MUSIC / It'll ride up with wear: Orchestras with clothing problems are hiring Carol O'Dell to talk some dress sense into them. Sabine Durrant reports

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The Independent Culture
Musicians have a clothing disorder. There are violinists who play with their ears full of shoulder-pads, or their tails in the dust. There are cellists whose dinner-jackets wrinkle up across their shoulders, and choral singers who choose colours that clash. And that's to ignore the times when they try.

Take the occasion the European Community Youth Orchestra ordered 200 Armani suits which cramped their arms. Or the moment Richard Clews, horn-player with the LSO, took a breath and bust his cummerbund. Orchestral thoughts, it seems, are sewn to higher things. As the cellist Steven Isserlis says, 'we're supposed to be concentrating on the music.'

But sartorial lapses may have deeper repercussions - not only on the way the audience listens ('You can see them twitching if you're particularly scruffy,' says a shrinking viola), but also on the way an instrument is played. Overly stuffed jackets or loosely folding sleeves can impede your grasp and distort the sound and, for soloists, dent your reception. 'Your outfit,' says the violinist Tasmin Little, 'is all part of the impression you want the music to make.' But does anybody out there care?

Carol O'Dell cares. Carol O'Dell, an amateur fiddler and professional seamstress from Detroit, Michigan, via Finsbury Park, has a close working knowledge of the music industry and specialises in tailoring to musicians' needs. She has 400 clients, who range from rank and file orchestra members ('in need of a simple black dress - a good black, not a blue-black or a green-black or a purple-black, but a black that stays black under the auditorium lights') to soloists ('whose agents ring up saying 'OK, now it's time to create an image' '). She asks her clients questions, photographs them playing, pinpoints the stress marks in their current outfit, charts their schedule, and often, while designing, listens to their music on CD - 'for subliminal inspiration, where to sculpt a garment, to add a nuance . . .' In the world of orchestrated haute couture it's the nuances, she makes clear, that count.


String-players are, according to O'Dell, most often caught short on the night: 'They rehearse in a T-shirt and pair of jeans and then suddenly, on stage, they have this straitjacket to contend with.' It's a tricky equation: too tight and the jacket or dress limits the string player's reach - 'Joyce Nixon, violinist with the LSO, requested a three-quarter sleeve with tight cuffs, so it wouldn't ride down. On the night she couldn't turn a page of music]' Too loose and the fabric starts riding up - 'it's 'chasing the material' that gives cellists tennis elbow.'

Michael Spencer, O'Dell's partner and a violinist at the LSO, ruefully remembers an old DJ with a thick lapel: 'When you try and chase the fiddle, and you've got that thickness, it's that little bit further away from you, so you start bringing your head forward, and when you've been playing for an hour and a half it gives you terrible backache.' His new O'Dell tails, he continues, 'don't get in the way of the instrument. They just stay in place.'

O'Dell keeps an eye on each musician's technique, checking 'what the shoulders are like, which arm is longer. See here,' she says, pointing at a photograph of Steven Isserlis. 'See the difference? The right arm is two or three inches longer than the left - because the bowing arm is so much more developed than the fingering arm.' With women, she looks to see if they bow down the middle - 'in which case they'd want a dress that's going to part easily, ' - or to the outside of the body, 'in which case the fullness of the skirt is less important'.

Trickiest of all are the harps. 'They've got a whole different set of problems. They use their arms and their feet - and there's that tremendous lop-sided reach to contend with. They absolutely can't have a skirt that interferes, they need something controlled in width - off floor, perhaps a ballerina length. Trousers would be best of all, but harpists tend to be very anti-trousers. They're usually glamorous, lacy, accessorised. It goes with the ornamental music.'


Immense diaphragms demand careful measuring. 'You've got a tape measure round their waist and all of a sudden they let it all out and its gone up six or eight inches. You just don't expect that kind of expansion.' Solution: Fort Knox fastenings.


O'Dell watches how close over the instrument a client crouches and determines the dimensions of the blouson (the vertical fabric from shoulder to waist) accordingly. 'If they get very close to the piano the torso sinks, so you have to be careful that whatever you build isn't going to balloon out.'

Imogen Cooper, a recent client, requires a carefully controlled blouson - she sinks, but she also stretches: 'She bends low but when she finishes making a chord, she'll just sit up as straight as she can so there has to be enough fabric for that, for this lovely straight back.'


Ventilation (no sweat marks) and ease of mobility (no tripping) are vital for percussionists who 'fly about a lot'. Take Evelyn Glennie, for whom O'Dell designed a silk shirt and trousers - 'She required an awful lot of fabric, a lot of space in the sleeves. She'll be playing at waist level, darting about, and then at the end of the piece she'll have to go up to the tubular bells and reach high. All that fabric has to be anchored at the waist so that it doesn't ride up.' She also loaded the garment with sequins, 'to compete with the metal'.

Glennie wore the outfit at her Prom performance last July; it suited the programme: John McLaughlin's Concerto for Percussion and Orchestra. 'But I'd wear a dress if I was playing one instrument only, a marimba or a xylophone or a snare drum,' she reflects. 'And if I'm playing Baroque music I feel more comfortable in something feminine.'


Anyone with their back to the audience must be careful. 'Coats must be sleek from top to toe, tails perfectly pressed, not a wrinkle in sight. Shoes must be shiny, hair well groomed and for women, absolutely no VPL.'

Female conductors can dictate what they wear, but O'Dell is adamant they shouldn't stand out from the rest of the orchestra: 'They're there to keep it together, to give an authoritative feel.' For Jane Glover she's designed a long black skirt, and she's talking with Sian Edwards about 'doing a tailored wardrobe - not masculine, but trousered and smart'.


The venue and the choice of music are important when considering solo costumes. Sarah Leonard went on stage at La Scala in shot blue and black organza - 'lively cloth which would compete but not clash with the red and gold decor'. Jane Eaglen needed something spectacular for her US debut in the outdoor, televised Independence Day concert with the Boston Pops last year. 'It had to withstand the lights and be seen from half a mile away,' she says. 'If you're a singer, you're the instrument. Carol designed me a very deep green silk dress with a diaphanous overcoat covered in beads which caught the eye. The design was brilliant - I'm quite a big girl and a certain amount of care was needed . . . Also I'm one of those singers who likes to be tight in the upper body - I like to feel that I'm pushing against something. Carol made allowances.'

Eaglen was singing Wagner and wanted her dress to feel equally grand. Tasmin Little, the violinist, worked with O'Dell on a costume for last year's Prom in which she played Delius's Double Concerto for Violin and Cello. 'The music is basically sombre, but it has shades of light as well,' she says. 'I wanted to wear something that would convey different moods. Carol's dress was basically black, with great swathes of colour. Very suitable for the Albert Hall where it's no good being a retiring flower in shell pink, and it was off one shoulder - I like to feel the instrument against my skin and I like the bow arm to be free.'

So pleased, in fact, was Tasmin Little with her Prom gown that she and O'Dell are currently working on her wedding dress . . .

(Photograph omitted)