By Sarah Freiberg | From the July-August 2023 issue of Strings Magazine
As is the case with many orchestras, Virginia’s Richmond Symphony is steeped in tradition. Founded in 1957, the symphony now boasts an orchestra of more than 70 players bolstered by a chorus of 150. In performance, men’s concert attire included tails for Saturday evenings and tuxedos on Sunday afternoons. Until now. In early April 2023, the ensemble took to the stage for performances of Mahler’s massive Second Symphony and unveiled its new wardrobe—to great acclaim.
Lacey Huszcza, the Richmond Symphony’s executive director, points out: “The world of concert dress, tails, and tuxes created a base of uniformity onstage because the performers were originally all men.” This look began centuries ago, when both elite audiences and their servants—including musicians—were expected to wear the most formal attire. Much has changed since then, including the advent of women joining professional orchestras. Women adopted a dress code of all black concert clothing. However, they have had much more freedom in their choices, and thus, says Huszcza, the look was “just not as cohesive.”
A few years ago, a group of the orchestra’s male musicians approached Huszcza. “They wanted to get rid of the tails,” she says. Tails are heavy and restrictive, hold heat, and are just not comfortable. The question then was where to go from there. “We could go to all black for the men—black shirt and tie. This would be a little more dressed down, and no one was excited about that,” Huszcza says. “Dress clothes,” she adds, “don’t really work for musicians, who are really athletes of the minor muscles.” Combine that with the fact that “Covid changed our lives—you could wear yoga pants and a decent shirt to be seen on Zoom,” and she decided to enlist the help of her friend and image advisor, Lauren Solomon “to see if we could find something better that was more functional and looked more interesting.”
Solomon’s specialty “is the business of being you. Call it image, presence, persona, or personal brand; I teach the art and science of being your very best self—your most confident, capable, and charismatic self—from the inside out,” she says. During Covid, both Solomon and Huszcza relocated to the D.C./Richmond area. “Covid gave people time to stop and think about things for a minute,” Soloman says. She realized that the Baltimore Symphony had decided to change their concert dress about a decade ago, working with the Parsons School of Design to come up with “Active Formalwear” of black-and-white garments that debuted in 2018. Solomon reached out to them and worked with their design team, ThreeASFOUR, “in order to leverage what they had learned in Baltimore.”
Solomon points out that many orchestras have recently gone from tuxes to suits. But Richmond was looking for something more. “The question is how to get cohesion. We wanted uniformity without the uniform. It’s the harmony; it’s the flow. We wanted to create what music represented in visual form.” The idea was that the clothing should be universal, gender nonspecific, interchangeable, and mix-and-match. Also important were easy care and extreme comfort. Huszcza wasn’t sure exactly what she wanted to see, but “my only thing was I didn’t want all black,” she says.
Huszcza and Solomon requested input from a group of the Richmond musicians to find out what did and didn’t work in concert wear. Huszcza is “a horn player by training. But cellists didn’t want buttons, or anything metal that would rattle. I never would have thought of buttons.” The new attire has all buttons covered, tucked under other fabric. Violinists wanted the neck area clear—no bow ties, please—and no collars or shoulder pads. Trombonists preferred the slide arm of their clothing to be longer than the other. All players needed freedom to move, so jackets are easy open to give more ease in moving arms. All of the material has stretch—some with more stretch or mesh under the arms. Solomon calls the pieces “business in front, party in back.” The cotton-fronted shirt, for example, looks quite formal, and is paired with cotton jersey sleeves, back, and neck, allowing for stretch, movement, wicking, and cooling. The waistlines of the pants also have stretch in the back panel, and the pants do not need belts or suspenders to hold them up. Another musician-friendly addition to the concert attire is pockets. A majority of the mix-and-match pieces have pockets—these were must-haves for all the musicians.
The ten pieces include a long and a short jacket as well as three different styles of pants, a vest, shirts, and a wrap dress. This year, each orchestra member was able to choose any four of the interchangeable pieces. Next year they will add four more, which will give a great deal of choice to the musicians. For the men, this means a lot more variety than they had in the past. Plus, all the pieces are washable and dryable, so no more trips to the dry cleaner. Fuze Biotech in Utah provided its patented chemical-free, anti-microbial, anti-odor treatment to the clothing.
There were many moving parts in creating new attire for an entire symphony orchestra. The process of making the garments for the orchestra was made easier by 3D body scanning provided by Human Solutions in North Carolina. The knit pieces were produced by Eva Varro Designs in Los Angeles, and the pieces were custom-sewn by a family-run factory in Dakar, Senegal. Solomon “spent a week in Senegal with them—we created samples, matched fabrics—and then they went to work. It was magical—I went over with a set of half creations and came home with completed samples for the musicians. It got exciting and very real at that point.”
Over the course of the summer, a group of Richmond Symphony musicians tried on samples and gave feedback. One of the garments was a wrap dress—which looked great until a player sat down holding an instrument and bow and didn’t have a hand to keep the skirt closed. The final version has more material and is now a faux-wrap dress. “We had a lovely georgette fabric for one of the pairs of pants,” recalls Solomon. “It was very ‘floaty’—a flute or violin bow on a lap could go floating off. We needed to make sure instruments and bows stayed secure.” The process is continuing, with tweaking of this and that as the musicians spend more time with their new clothing.
The Richmond Symphony Hall is colorful, and Huszcza wanted to make sure that the new wardrobe would reflect its vibrancy. The aim was providing a unifying visual experience for the audience, says Huszcza, so they can combine “what they see with what they hear—experiencing it as a whole.” Finding a balance was important. “Too much color might look like costumes, but too little might look bland.” With a bit of experimentation, the team settled on a combination of black with an arresting sapphire blue, which matches the stage shell and the roof.
In the initial Mahler concerts, there were many extra performers on the stage, but there were new garments for them as well. Extras wear their own black clothing and are provided with a supplemental piece of clothing with the distinctive blue on it. “The blue was represented across the stage,” says Solomon. “Inclusivity is a key factor.”
Audiences loved the new wardrobe. Huszcza says, “Because there is such a unified look, and it has some color, it creates a sense of celebration and uniformity of ensemble in appearance. Some audience members wanted to buy it!”
Solomon muses, “It would be interesting if other groups picked it up. It is surprising that others haven’t gone on with the evolution of wardrobing in the orchestral world.”