Looking sharp…

Does a Conductor's uniform really matter?

You paid $60 for a decent seat.

There are a hundred funeral-clad souls seated on a brightly lit stage, each performing their own little solo recital.

The house lights dim, and the orchestra falls quiet.


A waiter from the Ritz Carlton bounces out of the wings with unsavory frizzy hair flopping so much it draws your gaze.

For some reason, the audience go wild and applaud the appearance of a magnificent maître d’.

Give him a top hat, and he could be a groom.

Or Batman’s nemesis, the Penguin.

So why do most Conductors still wear tails to perform in, and does it really make any difference?

The reason I ask is because this past weekend I conducted a concert wearing tails for the first time in almost 20 years. And the compliments are still coming in!

Back at the end of the last century there were questions in the industry surrounding Conductors’ attire. As more female conductors took to the podium, tails didn’t really suit all of them very well (some female conductors look great in tails, just as much as some male conductors don’t!). And the traditional costume was considered off-putting to younger audiences.

So more and more conductors began wearing whatever they wanted.

Of course, there had always been conductors who wore whatever they wanted, but not many.

Personally, I have always preferred the less formal look. It was also very distracting for me to have something flapping at my shins every time I moved. But then, anyone who has had a three year old child knows what it’s like to suddenly have something grab your lower leg regardless of what you are doing.

So, in the mid 90s I stopped wearing my tails. All three sets of them. Eventually I gave two of them away and kept one partly for posterity, and partly because… well, who knows what the future holds.

But on Sunday I was leading a group of very dedicated and hard-working performers in a concert of Opera Highlights, with four vocal soloists. It was billed as a gala concert, so I knew the female soloists would look as glamorous as could be, and I did not want to upstage them by dressing in a black suit with black shirt and black tie… my normal podium uniform. I’m not the same shape I was 20 years ago, so I rented me some tails.

Looking pretty sharp, don’t you agree?

So does a Conductor’s uniform really matter?

Here are some pros about wearing tails:

  1. It fits the image a specific clientele expect. Not everyone, but certainly many funders.
  2. It does look sharp!
  3. As any superhero, supervillain, or actor will tell you, wearing a costume helps you play the role.
  4. As the audience mostly sees the back of conductors, tails hide the posterior, which may not always be a pretty sight.
  5. The formality of tails suggests more of a formal, respectable occasion.
  6. What to wear is one less decision Conductors have to make, and they have enough decisions to consider before and during a concert as it is.

And here are some cons about wearing tails:

  1. The tails themselves (the flaps that hang down) are SO distracting!
  2. The formal presentation might put off many potential audience members. (Especially country music fans, even though many of them actually really enjoy live orchestral music.)
  3. Because the world is visual and all about marketing, Conductors look for other ways to distinguish themselves. Usually this results in perms or long, flowing hair that swooshes during the music.
  4. Bugs Bunny and Thomas the Cat have degraded the image of a Conductor in tails. Okay, at the time those cartoons were made society would only make fun of what it respected, but that has changed in the past 20 years as well.
  5. $15-$90 for a local concert ticket does not cover the costs of the concert. Forcing conductors to wear expensive tails will put their fees up, which means your ticket price will go up, too. Bad for all.
  6. Some Conductors just don’t like ’em as a fashion item. Others don’t like cowboy boots. Or tutus.
  7. Alongside the joke “You’re a Conductor? Buses or trains?” is the other association mentioned at the beginning of this article: the fact that Conductors in tails look like upper class restaurant servers. Of course, that’s no bad thing, actually, because they both work incredibly hard in the moment while anticipating needs, and the role is (should be) much the same. As Daniel Lapin observed, in the USA usually the only non-military people that society calls out to with a respectful “Sir” are, in fact, male waiters.

What are the pros and cons of less formal attire?

  1. Pro: They help Conductors appear more accessible as people. (Although some might argue that their mysteriousness is a good thing.)
  2. Con: They could be making a fashion statement that detracts from the music.
  3. Pro: The Conductor feels more comfortable and less restricted.
  4. Con: The Conductor may not ‘transform’ into a specific role/ image. (Assuming what you wear does affect behavior.)
  5. Pro: It is mostly less expensive and helps keep the costs of live music down.
  6. Con: It is not a uniform. But then again, who says Conductors have to wear a uniform? To keep things uniform? Who says live concerts need uniformity? (Unity, perhaps, not necessarily uniformity! Society is all about our individualism and what makes us different these days… so why not the presentation of live music, too?)

I love looking sharp.

I have always been interested in fashion.

But I am not a particularly good conformist.

What do you think are the pros and cons of a Conductor’s uniform… tails, in particular?

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4 thoughts on “Looking sharp…

  1. I pretty much gave up wearing tails about 12 or 13 years ago. For 99% of my concerts, I wear a black suit and black shirt. For an activity as physical as conducting, a lot can go wrong with tails, and I don’t see the benefit of wearing a fancy outfit if you end up with your tie crooked, your vest unhooked and your cumberbund riding up under your armpits. An all-black outfit is also more forgiving for the lighting- the players can see the baton a little easier than they can in front of a white shirt and tie. I wore the tails for a Royal gala a few years back and for a memorial concert last year. At least they still fit!

    • Thanks for the comment, Ken. I thought that about the lighting, too, but I’ve had players complain they can’t see me. More to do with the venue than my attire, I think. It is Impressive, though, that you maintained enough of a healthy lifestyle to still fit into your tails after all that time… Perhaps there are some lessons I could learn about that?

  2. I wear tails 90% of the time. And I get compliments for that both from orchestra members who are tired of seeing wrinkly black shirts, and from audience members (mostly female). Tails is something that can make almost any guy look good, so it is a sure choice, and as you said, one decision less. 🙂 I have never been mistaken for a waiter, although I heard Lorin Maazel was once mistaken for an usher! So I vote for tails. P.S. What you are wearing in the photo has “tails” but it really is not a standard tailcoat…

    • I know… but the cutaway was close enough! I couldn’t actually bring myself to getting the swallow-tail dress coat. Thank you, Sasha, for standing up for them, though! I must admit, the compliments are a little intoxicating 🙂

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