This isn’t exactly a new complaint on my part, so it’s really no secret that I’m not a fan of performers defaulting to concert black most of the time. It came up in conversation again recently, and there was actually a specific request for me to write a post about it, so let’s dive in to my thoughts.
To just jump right at the heart of my complaint, I don’t believe that performers should look like stage hands. I have nothing against stage hands, (hell, I’ve been one numerous times), but they wear black for a very specific reason; they don’t want to call any attention to themselves. I am of the opinion that performers should be calling attention to themselves, at least most of the time anyway. The audience is there to watch you perform, why are you trying not to be noticed? In other words, performers should look like performers.
Now, I will freely acknowledge that there are times when it makes sense for performers to wear concert black. Like I said, I’m not a fan of it “most of the time.” Case in point, I’m preparing to sing in the choir for the Legend Of Zelda: Symphony Of The Goddesses show once again. It makes perfect sense for us to be in all black on that show because there’s the giant screen with video footage from the various games throughout the concert.
There are always going to be instances where the performers on the stage are actively trying to not be the focal point of the audience’s gaze for theatrical reasons, and I’m totally okay with that. If there’s a specific experience the concert/show is wanting the audience to have, and staring at the musicians isn’t specifically part of it, go ahead and try to blend into the background. Or for the performance of something like say an oratorio, it would make sense to help make the soloists stand out by having the rest of the musicians blend into the background. So I admit it makes sense and is even the best course of action. Sometimes.
However, I’d like to see performers looking like performers more often, and ditch the all black look whenever possible as often as possible.
The arguments for concert black
But wait, I’m sure everyone is saying, black is unifying! The ensemble has to have a unified look! Black tends to look pretty much the same across different fabrics, and is easy on the eyes! And it’s standard!
The standard look
Ok, let’s discuss that last point first. It’s the standard look. Basically, “everyone else is doing it, so we have to do it too.” And if everyone else was jumping off a cliff…?
I’m not a fan of that point. At all. I grant it 0 merit. Your ensemble should not wear concert black simply because everyone else does it too. If, let’s say all the choirs in your area suddenly started exclusively singing settings of Basque texts, does that mean your choir has to as well? That’s a ridiculous example, very intentionally, but obviously, no you would not have to follow suit. Conformity is not, in my mind at least, a good reason for the selection of your performance attire. Don’t wear it because that’s what everyone else is doing, wear it because it makes sense to do so, because you have actual reasons for wanting or needing that visual aesthetic.
The need for a unified look vs a visual identity
To the other points: Yes, black is unifying. And it does tend to look pretty much the same across different types of fabrics. It is easy on the eyes. All accurate statements. But you have no visual identity as an ensemble. You’re boring to look at and you look exactly like everyone else. This can make it difficult for people to remember which group is which.
I remember meeting this nice couple who had recently moved to the Vancouver area from somewhere out East. (My goldfish-like memory lost their original location years ago). Because they had a hard time remembering which concert they liked and which they didn’t, they were keeping a file of all the concert programs. When they got home from a concert, they would either draw a happy face, or a sad face to remind them that they enjoyed or did not enjoy that performance. I asked why they did that, and they said it was because every group looked like every other group, so “they all jumble together in a big mess of black clothes.” (their words, not mine). They were accustomed to choirs specifically having their own unique look, so you could say “The ones with the ugly red outfits” or “the ones with the pretty blue dresses” and remember that you did not like any of the performances of the ones in the pretty blue dresses. Visual identity.
But then there’s that bit about the ensemble needs to have a unified look. Ok. That doesn’t mean all black is the only way to go. Easiest, sure, but not the only option. Also, does the ensemble ALWAYS have to have a perfectly unified look?
This can be a very effective way to stand out from the crowd, especially with smaller groups. My favourite example was a musica intima concert I went to where everyone was dressed in varying degrees of formality. The men were in various shirt/tie/vest/jacket combinations, some women had skirts on, some wore pants, some wear wearing a dress, not one person had the same coloured anything except maybe their shoes… and it bothered nobody. It looked like the 12 singers got off work from some office job and came to the concert in their work clothes.
So what’s my point?
Basically, I just want ensembles to put some thought into their performing attire. Don’t just conform to what everyone else is doing, don’t just do what’s easy because it’s easy. Think about it. Don’t be afraid to be a little creative with your attire. Maybe don’t channel 1970s Elton John, but put some thought into it. Colour can be your friend. You don’t want to be boring to listen to, so at least consider not being boring to look at. Let the stage hands blend into the background and actively try not be seen; that’s an important part of their job. You’re the performer; be noticed! Command the audience’s full attention.
And who knows, moving away from a boring visual aesthetic could help expand your audience into the always-coveted younger generations. I’ve heard a lot of rumblings from some ensembles about ditching the tuxedo/gown look as it carries a certain stuffy-and-not-for-me connotation among a lot of people, especially my generation and younger. Ditching the all black attire could bring a sense of fun to your appearance and appeal to people who probably would want to listen to you, but are turned off by your publicity photos. (that might sound ridiculous but it happens)
Just give it some thought, is what I ask. When it makes sense, stick with concert black. When it makes sense to branch out a little, try it out. Have some discussions and get creative. Bring a sense of fun to your appearance and engage more with your audience, giving them a fuller concert experience.