And What Will You Be Wearing?

And What Will You Be Wearing?

Selecting audition attire can feel like a minefield for singers. Professionalism, personal style, and finances are only some of the considerations singers must take into account.

When I was 19, I was nominated by my voice teacher to enter a competition being held nearby. I made it to the semifinals; however, I did not place. It was my first time at a competition that was outside the school, so I was not expecting much and was just happy to have made it to one of the final rounds. Excitedly, I picked up my feedback sheets from the proctor, ready to take the valuable commentary from the judges back to my teacher so we could rework for next the year. However, when I opened the folder, two of the comment sheets were virtually blank and the third simply said, “Dress—not flattering.” I was so mortified, I didn’t even show the comments to my teacher—I just summarized the generic statements from the first two and we carried on. 

A few months later, I sang in front of a panel, and one of the judges left absolutely no comments about my singing, only speaking about the clothing I had chosen to wear into the room. A year later, I was singing in a masterclass at a pay-to-sing YAP, and they spent the first 5 minutes of my 15-minute time slot talking about how I could have accessorized my outfit more to their taste that day.


This is far from every encounter of this nature that I’ve had, but the unifying factor in all of them is that every single time, what I wore was completely appropriate. They were knee-length Calvin Klein dresses in muted jewel tones, black slacks with nice blouses, or the classic “mezzo jumpsuits.” No one ever once told me that what I was wearing was inappropriate or unprofessional and, yet, so much of the dialogue supposedly evaluating my singing was centered around what I was wearing. 

As much as we all like to pretend this isn’t true, it extends into the professional world as well. Many well meaning (and some less so) professionals in the industry have advised me of the rules of exactly what to wear, how much of my hair I should pin up or let down, and how much “bling” I should add. If I had it my way, we’d all audition for these companies in hospital scrubs. If the plan is to put me in a costume anyway, why does it matter what I’m wearing at the audition? 

It is important to have a level of professionalism when it comes to choosing an outfit for auditions; however, there is a difference between personal style and appropriateness. Personal style preference should not be a factor in whether or not a singer can adequately perform a role. As we know, the opera world is a field of long-standing traditions that, of course, does not exclude attire. Over time, a “standard” of what one should wear in auditions has developed to the point where I have personally, on two occasions, worn the exact same dress as another singer to an audition. 

At the time we laughed and took photos together, but with hindsight, I find myself questioning how did I—in two separate instances, no less—end up unintentionally wearing the same outfit as another singer? There is a certain dress code at many auditions. However, I am not referring to professionalism when I say that. I am referring to an aesthetic dress code. If you don’t believe me, open the closet of every female-identifying opera singer that you know and I guarantee you will find at least one cap-sleeved, knee-length Calvin Klein dress in either maroon, dark green, dark blue, or black (perhaps purple if they felt like taking a risk). There is nothing wrong with the way these dresses look and, admittedly, they travel very well. 

However, they have become the standard attire that you more or less “must” abide by in order to fit in with the rest of the singers. However, you can’t fit in too much, or the panel won’t remember you. Stand out too much? You’re showboating for wearing something so flashy, and the panel will pay more attention to your dress than to your performance (or so they say). This tightrope that singers walk creates a lack of diversity and inclusivity in the way they present themselves at auditions. 

Outside of personal style and appropriateness—and perhaps even more importantly—there is also what is financially feasible. There is an extremely high cost of entry to this field. We like to tune it out because it’s uncomfortable, but it’s true. Most working singers are independent contractors with no company-provided insurance, working multiple part-time jobs on top of their singing gigs. In addition to the standard living expenses that everyone has to account for, they have to pay for lessons, coachings, recordings, rehearsal pianists, travel to auditions and, of course, audition wear. 

But, realistically, how much funding could possibly be left over for that final category, especially amid all of the other seemingly more important items to check off the list? The Calvin Klein dress previously mentioned costs about $100 at full price. If you happen to be under a size 12, there’s a chance that you might find it for around $35–$50 at an off-price retailer—but there’s no guarantee that you will find it, undamaged, and in your size. 

Additionally, if the garment doesn’t fit perfectly, it might require alterations, which adds on to the cost. An additional avenue to explore could be going to thrift stores. Thrifting can be a fun activity (and a great way to lower your environmental impact), but it takes a significant amount of time and energy, as many thrift stores are disorganized, crowded, and messy. It is also much more difficult to thrift if you are plus sized. A study done in 2016 by the International Journal of Fashion Design, Technology, and Education states that the average American woman wears a size 16 to 18. As a woman who wears that very size range, I have walked into many thrift stores that do not have a single item of clothing that would fit my body. Therefore, for many, thrifting is not a consistent, viable way to obtain audition wear.

In recent years, many singers have turned to fast fashion companies such as SHEIN to try to circumvent the overall cost of needing to have a separate “audition wardrobe.” It makes sense why singers would feel drawn to this alternative as these companies offer trendy, affordable clothing at a very rapid pace. However, the emphasis on affordability often can lead to compromises in materials, craftsmanship, and overall durability. For some, SHEIN and companies like it might be the only way they can acquire audition attire that fits the “mold” of what is expected of them, and that is okay. 

There is no such thing as ethical consumption under capitalism, and everyone is doing the best that they can to gain traction in an industry that is incredibly difficult to break into. The intention of this article is not to place blame for the faults of the manufacturer onto the consumer. It is very easy to advise someone to just simply not engage with fast fashion when you are a person with disposable income or a body type that is easy to shop for. In many cases, fast fashion companies might be a singer’s only choice, despite the fact it may come back to bite them in the audition room. 


One of the ways fast fashion companies cut corners is in regard to material. The use of synthetic materials (such as polyester) in fast fashion garments are dominant due to their incredibly low cost, but there are drawbacks such as less breathability and comfort for the wearer. Additionally, polyester and materials like it can be easily identified visually. Because polyester is not only literally cheap but also has a societal connotation of being a cheap material, this can create an opening for judgment in the audition room. Craftsmanship and construction are other casualties of the fast fashion model. Quick turnaround times can lead to rushed production, sacrificing attention to detail and precision. As a result, garments may exhibit poor stitching, uneven hems, or other visually obvious quality flaws. 

These shortcomings not only impact the aesthetic quality but the longevity of the clothing, both of which have the potential to be noticed in an audition room. As performers, we strive to present our best selves in our auditions, and attire choice (and its visible quality) has become a nuanced part of that process that intertwines financial constraints, personal comfort, and external perception. In the process of purchasing audition attire, it’s important, no matter where you shop, to pay attention to markers of quality. Even the cheapest dresses can have even stitching, and Calvin Klein can have a fraying hem. 

So, where does all of this leave us? It is a complicated situation as, more often than not, affordability has to trump all else. Ultimately, it leaves us doing our best. Singing is an incredibly personal journey, and it is up to each singer to decide what risks to take and what sacrifices to make. Is it more important to wear a knee-length, cap-sleeved Calvin Klein dress, or does that money need to be allocated elsewhere? Should you sacrifice your personal style at the risk of blending in too much? Should you stand out at the risk of being too loud? It is your decision. Maybe one day soon we will all be auditioning for the Met in hospital scrubs.

Emily Gehman

Emily Gehman is a New York City-based mezzo-soprano with a passion for both operatic and choral singing. Recent performances include Second Lady in Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte, soloist in Britten’s Rejoice in the Lamb, and Mahler’s Lieder eines Fahrenden Gesellen. Upcoming roles include Mercedes in Bizet’s Carmen and Fricka in Wagner’s Das Rheingold. She received a Master of Music in Classical Voice from the Manhattan School of Music and a Bachelor of Music in Vocal Performance from Colorado State University.