is not too reflective. For instance, women may opt for pearls instead of reflective gemstones. Some orchestras simply eliminate jewelry altogether to prevent conflicts and debate about what is acceptable to wear.

Members of an orchestra usually wear formal clothing.
Members of an orchestra usually wear formal clothing.

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