Violinist Ellen Pendleton Troyer has struggled for years with the constraints of wearing evening attire for physical, sometimes-strenuous performances. And she considers herself luckier than her male counterparts, who have a stricter dress code of bow ties and evening jackets adorned with tails.
"Our issues with the dress stem from a functionality standpoint," said Troyer, who plays first violin with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. "What we do is quite physical. There is a lot of sweating under the hot lights. Evening attire isn't made for this. For the men, it's [more] taxing."
BSO music director Marin Alsop sympathized with Troyer and her fellow musicians. After a failed pitch to "Project Runway," her interest led her to Joel Towers, the head of Parsons the New School for Design. A partnership resulted in students from the New York City-based school working on a project called "The Future of Orchestral Garments."
Their designs were unveiled last weekend while Alsop and the BSO were in New York performing in Carnegie Hall's Spring for Music festival.
The collection, comprising eight pieces in black, white or a combination, features the classic looks of tuxedo coats with tails and bow ties and more stylized looks such as flowy caped dresses.
Gabriel Asfour, a fashion designer and instructor at Parsons, oversaw a dozen students from the school's Integrated Design Program, which combines fashion with broader concerns, such as sustainability. For the past year, the students studied the way musicians moved and worked to create garments that were, in fact, sustainable and functional.
Musicians were fitted with sensor technology that charted movements and sound, which were then incorporated into a digital projection back onto the stage. Students from a sister school, Mannes College the New School for Music, were tapped to test the designs.
"Our main concern was to give the players function," Asfour said. "They move for three hours [in a performance]. …We wanted to give them comfort and easier movement."
For example, men's suits and shirts featured paneling that allowed for venting, while dresses were made of satin, lace, mesh and cool wool.
The mesh fabric, Asfour says, is "almost like a sports fabric," adding that "the tailoring is all there, but we have the stretch mesh in there."
Alsop said that those who have worn the clothes describe them as having the feel of pajamas.
"There's a breathability and flexibility," she said. "They said the shirts underneath were almost like wearing a T-shirt. … They said it was an enormous difference."
Although there are no immediate plans to wear the designs in performance, the works shown in New York are the start of a process to reinvent symphony attire. Alsop calls the ensembles "really beautiful and very practical" but wants them to be "edgier" — especially for the men.
"We haven't even gone down the road of experimenting with color," she said. "For me, this opens up a lot of new possibilities. I did not know that they would go so traditional — especially with the men's garb. We are going to talk about all these things and debrief."
Troyer was also expecting designs that were less traditional. She described the men's offerings as similar to what is currently worn — except in a "breathable material." The women's collection, which she said focused more on fashion, consisted of dresses that allowed for movement in the shoulders and fuller pants for musicians needing more flexibility to position an instrument — such as cellists.
"Maybe they felt hemmed in by the tradition," she said, noting that eventually, "maybe we will end up looking like the Jetsons."
Asfour said he welcomed Alsop's call to push the design further.
"That is what we will focus on next," he said. "The goal this time was to make the musicians attracted to the project and make them want to wear it."
Alsop plans to share some of the concepts — such as stretch fabric in the shoulders — with the designers who custom-make the clothing she wears to conduct the symphony.
Alsop says she believes the collaboration is the first of its kind.
"Orchestras have begun to experiment a little bit," she said. "But I don't think that anyone has gone into a design partnership — certainly not an entire symphony orchestra. We are such a conservative institution at our core. It makes it doubly exciting."
Troyer thinks the wardrobe change could help symphonies update their overall image.
"I do think it is good to update us a little bit," she said. "We don't want to convey that we are this ancient art form. Our music is alive and current. There is no reason for us to look like we are from 1870."