Dressing Your Chorus

Whether your chorus has 10 singers or 110, what those singers wear matters. The overall look should complement, not distract from, the music and communicate a certain level of seriousness, or as one choral conductor quipped, “not like you just walked in off the street.” 

That’s why many choruses have followed the lead of orchestral musicians, outfitting their singers in some version of “concert black.” Limiting the color palate makes for a uniform visual presentation that doesn’t compete with the music for center stage, says Alison Anderson, vice president of marketing for the aptly-named Concert Black, a 15-year-old company that outfits singers and instrumentalists.   Yet dressing singers is far from a black and white matter. Conversations with choral leaders reveal that clothing singers is a highly personal, and thus often contentious, subject—and one that is closely linked to the chorus’s overall image and mission as well. Here is how choruses are currently navigating this challenge.

Fifty Shades of Black

The tuxedo is still the go-to costume for the men of most choruses, though some allow for a less formal, but still dressy outfit for certain venues or concerts. The men of the Los Angeles Master Chorale wear traditional tails for formal attire, or all black suits and ties for a more contemporary, casual look. “There’s no real consistency in how groups purchase formal wear for men,’ says Beth Slusher, president and CEO of choral apparel company Rivar’s. She says some groups have been purchasing the same tux or tails option for years, while others let the men purchase their own from formalwear stores. “Since the basic style is similar in either a polyester or wool blend, it works either way,” she says.

The Master Chorale of South Florida found that a sparkly black top for their female singers added visual interest under stage lights.

“The singers are on their own for their tuxes,” says Oliver Schwab, concert manager for the Heartland Men’s Chorus in Kansas City. The chorus does make suggestions about where to buy the standard black tux required and supplies concert vests and bow ties in the group’s signature periwinkle blue at a discount to the singers. It’s trickier to find outfits for the women. Many choruses ask their female singers to put together outfits from their own closets. This low-cost option for singers is an important one, given that over 90% of adult choruses responding to Chorus America’s most recent Chorus Operations Survey report that singers are required to pay for their own apparel. But the variability can lead to confusion. “The debate is ongoing,” says Ann Sundberg, past president of the Edina Chorale in Minnesota. “Are skirts long enough? Are pants flowy enough? It there too much cleavage? Are three-quarter length sleeves okay?  Are sandals okay?  Sometimes the blacks don't match. What about jewelry?” Some choruses come up with painstakingly exact guidelines, right down to the number of inches hemlines should be from the floor and the specific color of stockings. But such standards require someone to be the “fashion police”—a role that most choral leaders would like to avoid.

What to Wear: Let's Get Practical

For a quick handy collection of takeaways to consider when updating your chorus attire policy, read our companion article, "What to Wear: Let's Get Practical."

For years, the women of the New York Choral Society (NYCHORAL) chose their own black tops and bottoms, but “no matter how hard we tried, we looked sloppy,” says Lisa Guida, a member of NYCHORAL’s board of managers. Going with a uniform outfit—a simple black boat neck sparkly blouse and full length full skirts—has solved the problem. “We look fabulous,” says Guida. “We appear on TV from time to time and the little bit of sparkle in the blouse looks classy and elegant.” The Master Chorale of South Florida recently revamped its attire for women after 10 years of singing in black, fitted gowns with a jacket and a pearl necklace. “The dresses were attractive up close, but unbearably hot, because the material did not breathe and felt like Saran wrap,” says Holly Strawbridge president of the Chorale. “From a distance, the flat black color was dull and unexciting.”

 The Brazeal Dennard in their classic tuxes and gowns. Occasionally they add colored overlays and pocket squares.

The new outfits had to be cool and comfortable and also accommodate a wide range of body types. Strawbridge lobbied hard to add color to the Chorale’s all-black attire. “We live in a pretty nontraditional area, so I thought color would be more interesting to audiences,” she recalls. “But because we are often hired to sing with visiting orchestras, others felt a conservative black outfit would be more appropriate.” Like the New York Choral Society, the Chorale opted for uniforms with separate tops and bottoms—a long black skirt, long-sleeved black jacket, and sparkly black top that Strawbridge says is “more attractive under the lights.” Because comfort is so important, many choruses and orchestras are interested in how the technologically-advanced fabrics used in active sportswear can be adapted for performance wear. Kevin Yu, a symphony violinist, redesigned the standard tuxedo shirt using a four-way stretching, moisture-wicking fabric. Musicians who have tested his “Gershwin” tuxedo shirt swear by it—but it costs $120 instead of $20. “Choirs would love if we would go into athletic wear,” says Anderson of Concert Black. “But we get our fabrics through jobbers so we can consistently get the same fabric.” The price would be much higher with athletic fabric, she says.

Pops of Color

A number of choruses report that they make adjustments to their choral apparel to match the season or the theme of a particular program. The look of the Brazeal Dennard Chorale in Detroit is as classic as it gets, with figure-flattering black gowns and a string of pearls for the women and tuxes for the men. But for the group’s spring concert last year, the women added pastel colored sheer overlays to their dresses and the men popped the same fabric into their tuxedo pockets. The color accent changed to sparkly silver for the Chorale’s Legacy concert in April 2016.

The gemstone dresses of Soli Deo Gloria.

New York-based MasterVoices typically requires tuxes for men and long black skirts and blouses for the women. But for its recent Grapes of Wrath opera concert, singers wore simpler clothing in earth tones to reflect the world of the piece. The Babylon Chorale on Long Island, New York, adds color flair for its summer pops concerts—for example, scarves of red, white or blue for the women and pocket squares in the same colors for the men. Some choruses have adopted a colorful palate for their standard concert wear. The singers of Soli Deo Gloria, a women’s ensemble in Fresno, California, choose their own full-length dresses in gemstone colors. “The dresses are to be fancy, with sleeves, and are red, burgundy, wine, royal and navy blue, purple, or emerald green,” says founder and artistic director Julie Carter. “The idea behind it was to avoid the severe looking black dress.”


 A theatrical look from the Heartland Men's Chorus for a 1950s-themed concert.

The Heartland Men’s Chorus takes a more theatrical approach to matching their programming themes. The group regularly creates new outfits—for example, vests in shades of green for a concert of tunes from the Broadway musical Wicked, elf outfits for a program of music from the Broadway show Elf the Musical, and jackets emulating the Dalton Academy Warblers, an a cappella group featured on the TV show Glee. Every program has a production budget, says Oliver Schwab, and a team of 20 to 30 seamstresses does all the cutting and sewing of the special outfits. “It is about having fun and bringing the music to life,” says Schwab. “Audiences love that.”

Breaking the Mold

For choruses that do not regularly perform with symphony orchestras, their choral attire does not need to be so…well…black and white. A number of ensembles have tweaked the monochrome theme or broken out entirely, creating a look that is in keeping with their mission, their values, their venues, their audiences, and/or the style of music they perform. Typically, these groups have fewer members and do not regularly perform with orchestras.  

 MPLS in a blue denim look to match a concert entitled "Falling Awake."

The professional chamber chorus MPLS (imPulse) in Minneapolis was created in 2014 to “redefine the typical choral experience,” according to its founder and artistic director Samuel Grace. That mission guides the chorus’s choices when it comes to performance wear. “We are all about reaching new audiences,” says Grace. “We find that more formal attire can be a barrier to that. The mission is the most important thing, and what choruses should be focusing on.” Each MPLS performance focuses on a narrative theme, and the singers put together concert attire that either fits the music they are performing or the space in which they are performing it. For the group’s April 2016 concert, Infinity and Beyond, in the Como Planetarium, the visual focus was on the stars and planets projected above the audience’s heads, so singers wore dark jeans, tops and shoes that completely blended into the background. For the Fall 2015 concert, Falling Awake, which explored the world of dreams in choral music, the singers worked with a blue denim “classy, casual” theme. The singers find each concert outfit in their own closets, or make purchases to fit the theme, but their “look” is not left to chance. A small committee of the board discusses what kind of attire would work well for the season, and then creates a document with photos of clothing options. Singers bring their outfits to a rehearsal to see how they work together on stage. “That’s to make sure everyone isn’t wearing the same exact thing,” says Grace.

 C4's "relaxed professional" look of black and grey.

C4, The Choral Composer/Conductor Collective, is a New-York based ensemble that, like imPulse, believes that the music they perform—contemporary music written in the last 25 years—requires a less traditional look. “The pieces run the gamut from the relatively traditional to outrageously strange,” says member Brian Mountford, “so the attire needs to project an image of relaxed professionalism, ready to be by turns serious and silly.” After some experimentation, the group hit on a palette of grey and black, in solids and muted patterns. Each member brings his or her own sensibility, and the color scheme unifies the effect.

Drawing on Different Traditions

A number of choruses wear clothing that reflects a particular musical style or era. The Montana A Cappella Society (Hamilton, MT) wears Victorian costumes in honor of an era “when all strata and stations of society sang for their own personal enjoyment, to tell stories, to pass along news and just for the sheer joy of it,” says Debra Kehoe, the group’s vice president. The group’s costumes reflect clothing that would have been worn by the very rich, the very poor, and all classes in between. “During a time when so much of society was divided by class, music and song brought them together,” says Kehoe.  In the early days of Kitka, a nine-person group rooted in Balkan, Slavic, and Caucasian women’s vocal traditions, members considered wearing classic black attire. They decided that the music they were performing demanded a different direction, but it was not a simple matter of putting on some traditional clothing.

 Kitka's traditional clothing is "ethnically referential, but not specific."

“It is a region of the world that has intense nationalistic sentiments,” says Shira Cion, the group’s executive and artistic director, “so as Americans we wanted to avoid identifying ourselves as a Bulgarian women’s choir or a Serbian women’s choir. We do things from everywhere, including contemporary music, over the course of a single concert program.” The solution, she says, was to seek costumes that were “ethnically referential, but not specific.” Cion takes the lead in dressing the group. She has found pieces of costumes in discount department stores, “hippie” shops, vintage clothes stores, ethnic fabric shops, and on Ebay. In recent years, the group has hired local fashion designers to help them find fabrics and clothes that create a “silhouette” that communicates well from the stage. “Costuming is another art form,” says Cion, “and it is an art form that gets better with practice, and with firm leadership and decision making. It is just like any other aspect that people try to integrate into a performance, whether it is choreography or theatrical lighting or interactive program notes on your mobile device. It always takes more time than you think and it requires a strong artistic point of view.”

Grappling with Gender Identity

Many choirs have singers who cross the traditional voice part lines. Women singing tenor, for example, typically wear the outfit for women and stand on the edge of the section so as not to disturb the uniformity. But increasingly choruses are learning that choral outfits divided into male and female categories may not accommodate all singers. In 2014, when Seattle Pro Musica was considering whether to update its choral wear from a uniform black gown for women and tuxedos for men, it sent a survey to all singers. One respondent wondered if the chorus should take the opportunity to confront things that could be considered class, race and ethnicity, gender, and age barriers for performers and viewers. “The uniform system does set up this false binary that there's ‘lady-wear’ and then there's ‘dude-wear,’” the singer wrote. “I would love to have an option that validates the way I present my gender.” “It was like I was knocked up the side of the head,” says artistic director Karen Thomas. “It occurred to me that if a chorus required that women wear a dress, that I would not audition because I personally would not feel comfortable.” She wondered who their current policy might be stopping from auditioning. “Or who among our members may not be feeling their best, or their most comfortable, because we are asking them to wear a specific dress uniform?” Singers serving on the membership committee and a diversity task force recommended new guidelines for choral wear. Among the changes: anyone can choose to wear a tuxedo. And if someone presenting as male wants to wear something considered more feminine, that’s fine, too. “It hasn’t changed things hugely,” Thomas says, “but the freedom of expression it has allowed, within guidelines, has made a huge difference for our singers. And if it helps one trans person decide they could audition for our choir, that’s important.” As in Seattle Pro Musica’s experience, this issue is frequently first raised by someone within the singer community. “We currently have a member who appears female but identifies as genderqueer and has a closer affinity toward the attire worn by the male singers,” says Diane Retallack, artistic and executive director of the Eugene Concert Choir and Eugene Vocal Arts in Eugene, Oregon. This singer currently wears a tuxedo and stands next to the tenors in concert formation. Retallack says that as the group forms a committee to update its concert attire this summer, gender identity will be one of the aspects discussed and that the genderqueer member will serve on the committee.

Kelsey Menehan is a writer, psychotherapist, and longtime choral singer based in San Francisco. 

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