A question of dress – and language

A few weeks ago I was delighted to read an interview in the Guardian with Chinese pianist Yuja Wang. I’m often a bit slow to find out about brilliant new musicians on the scene, and this is evidently no exception: after a friend posted a video on Facebook of Wang performing a completely astonishing encore, I looked her up and found an impressive catalogue of recordings available. She performed at the Royal Festival Hall on 11 April, which was the reason for the interview. And within the interview, two very specific things struck me about Wang: the way she dressed, and the way she spoke.

One of the things mentioned several times in the Guardian piece – and something that seems to be a common theme in discussions of Wang’s performances – is her clothing. Now, before you feel your blood pressure start to rise and find your brain wandering down the tragically rather familiar path of ‘for goodness’ sake, why do we have to talk about her clothes just because she’s a woman? We wouldn’t if she was a man, would we?’, I shall give you Wang’s own response, which was this: ‘if the music is beautiful and sensual, why not dress to fit? It’s about power and persuasion. Perhaps it’s a little sadomasochistic of me. But if I’m going to get naked with my music, I may as well be comfortable while I’m at it.’

That’s fine by me, and the videos I’ve seen (alas I didn’t make it to that RFH concert) make clear two things: the first, that the clothes are part of her stage persona and they really work for her; and the second, that she is such an astonishingly talented performer, she could be wearing a binbag and still be utterly visually, as well as musically, compelling.

It’s crazy to think that the way people dress doesn’t affect how we perceive a performance. It doesn’t matter whether they’re wearing white tie and tails, a suit with an open-necked shirt, a glittering floor-length gown or a minidress: we are looking at them. That’s kind of part of the point of a live performance, isn’t it? You’re in the room with them, looking at them, they who are usually specially lit whilst you are in darkness, the centre of attention as they make music. What their outfit conveys can vary – it might be a deliberately ‘neutral’ costume or something more attention-catching. But there are suits and suits, just as there are dresses and dresses. Does it really matter, so long as the performer feels comfortable and performs well? If you don’t want to look at them whilst they’re performing because of their fashion decisions, close your eyes. Squint at the programme notes in the semi-darkness. Stay at home and listen on the radio instead.

Girl in a dress walking on a path

As for language, I confess Wang’s way of speaking about music made me like her even more than her attitude to the visual aspect of performance. She speaks with utter passion, but not in hushed and hallowed tones. She talks about music like it’s a live, exciting thing, she freely admits to changing her mind about composers over time, and she calls herself out when she seems to get to caught up in potentially navel-gazing language. It’s wonderful. And no, of course it’s not wrong to speak of composers with reverence and earnest sincerity. But my goodness, it’s nice to see someone talking about them differently. Casual language is not an indication of disrespect – it’s quite the opposite. It speaks of a total love and familiarity that makes laid-back conversation about these people absolutely part of the way they think and feel about the music. And given the apparent intimidation that still seems to affect some would-be classical concert goers, I suspect Wang might be exactly the right people to persuade them to give it a go.

On Friday morning, I had the very great pleasure and privilege of interviewing Mark Anthony Turnage for an event run by the Incorporated Society of Musicians. Since Turnage famously incorporates jazz and pop styles and references in his works, I raised the whole question of the ‘high’ and ‘low’ divide and the rather outmoded, judgement-laden language we still tend to use about such things. He was optimistic. The younger generations, he said, didn’t feel the need to make such distinctions any more: Spotify, as much as live music programming, has gone a long way to democratising a huge variety of musical genres without the need for labelling of this kind. I hope he’s right. And I hope to hear Wang perform live in the not-too-distant future.


  • Leon Whitesell

    The word for all decisions is ” APPROPRIATE?” My mother taught me this.
    Would you wear a swimming suit to a funeral? Would you were a ball gown to pick pumpkins in the patch? Would you wear nightclothes to church? One must wear what is appropriate!
    A certain male pianist appeared in recital wearing red socks, red vest, with black tux. People remember his outfit, but forget his playing and program.
    One may break rules when driving, but there are consequences.
    If people know how to behave at all, it is largely by tradition, not by anarchy!

    • Katy

      Thanks for your comment, Leon. The problem, though, is that ‘appropriateness’ is relative and subjective. What you consider to be ‘appropriate’ based on your upbringing and experience, might differ wildly from my definition of the same. There’s nothing to stop you picking pumpkins in a ball gown or attending a funeral in a swimming costume (and what if the funeral is at a swimming pool or by/in the sea as a result of the passion of the person who has died?). Traditions change and we are very fortunate, in my opinion, to live at a time when there isn’t just one ‘correct’ way of doing things. Regarding appropriate concert dress, I think you’d be hard-pushed to discredit a pianist based on the colour of their socks and waistcoat! Your clothes don’t make you a better or worse musician. But they do have a role to play in the impact of your performance. Whether you choose to perform in a tight, short dress, a gorilla costume or white tie and tails is going to impact on your performance. It won’t affect the quality of your pianism. And the cynic might say that it’s far easier to describe a player’s outfit (whether in a review or in general conversation) than it is to capture a sense of their musicality.

  • Sharon Summers

    Eros has always been projected upon as a problem about and caused by women ie what they precriptively should and/or shouldn’t do! It’s also probably more likely to be a problem for men in Christian value-driven or value-biased countries (also Muslim, similarly). I mean look at the comments Khatia Buniatishvili and Anastasia Huppmann receive, Khatia especially. I totally agree with what you’ve written so excellently Katy (plus answered superbly too). Women are not born to be or become the moral civilisers of unreconstructed and ‘arrogant-eyed’ men, this is not the Middle Ages (according to my mobile phone anyway). Open your ears, close your eyes and listen, if you’re capable. If not … twiddle the knobs on your valve radio 🙂

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