LLast November, pianist and scholar Dr Samantha Ege gave a recital of works by Florence Price, Margaret Bonds and Vítězslava Kaprálová at the Milton Court Concert Hall. It is music rarely heard on UK stages, and critics have praised the “emotional appeal of these works”, while Ege has been praised for her “finely honed performances born of careful study and analysis.”
What none mentioned, however, was Ege’s outfit. She was radiant in what she described to me as “an understated red fishtail dress, influenced by West African styles.” The bodice was nipped at the waist with a custom appliquéd sash that shimmered in the spotlight, highlighting hints of silver in the large ammonite-like swirls covering the fabric.
For Ege, like many other soloists, her outfits are an important part of her performance. “It gives me even more opportunity to express myself,” she says. “I think about colors and moods, and how those will make me and the audience feel.” Her dress, designed by MADKollection, was specially chosen for this Barbican program. “Antiquity and modernity…converge in the design, which speaks strongly to the themes of my research and my repertoire. I champion piano music from the Black Renaissance, an era that reflected cultural renaissance themes while paying homage to the past, but with an Afrocentric twist. That pretty much sums up my relationship with concert attire!
Saxophonist Jess Gillam also has a distinctive concert style, dominated by metals, striking color combinations and bold prints. “I love trying to bring a sense of joy to an audience,” says Gillam. “What I wear as a performer is part of that.” She chooses outfits with which she feels comfortable and confident. “Most of the music I play is about expressing an emotion or a narrative written by someone else…a level of authenticity is needed to make that connection.”
Talking about clothing is somewhat taboo in classical music, for performers and critics alike. “Most musicians don’t feel like they can talk about it,” says Jocelyn Lightfoot, chief executive of the London Chamber Orchestra. Concert attire is controversial for a host of overlapping reasons. There is the entrenched idea that classical musicians are meant to be heard and not seen – as the 19th century critic ETA Hoffmann said: “The authentic artist lives only for the work…He in no way makes his personality count”. In this performance ideal, the performer’s personality – expressed through their choice of dress – is excised, relying on “the music itself”.
Musicians who deviate from the norm in their clothing choices have therefore faced harsh criticism – particularly when doing any kind of crossover with pop, prompting complaints of “dumbing down”. But at least part of the controversy surrounding artists like violinist Nigel Kennedy, with his jeans and spiky hair, is that they remind us that live music is visual support. We don’t just hear – we see musicians playing.
For women, the stakes of their clothing choices are considerably higher because women are more frequently sexualized than their male counterparts. While Kennedy’s informal attire has been criticized by some as “ridiculous”, the furor around pianist Yuja Wang betrays this double standard. As much ink has been spilled over Wang’s hemlines as her acting – and with few exceptions, comments have focused on how “short and tight” her dresses are.
The problem isn’t that the critics are talking about Wang’s clothes. It’s that by seeing everything she wears through a sexualized lens, they present her first as a sex object and then as an artist. There is no room in this worldview for women’s clothing to be both an artistic and a personal choice.
Part of the problem may be that fashion sits outside the toolbox of traditional classical criticism. “It’s true, I became a fashion critic,” wrote Norman Lebrecht, who described Wang’s outfit as “a micro dress cut an inch below the buttocks.” But this sexualized narrative couldn’t be farther from fashion critique. He tells us nothing on the dress beyond its length. What were the fabrics? Style? Who was the designer? How did the clothing choice interact with the musical program? The language and skills needed to answer these questions might need to be part of the modern critic’s toolbox – and if critics start taking fashion seriously, agents might be able to include outfit details. in press releases without fear that this will open the floodgates to derogatory comments about the artists they represent.
The inability to speak about Wang’s clothing in a sensitive and respectful way reveals long-standing and damaging assumptions about women and their dress in the classical scene. The idea that what we see might “distract” from music, rather than shape our experience of it, stems from an age-old division of body and mind, physicality and rationality, which claims classical music as a purely cerebral substance. The body has no place here. And this idea is gendered. Rationality and wit have historically been coded as masculine, sensuality and the body as feminine, with the result that women and their bodies have been marginalized in classical music. It is no coincidence that Hoffmann used “he” as the default for his imaginary musician.
This policing of women, their clothes and their bodies in the concert hall is nothing new. When composer and conductor Ruth Gipps showed up to a concert in 1944 wearing a brightly colored evening dress, she was sharply reprimanded for it and told by the orchestra management: “We don’t we don’t care about that kind of self-publicity. Gipps was surprised at first, then furious. “What kind of place was it,” she asked, “that expected a woman to be ashamed of wearing a nice dress?”
It’s a good question. This narrative needs to change, not least because sexualizing or ignoring women’s clothing diminishes their agency as artists. Wang’s clothes were dismissed as a banality, a reckless marketing ploy with dresses chosen only to “show more legs” or not. And to do this, Wang has been described as a naive, lost individual who has “neither the time nor the guidance to gain perspective”, and is therefore used “like garlands” by more experienced (male) musicians. and experts.
Denial of Wang’s agency also fuels racist stereotypes around the submissiveness and inexpressiveness of Asian women and classical musicians—stereotypes that Wang’s clothing choices actively disrupt. Wang is one of today’s most important classical artists, but the infantilization of female performers is an age-old strategy to diminish their status and individuality, to contain and reduce their potential authority. The 19th century soprano Jenny Lind, for example, was often described as “childish”. These descriptions are often uncomfortably sexualized, implying that these women need an older, stronger man to guide them.
We need to find ways to talk about women’s clothing that respects them as artistic choices and part of performance. Dress is becoming increasingly important as diversity and inclusion issues are brought to the forefront of institutions’ agendas. The London Chamber Orchestra, for example, recently removed the dress code for its players. Doing without the heavily gendered expectations of black tie is, in part, according to Lightfoot, about celebrating the individuality of orchestra musicians and creating an inclusive space for musicians whose “way of expressing themselves physically doesn’t match this stereotype of classical music”. But it also means creating a “mirror between the audience and the orchestra”, reaching out to those “who don’t feel welcome in a concert hall”.
Besides, social media has made classical music “so much more visual”, says Maxine Kwok, violinist at the London Symphony Orchestra. Orchestras and soloists are now attuned to the branding possibilities it offers, from sharing concert clips to rehearsal photographs in jeans and sweaters. And that can, perhaps, be a way of making musicians more accessible. “There’s always a need to modernize,” and the use of social media “adds a real human element,” Kwok points out, allowing audiences to engage with the musicians they see and hear on stage.
Musicians are more than the music they create. We evaluate the creative and intellectual decisions that go into programming – why not clothing too? Nineteenth-century ideas of what classical music is, by whom, for and about it have all been turned upside down. The same goes for ideas about her appearance.