Women’s Orchestral Uniforms from the 1880s – 1940s
While I was going through the files on my phone to delete the photos I’d used in last month’s Instagram posts about early 20th century women’s orchestras, I noticed something odd – in all but one of the pictures, the women performing were wearing white dresses! Our typical concert dress is all black today, and I’d been under the impression that that was always the standard – so why were these groups different??
I’m not an expert on fashion, and as most resources on the history of classical music are written and/or curated by men, there isn’t actually a whole lot of info specific to orchestral uniforms. But once I noticed this, I couldn’t get it out of my head. I know there will be many angles I’m missing, but as stigmas around women’s dress onstage are still a hot topic in modern times, this is a subject that’s too important to brush off or ignore.
There are a lot of similarities between music performance and sports – and in this case, fashion is no exception. Earlier this year, there was a petition for Wimbledon to change their dress code that required women to wear white during the competition.
It was an old tradition from the 1880s that was rooted in the Victorian worldview. White clothing was thought to trap in less heat and best disguise sweating, which was considered totally improper in public. But guess what other activity women began taking part in around the 1880s? Band and orchestra performances in public spaces. And ideas from both the performers and their audience about what constituted proper attire for those occasions would have been influenced by the same social standards.
Most of the modern concerns about Wimbledon’s dress code seem to revolve around menstruation, which I totally sympathize with – the last thing I’d want to be worried about in the middle of a performance is whether that’s butt sweat because it feels hot sitting under the spotlights or whether my tampon is leaking. We’ve still got a long way to go when it comes to being able to wear whatever we want onstage, but I’m super glad that the classical music world made the switch away from all-white uniforms much sooner.
To paraphrase Katharine Eggar, women’s music clubs weren’t suffragist organizations, but they did have many similarities of thought with the suffragist movement. By extension, this was also reflected in the way that their members dressed and presented themselves to society.
In the 1910s and 1920s, white dresses were still considered highly fashionable. Many suffragettes intentionally dressed as respectably and ladylike as possible in order to appear like less of a threat – yes, they wanted the right to vote, but how could their protests be totally wrong if they simultaneously conducted themselves like perfect ladies??
While some women’s clubs subverted feminine stereotypes by fully embracing them as part of their image, other less-fortunate ensembles had male managers who exploited the patriarchal image of “feminine charm” to capitalize on their marketing scheme. Here’s one very prominent but extreme example: the Hour of Charm Orchestra.
This group was best known for TV appearances in the 40s and a tour during WWII to play for American troops. It was an all-women orchestra conducted and managed by Phil Spitalny, who imposed very strict requirements in the image and conduct of his performers. Orchestra members were required to have long, wavy hair and be under 120 lbs (I’m not going to get into how body image issues as a result of the media can be harmful here, but yikes!) and purchase a set of formal gowns that cost $18,000 (one 1940 dollar is about $19.91 today, so that comes out to a dress budget of $358,460 😱).
Giving up that much of your autonomy and identity to the whims of a male manager seems disturbing and violating, though I know these issues still show up in show business today. Publicity isn’t always a good thing – there are all kinds of good and bad attention. And while it’s great to see these women breaking the glass ceiling on such a public stage (for all the focus on appearances, they absolutely knew their way around orchestral repertoire – their concertmistress had a degree from Julliard, and most of these women attended conservatories and played multiple instruments), perpetuating these kinds of ideals and attitudes through the media may have ultimately done us more harm than good.
So what prompted the switch to wearing all black? Ironically, the answer is also the patriarchy. Unsurprisingly, I didn’t find a lot of specific info about this development, but it seems that it became standardized after WWII, when women were allowed to keep the chairs they earned during the war and orchestras became mixed-gender groups. Now that it was no longer “improper” for women to play in orchestras, they adopted black gowns in order to blend in better with their male counterparts. Orchestral uniforms have been that way ever since.
This feels like another facet of music history that was swept under the rug at universities and conservatories. Was that intentional, or did they think it just wasn’t a big deal? Even though women’s fashion on the classical stage is still hotly debated, I’d only ever heard people talk about musicians wearing all-black as a tradition intended to promote an audience’s focus on the music as opposed to the performers themselves. Occasionally, small ensembles I’ve played in have worn a bit of color in a shirt, scarf, or other accessory, to show a bit of personality during more informal performances. But I’d never heard anyone ever talk about black NOT being the standard uniform.
As classical musicians, we’re performing artists – and like it or not, there will always be a visual component to our performances onstage. Yes, there are occasions where we’re meant to be in the background – such as playing in a pit orchestra. But even then, it feels totally different to show up in black yoga pants and a knit shirt instead of formal wear – the way we dress affects the way that we feel and how comfortable we are in our environment. Talking about what we wear should be just as important as other aspects of our preparations to go onstage like techniques to deal with performance anxiety and healthy meal planning for concert day. This is especially important in a world where so many people are quick to judge others based on appearance, and where those attitudes are more likely to negatively impact female students and performers. It’s complex and it’s messy, but this isn’t a topic that was only an issue for our predecessors from 100 years ago. Sweeping it under the rug won’t solve anything, and we can’t find a better way to move forward without also bringing this into the light.
I realized there were a ton of parallels between suffragette fashion and women’s concert dress after watching this video from Snappy Dragon. If you’re also a nerd who loves exploring history through a social justice lens, I highly recommend V’s channel – she’s got a ton of great videos exploring costuming and fashion history 🙂
I couldn’t believe some of the stuff I read on the Hour of Charm orchestra – if you want to see it for yourself, the link above is a good place to start. Just a heads up, this article was written by a couple of guys, and while they do call out Phil Spitalny (the orchestra’s manager) on being sexist, the info on the ensemble’s rules hits different through a feminist lens.
And for a somewhat recent article discussing the historical origins of Wimbledon’s all-white dress code, check out the link above.