In 1958 Leonard Bernstein made one of the most radical and controversial decisions of his life. And for once it had nothing to do with sex, drugs or conducting Mahler’s slow movements slower than anyone else. He decided that for one concert each week, on Thursday nights, he and the New York Philharmonic would ditch formal evening dress and wear something slightly more casual.


Slightly more casual, but perhaps no less bizarre. The orchestra would dress up in blue trousers, blue shirts and the sort of collarless blue jackets popular in pre-war barbershop groups. The good thing was that the musicians no longer looked like a huddle of penguins. The bad thing was that the new look was just as strictly imposed, and just as certain to erase individuality, as the bearskins of the Grenadier Guards.

It was also ridiculed by players, audiences and press alike. And several guest conductors refused to wear it, including Herbert von Karajan – which was funny, because he was quite happy to wear all sorts of unappealing uniforms in the 1930s. Eventually, Lenny admitted defeat and told everyone to regard the experiment as ‘Bernstein’s folly’. The penguin look was reinstated.

Since then, unsurprisingly, most of the world’s major orchestras have shied away from modifying too radically their traditional look. Nearly 20 years ago, it’s true, the BBC Symphony Orchestra tried out something its bosses called the ‘smooth jazz look’, which turned out to be as hip’n’happenin’ as the name suggests – i.e. not very much at all. It comprised all the blokes buying a black shirt instead of a white one and leaving the top button undone, while the women were permitted – shock, horror – to wear trousers, as long as they were (you guessed it) black.

For the Last Night of the Proms in recent years this gross sartorial licentiousness has been extended even further. The women in the BBC Symphony Orchestra have been encouraged to don garishly coloured frocks, making the orchestra look like an explosion in a Smarties factory.

It would be a pity if what an orchestra wears distracts from its music-making

Among younger, trendier orchestras such as Aurora and the Manchester Camerata, it’s true, the dress code has been relaxed quite a bit. But it’s still a code. Nobody turns up in ripped jeans. Or not until now, perhaps – because one British ensemble, the London Chamber Orchestra (LCO), announced in October that it is getting rid of its dress code altogether.

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Its reasons are interesting. The LCO says its decision will ‘promote inclusivity, equality and diversity within the organisation’. In future, its managing director Jocelyn Lightfoot declares, the musicians will be encouraged ‘to reflect the culture they identify with and how they interpret the occasion for which they are performing’. The implication is that the LCO will field such a multicultural array of musicians that the platform will be a riot of outfits. ‘It is crucial that we mirror the community that joins us at our live events,’ Lightfoot continues.

Clearly this touches on issues that go far beyond whether you wear a sari, a kaftan or (as I suspect most of the men in the band will choose) a ‘smooth jazz’ black shirt. You don’t have to be a High Priest of Woke to believe that orchestras need to modify their white, middle-class image if they are to win new followers from a wider social range. Perhaps dispensing with formal evening dress will help with that; perhaps it will make no difference.

But two things occur to me. The first is that, though we live in a visual age, it would be a pity if what an orchestra wears distracts from its music-making or, psychologically, subverts the players’ sense of being a unified team rather than an ad hoc bunch of individuals.

And the second point? During my 40-odd years running a church choir, the most divisive and angry reaction I ever encountered was when I mildly suggested that we stop wearing the cassocks and surplices that made us look like Victorian ghouls, and instead found a mode of dress which acknowledged that the world had changed a bit since 19th-century clerics imposed this anachronistic garb on church choirs. It turned out that quite a few of our singers (most of them, it must be said, elderly altos) thought that looking like Victorian ghouls was the choir’s entire raison d’être.

The moral of this tale? At whatever level of musical life, you tamper at your peril with the glad rags traditionally worn by an ensemble. The LCO may yet find themselves re-enacting ‘Bernstein’s folly’.


Top photo by Getty Images


Richard Morrison classical music
Richard MorrisonChief Music Critic, The Times

Richard Morrison is the chief music critic and culture writer for The Times. He is also a columnist for BBC Music Magazine, for which he was awarded Columnist of the Year at the 2012 PPA Awards.