There are certain expectations for classical singers when it comes to dressing for the stage. The tradition of dressing for success is tried and true in the professional world, and the arts are no exception. Classical singers dress to respect the music, the teacher, the audience and, most importantly, themselves. A member of an orchestra recently complimented my style at a rehearsal and she asked me if dressing up was a “singer thing” or was it just me? Without thinking about it, I replied, “Well, when we sing, we stand up front and set the tone for the music at hand.”
As I’ve thought more about it, there is a strategy to the way we dress. Overdressing for any occasion can be embarrassing, but underdressing is not acceptable. We live in a visual society and, like it or not, your appearance will be judged along with your musicianship. There are a myriad of sources for singers to learn more about audition wear, and I will share some of my favorites in this column.
Dress for the part you want. You’ve probably heard this many times, and it is worth considering. Dressing professionally makes a statement. Before you sing a note, you are seen as a professional. Presenting yourself in well fitting clothing with a bit of style shows others that you care about your instrument. Remember, your body is your instrument, so the idea of keeping your instrument polished and well cared for is quite basic—but many young singers do not consider this aspect of their art form.
Dressing inappropriately can turn people off before you’ve sung a note.
Tragic Tale #1
A student walks into his final jury wearing saggy jeans, a hoodie, and headphones around his neck. Spoiler alert: the jury did not go well.
Tragic Tale #2
A female student walks onstage for a masterclass in a dress that is short—too short. The audience is looking up and with the slightest movement, the singer reveals a glimpse of her alle occulte beltà.1 Spoiler alert: we, the audience, were not paying attention to her singing.
Tragic Tale #3
A tenor walks into an audition for a big company, for which he was prepared and qualified to be hired. He sings well. As he leaves, the general director looks at his headshot. The young man is pictured wearing a vest with no shirt underneath and sporting a sultry gaze with his eyebrow lifted like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s infamous acting expression. Spoiler alert: the headshot was thrown in the trash and the tenor was not asked back.
Recipe for Success
When you look good, you feel good. When you feel good, you allow yourself to physically relax and sing your heart out.
The following section is specifically for female singers—but worry not, there are styling tips for young men coming in the next paragraphs. Sara Duchovnay and Suzanne Vinnik are two voices for style and music that today’s diva would be wise to heed. They started Shoperatic, an online marketplace, community, and Facebook group with over 10,000 members.
If you are not a member, you should be for affordable dresses, support, advice, and positive affirmations about your body and your classical singing lifestyle. Or, you can shop directly at Shoperatic.com for gowns and dresses at great discounts—often new with tags or worn just once for a recital by a fellow diva. They also sell accessories and other handcrafted products supporting the businesses of artistic opera singers.
Duchovnay and Vinnik wrote “A Letter to the Modern Diva,” for Schmopera.com and they give excellent advice about dressing for both success and your personal style. The following quotes sum up a great deal of the content offered in the Shoperatic dynasty.
Shoperatic Rule #1
“Carefully evaluate what works for your body and your personality and wear what makes you look and feel your absolute best.”
Shoperatic Rule #2
“We encourage everyone to dress in a way that is classy and sets a professional tone. One of the most important factors in achieving this is prioritize fit. This might mean that you’ll need to visit a tailor to modify off-the-rack clothing to fit your unique and beautiful body. Maintain your wardrobe by keeping it clean and free of wrinkles and practice good hygiene. Keep your mind, body, and soul healthy, as they are a major part of your instrument.”
Shoperatic Rule #3
“Vow to not allow anyone to shame or make you feel anything less than 100 percent.”
Dressing Well on a Budget
You do not have to spend more than you can afford to dress well. The typical undergraduate voice major needs one formal gown or tuxedo, two nicely fitted audition dresses or suits with dress shoes, and a few nice business casual outfits appropriate for warm and cold weather. When you have time off on a weekend or during a break, browse a second-hand shop in an affluent neighborhood. (I have found designer dresses, gowns, and blazers for $5 each at the Goodwill near the beach when we vacation.)
Check clearance racks at department stores or online for high-end clothing at reduced prices. If you have a friend that is your size, perhaps you can borrow a dress or suit jacket—but always return clothing dry cleaned or hand washed.
College Dress Code for Singers
-Lessons: business casual
-Studio Class: audition wear to perform, business casual to attend
-Juries and Masterclasses: audition wear
-Senior Recitals: cocktail dress or suit for a matinee, formal gown or tuxedo in the evening
-Women: solid colors, neckline and jewelry that doesn’t distract from the face
-Men: tailored suit or fitted button-down shirt and jacket
Post-College Dress Code
Business Casual 101
-Skirts or casual dress (no shorter than a few inches above the knee)
-Dress pants or nice jeans with no holes (no leggings)
-Nice shirt or sweater (no visible bra straps)
-Closed-toe shoes (no flip-flops)
-Dress pants, khakis, or nice jeans (no saggy jeans or shorts)
-Fitted button-up shirt (ties and bowties not necessary)2
-Sweater or blazer optional
-Dress shoes and non-white socks (no flip-flops)
Audition Wear 101
Young women should ask themselves, “What would Kate Middleton wear?”
-Well-fitted dress just above or just below the knee
-Sleeves: cap, short, three quarters, or long (no spaghetti straps)
-Solid color or subtle print that isn’t distracting
-Well-fitted bra and Spanx for a smoother tummy area under a jersey knit dress3
-Dress shoes (i.e., heels you can walk in)
-Mezzo-sopranos may opt for a pantsuit if singing a pants role
Young men might attempt to “dress like an adult.”
-Well-tailored suit or dress pants and jacket
-Button-down dress shirt (no wrinkles)
-Tie (save your novelty duck tie for How I Met Your Mother binging)
-Dress shoes with dark socks
For more details on how young men can dress stylishly, check out www.realmenrealstyle.com/dress-sharp-tips-young-men/
Formal Wear for Recitals or Solo Concert Performance
-Women: cocktail dress, high-low hem, or semiformal maxi dress
-Men: suit and tie
-Women: full-length gown (not a prom or pageant dress)
-Men: tuxedo or dark suit and tie with black dress shoes
We have mentioned hygiene and caring for your instrument. When you dress up for both lessons and performances, don’t forget to brush your teeth and look in the mirror. Men, all you need to do is tidy your facial hair situation and comb your hair. Women, style your hair and apply minimal makeup.
No one is begging for a photo-shoot-ready look. As a professor and an adjudicator, I simply want to see you looking cleaned up with your hair out of your eyes. And, as my teacher taught me years ago, a little lipstick goes a long way.
P.S.—Social Media Style
Please think twice about the images you post on social media. One screenshot of underage partying can cause a lot of trouble. Your image is part of your brand. You choose what you post and you can choose to untag yourself in any unprofessional or unflattering images posted by others.
Don’t hide your personality; just remember older conductors might be looking you up before an audition, so what do you want them to know (or not know)? When you are auditioning for paying jobs in real life, your social media presence might make or break future contracts. Represent yourself in your best light so your image entices employers to save an audition spot for you.
1. Directly translated as “the hidden beauties.” This is a line Musetta sings in “Quando m’en vo’,” describing what is underneath her clothing.
2. Men’s dress shirts come in a wide range of sizes. Check ashleyweston.com/mens-clothing-fit-guide/dress-shirt-fit/ for recommendations on collar, sleeve, and torso fit. As a singer, your collar and buttons need to fit, not squeeze or drown you!
3. Spanx and similar women’s foundation garments are not suggested to make you appear “smaller” or “thinner,” just as a well fitted bra is not intended to enhance your size. Your size is perfectly and unapologetically yours! Good undergarments will support you as you move, breathe, and sing. Bouncing bosoms or extra tummy rolls will distract from your beautiful singing—so remember to sing a few phrases as you look at your dress in the mirror, and you will see if you need to suit up underneath your clothing.