The shift in fashion is complete.
We are officially a people who dress for the moment we are in. Our clothing reflects who we are now, not who we hope to become. And most importantly, we dress for our own comfort, not others’.
How do I know this to be true?
Because in what can only be described as the ultimate clutching-of-the-sartorial-pearls moment, the Philadelphia Orchestra began its new season at the Kimmel Center’s Verizon Hall Tuesday night with its male musicians taking the stage sans white tie and tails.
Instead of the black tail coat, white shirt, white piqué waistcoat and white bow tie combo — that for centuries was the epitome of high society menswear — the male players of the 2021 orchestra are pairing black suits with black shirts and a long black tie. The women’s attire will remain unchanged from the current full-length black dress, skirt, or pants.
The decision by Philadelphia Orchestra president and CEO Matías Tarnopolsky — with the urging of music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin — to finally relax the orchestra’s rigid fashion rules has given us all permission to drop every manner of pretense. The orchestra is one of the last institutions to thrive on pomp, circumstance, and old-world style. And while Philadelphia is among the fashion trailblazers in the orchestra world, it’s not alone. This season, the New York Philharmonic has switched to black collared shirts, jackets, and no tie for men. The San Francisco Symphony is also trying a new all-black outfit, long black tie optional.
Sure, we’ve long given up formal dress for work, school, travel, shopping, trips to the movies, the theater, and the orchestra. But deep down inside, we felt like we were breaking the rules. We knew there were people who wanted us to “do better” and that meant “dressing up,” according to their standards, whatever they were at the time.
But the fashion gods of yesteryear don’t appear to have any more sway, even with the orchestra. And that’s big. The rules of aspirational dressing belong to the last century. The only standards that matter now are ours. If we choose to dress up for a friend’s wedding or a special night out, that’s fine. But that’s between us and our mirrors. We are driven by comfort, not our sourpuss aunt’s disapproval. If the last two years taught us anything, it’s that we matter — even while we sit on our couches in sweats and yoga pants with graying hair.
The irony is that although fashion is largely considered the business of women, it’s the gradual relaxing of men’s evening dress at galas, red carpets, and yes, orchestra openings — high society’s most glamorous and formal events — that is the fashion proof that our collective values are shifting to a more equal society where we aren’t solely judged on our looks. Perhaps a new way of being is trying to take hold.
White tie and tails became the standard for men’s special-occasion dress back in the mid-19th century, said Joseph Hancock, Drexel University fashion professor and director of the school’s retail and merchandising program. This was a time when Americans with new money were hell-bent on proving their lifestyles were socially on par with Europeans with old money.
America’s rich and famous built grand Greek Revival and Renaissance-inspired architecture. They ate caviar and escargot like their rich French counterparts and expressed their high ideals through haute couture. In 1892, businessman Arthur Turnure founded Vogue as a weekly newspaper to feature the lifestyle of nouveau riche Americans. (In 1909, Condé Montrose Nast bought Vogue and the magazine was on its way to becoming the international fashion bible it is today.)
Keeping up with the Jones culture was officially born.
During this era of elbow-length gloves, women’s formal-wear trends were constantly in flux. Necklines shifted between sweetheart and bandeau. Hem lengths varied. Colors came in and out of style. But the men who were photographed with their wives on society pages as they escorted them to state dinners, galas, and balls were always in white tie and tails. It was the go-to for the well-dressed man. But over the centuries, it also became the costume of the obscenely rich gent who amassed his fortune on the foundation of colonialism, imperialism, and racism.
The emergence of the tuxedo in the early 1900s, the pastel crushed velvet — think powder blue — tuxes of the 1970s, and the tight-fitting windowpane suits of the early aughts and teens were changes in menswear silhouettes that challenged the definition of traditional masculine dress. Yet the highest of high-class events still required men to wear white tie and tails.
In this way, the power structure remained in place.
That is until now.
We’ve come to a time where social change can’t be ignored and the trappings of the old way of doing business — especially when it comes to fashion — are being eschewed. Climate change is real. Racial justice is a goal. Equality for women is no longer an option. Fair health care for all is worth fighting for. The ideas of a society once anchored by the white tie and tails power structure are no longer acceptable.
The orchestra was already rethinking its performances, framing them around social justice issues. New works included the message of Black Lives Matter. This month the orchestra premiers Robin Holcomb’s Paradise, a musical response to the 2018 fire that devastated Paradise, Calif.
Its attire must reflect that.
“That entire look represented a culture of white elitism and that just doesn’t work any more,” Hancock said. “All it did was draw the market away from the orchestra. The customer just couldn’t relate. Society doesn’t want to relate.”
Thank goodness the tide is turning — albeit slowly — and we don’t have to anymore.
I know there will be naysayers: Dressing up is part of what makes going to the orchestra special. What happened to dressing for the role you want? What ever happened to high standards?
Those sentiments have stopped mattering.
The freedom to dress comfortably and according to our own whims, rather than others’ doesn’t mean we will chose to be slovenly and unkempt. Allowing others to be comfortable in their skin — and their choice of fabric — means we are are at least trying to show kindness and respect to our fellow humans’ personal decisions. Maybe we are getting closer to a time when it really doesn’t matter what the Joneses are wearing as long as we are free to be our authentic selves at the park, out to dinner, and yes, at the orchestra.