When pianist Yuja Wang wore a tight orange mini-dress in a performance earlier this month, she touched off a debate about whether sexy concert attire detracts from the experience of the music — and whether we should even be paying attention to what classical musicians wear.
In his LA Times review of her August 2 performance at the Hollywood Bowl, Mark Swed wrote,
[I]t was Yuja Wang's orange dress for which Tuesday night is likely to remembered. [...] Her dress Tuesday was 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. Had her heels been any higher, walking, to say nothing of her sensitive pedaling, would have been unfeasible. The infernal helicopters that brazenly buzz the Bowl seemed, on this night, like long-necked paparazzi wanting a good look.
And thus a debate began. Was Wang's dress too sexy for a classical concert? Was it a legitimate form of self-expression? Was Swed sexist for focusing so much on it? Anne Midgette took the latter view in the Washington Post:
The criticism of women's clothing on stage has been a red flag for me ever since Eve Queler said that when she started conducting in the late 1960s, her clothing so dominated her reviews that one critic complained that a zipper glinting on the back of her evening gown was distracting. This is obvious sexism. Unfortunately, the tenor of the discussion of women's attire in this field has retained more than a hint of this sexist tone ever since. What "should" women wear on the concert stage? What is "appropriate"? A general rule of thumb appears to be that if it's sexy, it's probably not good — indeed, it almost automatically falls into the realm of cheesy pop-style classical crossover. And if it's revealing, it's worthy of a lot of comment.
Midgette also pointed out that Wang's dress wouldn't have been out of place on the red carpet or in many other contemporary contexts, and that if classical music really wants to attract younger audiences, it might do well to get rid of stodgy dress codes. Swed, however, defended his earlier take in a followup this weekend:
Unlike when listening in an iPod cocoon, we use all our senses at a concert. We see, we smell, we feel heat and cold, we are aware of many different sounds besides those of the performance. It's all music. A musician's instrument, moreover, is an extension of the player's body. [...] So yes, appearance always matters, a performer is a performer. What is worn is simply part of the show.
He did appear to soften his stance a bit, saying that Wang "managed to make her dress serve the music" — this sentiment wasn't at all obvious in his earlier review, in which the dress seemed to take over. One thing that's not in dispute here is the beauty of Wang's playing — Swed wrote that "when Rachmaninoff called for delicacy, speed and grace together, she had all three in exactly the right proportions and was downright magical." Will this particular performance, nonetheless, be remembered for what she wore? It's possible. But that's not Wang's fault — and it's not necessarily all bad. The focus on women's clothing at the expense of their talent leads plenty of women — understandably — to dress unremarkably so as to "blend in." This doesn't always work (see that zipper above), and it locks female performers in a box of other people's expectations. Wang broke out of that box, and in so doing, she's made it easier for future musicians to do so as well.
Image via Riddle Photography/Shutterstock.com