Why do critics get so hot under the collar when it comes to concert clothing?

Jessica Duchen says it's sartorial snobbery

Why can't classical music just get over itself when it comes to concert clothing? You'd think that The New York Times would be above such concerns as a woman musician's side-slit skirt and shiny stilettos. But apparently not. Recently, Yuja Wang, the 24-year-old Chinese virtuoso – the pick of the bunch among today's finest young pianists – gave her debut recital at Carnegie Hall. While the critic praised her "delicacy, poetic grace and attention to inner musical details", he also felt obliged to comment on what she was wearing.

That's because this summer Wang made waves in the classical world by appearing in an off-the-shoulder orange dress for a concert at the Hollywood Bowl – "so short and tight that had there been any less of it, the Bowl might have been forced to restrict admission to any music lover under 18 not accompanied by an adult," quipped the Los Angeles Times. For Carnegie Hall, Wang wore suitably sober black, though for the second half, The New York Times tells us, she changed into a dress with – ooh, a long split up the side.

Wang herself takes a dim view of the fuss over her attire. "It's ridiculous," she says. "As an artist I think I have the freedom to wear what I like as long as it looks good. I'm 24 years old, and at this age I hope I can wear whatever I want. After the Hollywood Bowl concert they were commenting on my short skirt – but I'm a short person! I wear what fits me. And it was the Hollywood Bowl [a comparatively fun, informal venue], not La Scala, Milan. People can think what they like, though I find it a little sad if they're talking about my dress more than my playing."

She's right, of course, as any reality check beyond the classical bubble can prove. Over in pop music, that orange dress might seem staid. Rihanna's recent under-clad adventure with an outraged farmer when filming in the fields just wouldn't happen to a classical musician. Wang's miniskirt didn't look as if she was doing anything more risqué than nipping out on Friday night for a few vodka and tonics plus dinner at Gordon Ramsay. A good many of today's pop performances, replete with breathiness, pouting and acres of waggling flesh, are barely an inch away from watered-down soft porn; Rachmaninov piano concertos have a way to go yet.

A row is also bubbling up at the moment about suitable concert clothing for orchestras. The other day a young viola player wrote to a fashion columnist for advice on what his orchestra should wear on stage. Some concert-goers parrot the view that penguin suits should have gone out with the Titanic. Not a bit of it, came the response: tails are much classier than all-black.

That might come as a surprise. Still, she had a point. Why should orchestras look like stagehands when they could be in white tie and tails, the garb of guests at an imperial ball in Vienna? Orchestras need to appear as the unified teams they are; it would be fine for them to ditch evening suits if anybody had actually found anything better. Colours are messy; all-black is grim and uneventful; and if they don white dinner jackets they look a bunch of wine waiters.

The Budapest Festival Orchestra got it right at the Proms this year. They wore conventional concert clothes for their Mahler symphony, but for their late-night Prom – an informal "Audience Choice" event, with solo spots for small groups of players – they went casual. For Mahler, casual dress would have missed the point. It's a hefty, intricate, tightly wrought piece in which the orchestra has to function as a perfectly integrated machine. They should look like one as well.

It would be nice, though, if they could also look like artists. Occasionally, one of them scoops sponsorship from a designer label to excellent effect, at least for the women. But you can bet that eventually one dissenting member will propose that all flesh should be covered on stage, or a conductor will complain about exposed batwings (Leonard Slatkin once caused much fuss in a tabloid newspaper by doing just that), and it's adieu to concert chic.

Soloists are individuals by definition – so where does that leave Yuja Wang and her short or split skirts? The point, surely, was the music? Yes – and by all accounts, she played wonderfully at both Carnegie Hall and the Hollywood Bowl. The best concert clothes are tools of a trade. Comfortable, packable, personal, practical, expressive, they're essentially outfits for work. Chances are that the orange dress fulfilled all those criteria, in its own minimal way. The trick is to wear something that looks good, makes an impression and makes sense.

The great pianist Mitsuko Uchida looks stunning in velvet trousers and translucent silk jackets which she says suit her practical needs. Anne-Sophie Mutter's favoured look is strapless dresses which leave the shoulders and arms free to control violin and bow unencumbered by puffs or straps. And intriguingly, the young pianist Alice Sara Ott likes to perform barefoot; apparently it increases her sense of contact with the piano's pedals, which control the resonance of the sound.

Male musicians have jazzed up their outfits too. Many choose round-collared Nehru jackets instead of tailcoats; some credit their suits to top designer labels; and the pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet has been known to commission outfits from Vivienne Westwood, while Lang Lang sometimes raises hackles with his sparkles.

But the prize for the worst concert outfit I've seen goes to an inexperienced musician whose name I forget, giving her London debut in a short, tight-skirted, strapless dress that didn't fit too well. The top kept requiring urgent mid-sonata readjustment. As for the skirt – unfortunately, she was a cellist. At least a pianist doesn't have to hold her Steinway between her knees.

The job of concert clothing is to help the performers produce their best efforts, moving easily and feeling good in the limelight. And if a musician plays as fabulously as Yuja Wang does, we shouldn't really watch anything except her amazing hands.

Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams plays 'bad ass' Arya Stark in Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West is on his 'Yeezus' tour at the moment

Music
Arts and Entertainment
Rob James-Collier, who plays under-butler Thomas Barrow, admitted to suffering sleepless nights over the Series 5 script

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence star in new film 'Serena'

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week