Women of the Philharmonic Can Play It All. Just Not in Pants.

Posted June 14, 2018 3:44 p.m. EDT

NEW YORK — Women can wear pants at the Oscars, the Tony Awards and state dinners. They can wear pants while graduating from the Naval Academy, figure skating at the Olympics and running for president. They can wear them at just about any workplace in America.

But when the women of the New York Philharmonic walked on stage at David Geffen Hall recently to play Mozart and Tchaikovsky, they all wore floor-length black skirts or gowns. And they’re required to: The Philharmonic, alone among the nation’s 20 largest orchestras, does not allow women to wear pants for formal evening concerts.

That could soon change. The orchestra — the oldest in the United States, with its 176th season wrapping up — has quietly been talking about modernizing its dress code.

Bowing to pressure from women who argued that the dress restrictions were not only unfair, but could also hinder their ability to play comfortably, other major orchestras have moved in recent years to let women wear pants if they choose. But gender equality is not the only consideration at the Philharmonic. At a moment when all orchestras are struggling to attract new audiences, some in classical music worry that old-fashioned formal wear can be off-putting to newcomers. So the Philharmonic is also re-examining its rule requiring men to wear white ties and tails, to see if it still makes sense now that the top-hat era has passed.

“It’s a little bit strange,” said Leelanee Sterrett, a 31-year-old horn player who joined the orchestra in 2013 and is one of the musicians who has been discussing modernizing the dress code with the orchestra’s management. “I think we would like to see it changed, and soon. And not just changed to allow pants, but to make more of a broad statement of what it means to be dressed.”

It is not merely a question of chic: There are practical considerations as well. Playing an instrument is physically demanding, and many musicians of both sexes find standard formal wear constricting. That is how Julie Ann Giacobassi, an English horn player, wound up revolutionizing the dress code of the San Francisco Symphony in the 1980s. She was playing Mahler’s Second Symphony when one of the keys of her instrument got stuck in the folds of her skirt.

“I thought, ‘Oh no, this is it,'” she said in a telephone interview, recalling the mishap that became a last straw for her.

So she went out and got herself a set of tails, just like the men. Her move raised eyebrows at the time — she said she was once scolded by an usher while on tour in Florence, Italy — but today it is enshrined in the orchestra’s dress code. San Francisco now gives women the option of wearing all-black dresses, long skirts or pantsuits, but also notes explicitly that “full dress ‘tails’ may be worn.”

Women have made great strides in American orchestras in recent decades, especially since the advent of blind auditions, in which musicians try out from behind screens (often with rugs put down to muzzle the clicking of heels). A little over half a century ago, the Philharmonic had no full-time women on its roster; it now has 44 women and 50 men. But while its peers now let women play formal concerts in a variety of pants and slacks, the Philharmonic allows pants only at matinees, Young People’s Concerts, parks concerts, or when playing in contemporary music ensembles. Not at evening subscription concerts, the core of its season.

Deborah Borda, the Philharmonic’s president and chief executive officer, said that some players approached her last fall to discuss updating the dress code. “It’s been a really good dialogue,” she said.

But she noted that it could be difficult to find a broadly acceptable solution, agreeing on clothes that are comfortable but still dressy enough to give a sense of occasion; pleasing longtime patrons, who tend to be conservative in their tastes and have indicated in research surveys that they like things as they are; and finding new outfits that can stand the test of time. Ms. Borda remembered one orchestra in the 1970s that switched to velveteen jackets with wide lapels and bell bottoms: “For a year or two they looked totally cool, and then they were a joke.”

“A lot of orchestras have tried different takes on men’s and women’s formal wear,” she said. “It hasn’t been entirely successful.”

In 1958, when Leonard Bernstein was the Philharmonic’s music director, he tried to get the orchestra to wear more modern Nehru jackets for some concerts. They were not popular, and within months he dropped them, suggesting that they “pass into history as ‘Bernstein’s folly.'” In 2016, the Vienna Philharmonic unveiled new suits designed by Vivienne Westwood and Andreas Kronthaler, but the orchestra has not fully adopted them.

But ensembles are still trying. This month the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra introduced new outfits created by the Parsons School of Design at the New School and made of high-tech, breathable fabrics donated by Under Armour, the Baltimore-based athletic wear company. “From out in the hall, it wasn’t easy to pick out all the subtle details in the garments, which promise greater ease of movement,” the critic Tim Smith wrote in The Baltimore Sun. Last year, the Seattle Symphony decided to allow men to jettison their tails, except for New Year’s Eve and galas.

The Philharmonic is still in the early stages of its discussions. “One thing is really clear: People in the orchestra want to remain dressy,” said Fiona Simon, a violinist who has been a member since 1985. “It’s important that we look like we care. That is sending a message. We put so much into the preparation of our programs that, yes, we need to look good as well.” If orchestras have sometimes struggled to revolutionize their looks, most large ones have decided in the meantime to let the women in their ranks wear pants if they wish — some only recently. The women in the Metropolitan Opera’s orchestra have long been able to wear pants in the pit, but until 2015 they were required to wear skirts for concerts at Carnegie Hall and on tour. A new agreement, reached that year, allows them to choose wide, flowing pants if they like.

Jessica Phillips, a clarinet player who leads the Met orchestra’s negotiating committee, said that the change had been especially supported by women in the cello, wind and brass sections, who felt that skirts interfered with their ability to play comfortably.

The Los Angeles Philharmonic, which is often considered the nation’s most forward-thinking orchestra, only moved to allow women to wear flowing formal pants or all-black, tailored pantsuits at formal concerts in its most recent contract, which was ratified last year. “We lobbied for it for a long time,” said Meredith Snow, a violist.

Sterrett, the horn player at the New York Philharmonic, said that as they discussed changes to the dress code, musicians made it clear that they wanted to make sure that concerts continued to provide an “elevated experience.”

“How can what we wear, how we look, represent the values of the orchestra?” she recalled her colleagues asking. “I really don’t remember hearing anyone say, ‘No, I don’t think we should change.'”