When the Richmond Symphony takes the stage this fall, audiences will see asymmetrical shirts, mesh-sleeved tees, and wide-legged palazzo pants. They’ll see the traditional black accented with an arresting sapphire blue that echoes the Art Deco ceiling of the historic Carpenter Theatre. But it’s what they won’t notice that will really matter: back panels on jackets that wick away sweat. Fabric-covered buttons that won’t click on a French horn or scratch a cello’s wood. Pockets.
For arts organizations, the COVID-19 pandemic and the movement for social justice in the wake of the murder of George Floyd sparked a long overdue reckoning, and orchestras were no exception. How could they connect with their communities better? How could they better serve their musicians? For some, it started with wardrobe. That may seem trivial compared with the critical challenges facing the arts at this time of urgent change, but what an orchestra wears can send a message: about exclusion or inclusion, about fustiness or approachability. And musicians, seeking comfort and utility, are no exception when it comes to the newly empowered post-pandemic workforce.
In the fall of 2021, the Philadelphia Orchestra traded in the traditional white tie for the basic black they’d worn on the digital stage during the pandemic. “It seemed like the natural extension, when live performances came back, to continue with that dress,” says Orchestra President and CEO Matias Tarnopolsky. “I think more importantly, it was time to acknowledge that for some, white tie and tails could be seen as a barrier—a sometimes austere, formal look wasn’t quite resonant with 21st-century aesthetics.” But making the change wasn’t easy. “We struggled with the decision. There’s a really beautiful pageantry that comes with white tie and tails, but what was critical to us was strengthening the connection between the audience and the music and the musicians.”
An astute observer might wonder why the men—who now wear black suits with black shirts—are still wearing neckties, albeit long ones. Is a tie really necessary? What happens when you truly reimagine what concert attire can be?
What an orchestra wears can send a message: about exclusion or inclusion, about fustiness or approachability.
“Between tuxedos and formal black, there’s a universe to explore,” says Richmond Symphony Music Director Valentina Peleggi. “There is this big discussion that is going on in the industry for at least the last ten years because tuxedos are, well, something from the past. When people used to go to a concert dressed in tuxedos, they would expect people on stage dressed in tuxedos. But apart from that, these are garments that are not easy to play in.
“When everything started shutting down, we started reflecting on how not only to think about the future, but to be the future,” she continues. “Why are we wearing these very uncomfortable garments, when we have garments coming from the athletic world that are so cool and so stretchy?”
Central to that discussion was a singular fact: that musicians are essentially athletes. “It’s constant, that physical performance and that mental focus,” says Richmond Symphony Associate Conductor Chia-Hsuan Lin. “It’s very similar to the concentration and the high level of physical requirement that athletes often need.” And it’s easier to stay in the zone if you’re not worried about your shoulder pads bunching up.
Like athletes, musicians travel a lot—and they sweat. “I really don’t need to spend one hour before the concert ironing my jacket,” said Peleggi. “You don’t want to dry clean it every time. You want something that is light to carry.”
The symphony brought in image consultant Lauren Solomon, who started the conversation with a focus group of musicians. “They shared their wildest dreams around comfort and performance and wearability and mix and match,” she recalls. “They wanted to see more cohesion, to feel more like a team—uniformity without the uniform.”
The next step? New York fashion designer Gabi Asfour, whose students at Parsons School of Design had taken on a similar project a decade ago for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra under then-Music Director Marin Alsop. They had studied musicians’ movements, initially with students at the affiliated Mannes School of Music, examining hand movements, shoulder movements, finger movements. They also explored the full spectrum of non-Western formalwear. “The way I teach is basically an unlearning process,” says Asfour. “We deconstructed the classical look. You had the appearance of the tails and the white shirt and for women, the long dress. So those elements did not go away, and the colors didn’t change.”
But a violinist’s long dress might have a sheer sleeve, while tuxedo shirts took inspiration from fencing uniforms and kimonos. Stretch fabric at the armpits allowed for ease of movement, while perspiration ventilated through jersey panels on the back—where they would be less visible to the audience. Garments were constructed from fabric donated by Under Armour and Uniqlo. But the innovation didn’t stop with the design. Baltimore’s musicians were scanned by 200 cameras to create 3D avatars for made-to-measure outfits. When the orchestra debuted its new Active Formalwear line in 2018, it made a splash. Since then, a number of orchestras have overhauled their concert attire, although perhaps not to such an extent.
The Richmond Symphony was interested in adopting the innovations of the Baltimore project, from hidden panels to high-tech tailoring. But the Virginia-based orchestra also wanted something else: color. “The orchestra didn’t want to go to all black,” recalls Solomon. “That seemed to be the movement by most orchestras around that time. [The Richmond Symphony] wanted something that was more branded and unique. We looked at variations of blue and landed on that very rich sapphire, which ties it both to the theater and the James River, and gave them an opportunity to deepen the connection to the city.”
Research and development again started in Asfour’s classroom, but was eventually handed off to his avant-garde design collective ThreeASFOUR, known for asymmetrical designs (which come in handy when dressing string and trombone players) as well as tech-savvy innovation.
“When we did the Baltimore Symphony, AI tailoring was at the beginning stages, so there was only one program that we could use,” Asfour points out. “Now there are more programs that allow you to do tailoring or grading—sizing as well—much faster.” And fabrics had evolved as well. “Technology has made fabrics more skin-friendly, things like modal and coconut fiber,” says Asfour. “The tailoring fabrics have become lighter as well and they also have a little bit of stretch.”
But you can’t put athleisure on a concert stage and call it a day. “To make black tie feel like a sweatpant is a real challenge,” says Asfour. “You have to respect the requirements of formal attire and the appearance of it as well. So it’s not just putting a whole suit into sweatpants fabric, or putting a dress into a t-shirt fabric. It’s not that simple because it will look like a dumpy, frumpy dress.”
Musicians from each section tried out the new garments and gave the designers feedback. Ultimately the symphony arrived at a core collection of nine pieces: two jackets, three pairs of pants (tux, straight-leg, and palazzo), two shirts, a faux wrap dress, and a long-sleeved tee.
Musicians, seeking comfort and utility in concert apparel, are no exception when it comes to the newly empowered post-pandemic workforce.
“We showed the musicians the sketches, and from that they made an initial selection,” says Solomon. “We brought in samples for them to then try. Once we put samples on bodies, some people readjusted their selections, but ultimately everyone got four pieces. Everyone got a jacket. Everyone got a bottom and either two tops or a top and a dress.”
The tailored pieces were manufactured by Tafa Jara Couture, a family factory in Senegal, the rest by Eva Varro Designs in Los Angeles. Human Solutions, a North Carolina company, created 3D models of each musician from 360-degree digital scans, which resulted in fewer alterations, and Salt Lake City start-up FUZE Technologies sprayed the garments with an innovative one-time anti-bacterial spray that promises to make them permanently odor-resistant.
The new collection made its debut in April of this year at a gala performance of Mahler’s Second Symphony, for which matching blue and black satin vests were manufactured locally for the additional musicians needed for the massive work, along with blue shawls for the chorus. “It pulled it all together,” says Solomon. “It carried the eye from the front all the way up to the back of the stage, which is exactly what we were going for.”
The next phase may add new designs, including garments for playing outdoors. Musicians will choose four more pieces for their expanding concert wardrobe. A closet full of mix-and-match separates? That’s a different concept for concert attire. It also may offer a different avenue for impact.
“This really is a broader opportunity for the Richmond Symphony to be trendsetters and changemakers,” says Kia Jordan, a Richmond native who played violin in the symphony’s Youth Orchestra Program and majored in fashion, where she took a particular interest in sustainability. “It’s one thing to change the clothes, but it’s a second thing to really think about, ‘Where are you sourcing this material from? Who are you bringing in? Who is this helping?’ This could also really push us forward in terms of engaging the community. I would love to see some sort of city partnership come out of this.”
Will Richmond’s new look catch on? “I’m surprised that it took from 2018 until now for another symphony orchestra to come along,” says Asfour. “ People need to get used to the idea” of concert attire that is fashion-forward, athletically informed, and emphatically twenty-first century. And that extends to anyone who goes to work in a uniform. “It’s just a matter of studying the movement,” says Asfour. “So whether it’s delivery people or somebody who’s cooking or on the train doing tickets—any kind of uniform needs a revamp. Because we do have the technology now to make everybody much more comfortable.”