The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Blue jeans for Beethoven? Will concert attendance rise if audiences dress more casually? | November 30, 2013

By Jacob Stockinger

As we come into the holiday concert season, many people who are not normally attracted to classical music concerts will be planning to attend musical events.

And on many minds will be one question: How should I dress?

It seems a small worry, but in a larger sense it is an important and interesting question.

What do we mean by casual?

No ties certainly, but what about sports jackets and sweaters?

Are blue jeans OK?

blue jeans pocket

And if the presenters of musical events accept very casual dress, what will performers think?

And will there be an increase in audience attendance? Will more young people or unusual audiences attend concerts? (That is something that seems possible, judging from the larger and enthusiastic crowds, below, of families and young people in jeans, shorts and T-shorts that I see at concerts given by the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras.)

WYSO young audience

The terrific British pianist Stephen Hough (below), who has performed in Madison at the Wisconsin Union Theater and the Overture Center with the Madison Symphony Orchestra, recently blogged about this very question.

Hough makes some very good points, both for and against a casual approach to attending a concert.

It is well worth reading. And be sure to check out the many reader comments.

Here is a link:


What do you think?

Should people be allowed or even encouraged to come in casual dress, including blue jeans?

Does more formal dress show respect?

Will audiences become bigger and more diverse without any kind of dress code?

The Ear wants to hear.


  1. I am a “senior citizen”, and tend to be a bit more dressy at concerts, BUT, I do this for ME. It seems that one sees an entire spectrum of dress from jeans to fancy, and I believe it doesn’t matter one whit how people are costumed. What matters is that they attend.
    There doesn’t seem to be any particular “code” now.
    Should a dress code be established it may even result in a drop in attendance. Joyous participation is the goal. The more the merrier, clothing choice optional.

    Comment by Nina Sparks — December 4, 2013 @ 6:16 pm

  2. Really don’t know what all the fuss is about, that battle is over. I’ve attended opera performances at the Lyric in Chicago, Florentine in Milwaukee, in Madison and elsewhere and the audience has been dressed in everything from formal and glamorous to leather to jeans/flannel shirts. Nobody seems to care, least of all the performers, as long as the seats are filled and the receipts don’t suffer. Let alone Madison campus concerts, where most people come as they are. It’s a far cry from decades ago, when the manager of the old Met in NYC, Francis Robinson, handed out ties to those of us standees who did not possess such an article of clothing.

    Comment by Michael Sweet — November 30, 2013 @ 12:18 pm

  3. As a performer, I couldn’t care less what the members of the audience show up wearing, as long as they show up. The lights are turned down anyway.

    People should feel comfortable in their outfits, both physically and socially.

    Comment by Steve Kurr — November 30, 2013 @ 11:51 am

  4. After decades of attending classical performances, I have a little insight on the matter of appropriate dress-code and behavioral ideology at concerts.

    I was recently informed by a theater-goer in her 60’s that people “used to always dress properly for the theater.” I found this to be a bit ironic since she herself was dressed in a polyester blazer with a loud floral blouse and, of all things for a lady to wear, trousers!!! Since when are polyester pant suits acceptable attire for a proper lady to wear at a performance? How is it appropriate for her to dress essentially like a man for a formal gathering? How disrespectful to the performers and fellow patrons of the arts! Fortunately, the ensemble’s performance didn’t suffer as a result of her faux pas. One worries.

    Here’s an interesting side note: what’s more offensive a “well-dressed” theater-goer clapping at the wrong time or a poorly dressed patron who understands when to clap? At a recent performance of Pachelbel’s Canon many a well-dressed hoity-toits erroneously clapped with enthusiasm after the wrong movement. Ooops! I, on the other hand, dressed quite casually, knew the correct time to share my appreciation. Hmmm. Judgment reversed.

    And as far as ill-dressed patrons-of-the-arts disturbing the musicians goes, a more relevant question might be if the obnoxious perfumes worn by the elite affect the musicians’ performance.

    At most classical events I’ve attended, I honestly don’t think that many patrons want to see anyone different from themselves. Dressed “properly” or not, do suburban elitists really want to see the full spectrum of society enjoying their musical performances? They live in homogeneous communities on purpose. They commute by car to avoid contact with societal diversity on the buses. They work and play (take golf for example) in micro-communities full of people nearly identical to themselves… both in dress code as well as ethics. This isn’t by mistake. So it makes sense that they don’t want to have the wrong element (read: JEANS) infiltrate their insular lives at concerts either.

    Dress-code snobbery at musical and theatrical performances is really more a question of two things: elitist classism and, to a lesser degree, racism. The financially advantaged are consistently trying to define themselves as superior to the lower classes; and what better way than to pretend they understand what’s being sung at an opera. The lower classes will admit they have no clue… how naïve. Regarding race, at least well-dressed, middle-class black people are welcomed to the theater more or less like whites of the same social standing. But imagine the reaction of a typical 60-plus-year-old, white, middle-class audience seeing black men in their 20’s at a performance. Yikes! Can’t cross the street or lock your car door. Maybe they’ll have to start attending performances in a “better” neighborhood (use geography to keep the people separate if performance type fails to weed out the undesirable riff-raff.)

    So why is wearing jeans considered so offensive when other questionable actions like desperately over-anxious standing ovations are somehow becoming acceptable… even the norm?! This excessively exuberant, and at times erroneous, behavior is better suited to a pop concert or football game than a classical performance. But wait… at least they have the right attire on, the right pigment level, and, most importantly, the right amount of net worth in their portfolios.

    So maybe we could compromise: wearing jeans at a classical performance is okay as long as it’s mandated that poly-blend pant suits are banned for ladies, and that everyone attending must wear a stiff linen ruff of no more than four inches and no less than two, so as not to disturb the musicians’ sensibilities.

    Finally, if you want to bring new listeners into the concert hall, start playing classical music at home. Teach children by example that classical music is enjoyable. If they see us enjoying it outside of the concert hall, they’ll eventually enjoy it within… whether in jeans or in suits.

    Comment by aaron mcgee — November 30, 2013 @ 11:30 am

  5. It is now simply TOO EASY to not leave one’s home. All the music, movies, news, recipes, porn, you name it, are right at your screen’s fingertips.

    This is the reason that ALL performance forms are suffering decreased attendance. Churches are down as well. You can either get a service on the God-channel, or, if you are a secular humanist like myself, treat Sunday as any other day.

    Musical performance is ritualistic and incantatory. Jazz, rock, classical, dance clubs; they ALL have their forms and uniforms. Music is Not just any other experience, and clothes are part of the ritual.
    Those who get out and see the Real Thing live will continue to do so. Clothing will not make any significant difference in attendance. In fact, relaxing standards, if that is what they really are, might actually Hurt the mystique of the experience, making it more like just another family activity.

    Music IS something special, and you can see and hear it on cable, YouTube and podcasts ad infinitum. Until those things are mitigated or integrated somehow, attendance at ALL live performances will continue to steadily decrease.

    p.s. Latin words trigger spellcheck errors!

    Comment by Michael BB — November 30, 2013 @ 10:43 am

  6. Although as am older attendee I tend to dress up a bit when attending a concert, (and I notice that young women who come often wear quite dressy attire — it’s a chance to dress up!); I feel that a wider range of dress should be acceptable. The aim is to be more inclusive, so if that means that some people will be wearing jeans and shorts, so be it. At my church, a number of people wear very casual clothes, and bring their coffee mugs. The important thing is– they’re there.Let’s get the message out that it’s OK to dress casually.

    Comment by Ann Boyer — November 30, 2013 @ 8:28 am

  7. I quite like Hough’s take on it, especially his acknowledgement that classical concerts are a sort of theatre. However, I will say that I go to concerts in jeans at least twice as often as in a suit (my own performances excepted), and I really don’t care what the audience is wearing if they come with open ears and an open mind. If “dressing down” is what it takes to bring a new listener into the concert hall, then pull on your blue jeans!

    Comment by Mikko Utevsky — November 30, 2013 @ 12:05 am

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