Every year I feel I have to update my wardrobe of concert clothes, which is a pain because each season I have less and less of a clear idea of how I should look. But what I wear has always been noticed by people in the audience, who comment on it enough to make me feel that I can’t keep appearing in the same outfits. Naturally this feels most unfair when my male colleagues have been wearing the same thing (a suit) for years on end. It’s become difficult to source the right kind of women’s evening wear, and as often as not I find myself looking in charity shops, to which people donate old-fashioned – or ‘vintage’, as it’s now known – clothing that might not be relevant to urban night life any longer, but can still look appropriate on the concert stage.
Or does it? I used to buy long, pretty, flowing dresses, which don’t seem right any more. For women there is no equivalent of the ‘uniform’ that men adopt by wearing dinner jackets, dark suits, tail coats, and so on. Must it be something with a skirt, or are trousers OK? Should it be colourful, or is black the most practical? If I’m appearing in, say, fifty concerts each year I can’t keep wearing the same thing, nor can I keep running to the dry cleaner’s with my outfits. But things you can wash by hand at home are never the things which look grand on the platform. I’ve noticed that students and young professional women musicians have taken to wearing trousers and a simple strap top or smart sleeveless blouse. Somehow I don’t feel this style would suit me, not after years of hearing people say that pianists should keep their arms covered.
The key thing seems to be to look as though you made an effort. But an effort to look like what? Funky, executive, debutante, bohemian? Musicians were once expected to look affluent and aristocratic, two things we’re mostly not. Now the outlook has changed; in the search for new audiences, we want to break the perceived link between classical music and privilege, and the look has to change too. All my musician friends agree that we should try to look a bit more special than the audience does. But the audience doesn’t have a single look. They come to concerts in a vast range of clothing styles, from the most casual of jeans to the smartest Chanel two-pieces. It’s easy to look grander than the jeans-wearers, but not easy to outflank the couture set. I sometimes wish a clever designer would create a ‘uniform’ for me, though I confess I can’t imagine what it would be. Maybe one of those nice fashion writers, like Hadley Freeman at the Guardian, could take me in hand and show me what would send out the right message, if only we could agree what the message is.