How can people talk about "seeing" a concert? Unless you're unfortunate enough to be deaf, concerts are all about hearing. Or are they? A vexatious issue that never strays far from orchestral agendas is the problem of visual identity. That inevitably boils down to concert dress. No one has yet come up with a satisfactory alternative to the 19th-century "uniform" of white tie and tails for the men and black dresses for women. Should what players wear on stage reflect the repertoire, the orchestra's image, the players' personalities or what takes the whim of audiences (so studiously polled on virtually everything these days)?
For the Britten Sinfonia, the difficulty of presenting an original, distinctive image was solved, or so she thought, by one of its directors, Germaine Greer. The purple silk tunics she designed made a splash at the Sinfonia's first Prom but they didn't hang around long. Neither, in the orchestra world at large, did the passing trend for Laura Ashley polka dots (the audience counted them in xthe dull bits), the craze for puffy-sleeved "May ball" gowns (cruelly exposing flab on the wrong sort of arms), the shot silk, the strappy, the sequined. The wet T-shirt look has never caught on, although the Royal Scottish National Orchestra did get as far as inviting ideas for a revamped look from Katharine Hamnett. And if Stella McCartney is up for a real challenge, the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic aims to be re-wrapped in something "designer-ish and with a Liverpool connection" for the City of Culture celebrations in 2008.
When I worked at the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, one of the board members brokered a sponsorship deal with Jaeger. Soon the ladies of the orchestra were kitted out in one-off black-and-white tops. Alas, the material proved uncomfortably prickly in sweaty symphonic moments, the cut of the sleeve didn't suit all bowing arms, and the optimistically one-size- fits-all spare blouses made for new players and "extras" practically meant booking musicians according to their statistics rather their ability. As the BBC Philharmonic found out when it plumped for green silk dresses for the ladies some years ago, when the outfits are all allocated, what do you do? Engage men rather than women? It sensibly reverted to black. The Halle, too, quietly dispensed with the new coloured outfits the ladies adopted when the Bridgewater Hall opened and is now looking at something more modish, though it's not yet sure what.
It's all very well for conductors, several of whom now sport lounge suits with grandpa-collared shirts or turtle necks, or soloists who are free to stand out, as the pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet has done with a somewhat OTT Vivienne Westwood outfit. Karita Mattila and Cecilia Bartoli are just two of the singers who regularly request designer dress and even jewellery credits in the printed programmes for their recitals. But for the ranks of players who make up an orchestra, finding something affordable to suit all tastes, shapes and sizes generally comes back to black. They are after all, as one conductor remarked, musicians and not tailors' dummies.
The members of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment add a streak of sophisticated glitter to their appearances with some gold embellishing their black, the London Mozart Players sport a red dimension with cummerbunds for the men and scarlet for the ladies, while the ladies of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra sometimes don coloured "jewelled" jackets for a touch of glamour. The contemporary music ensembles go for sophisticated "chic" black to match their cool repertoire and anything as ordinary as a plain old black shirt with white buttons is frowned upon.
"Dress-down" concert nights is a not popular idea, it seems. Some female musicians even feel that the more dressed up they are, the better, even if it's trousers. If it's OK for the pub after the concert, apparently, it's not nearly showy or stylish enough for the stage. The majority of male players seem to think that formal dress is appropriate for evening concerts and most feel that tails or white tuxedos in summer are both timeless and versatile in that they look almost handsome on most men, even if they're threadbare (the outfits, not the men that is). Most importantly, they represent a quality product which, of course, concerts themselves surely are. But, as most orchestras now realise, in overcoming the misconception that traditional concert dress means stultifying stiffness and starchiness, smiling can go a long way.