|Choosing Chorus Apparel that Works
Author: Lawana Holland
For 34 years, Seattle Pro Musica’s
women wore their own variations of
black dresses, slacks, tops, and jackets
before deciding to change to a more
uniform look. After completing
their first NEA American Masterpieces tour
performances this fall, the ensemble now
Seattle Pro Musica’s new apparel creates unison in more than their singing
as new people come into a chorus, they will
more readily adopt the standard if you
explain why,” says Rick Johnson, who drafted
the dress code for the Gay Men’s Chorus
Making A Change—
How To Get Started
Many choruses know they are ready for a
change, but don’t know where to start.
Begin by appointing a small committee to
act as a liaison between the chorus and the
apparel manufacturer or dressmaker.
Allowing the entire chorus to have too
much input can lead to dissent and prolong
the process. “People don’t come to rehearsal
in the same garment, so don’t expect all of
them to pick the same one!” says Clark.
These are questions your committee
should ask when researching apparel firms:
Will a larger manufacturer or a small
dressmaker fulfill your needs better? Are
their styles consistent from year to year?
Do they have a diversity of fabrics and
samples available to try on? Can they deliver
on schedule? How is their craftsmanship?
Do they carry the size range and special
cuts for fuller-figured, pregnant, or hardto-
Also consider your future needs. Does the
apparel company allow reordering in small
quantities so that you can accommodate a
changing roster of singers? When styles or
fabrics are discontinued, will they continue
to carry available stock or hold and tag extra
yardage for later use? How much lead time
do they require for orders? What kinds of
recommendations do other clients give
them? Do the clients report delays? Is the
firm prompt in returning your calls? Do
they make reparations for problems?
“Quality and customer service is key,”
says John Moore, merchandising manager
for Collegiate Apparel, which specializes in
robes and in addition to choruses, has
outfitted the Super Bowl halftime show and
the Olympics. “Communication should be
personal. You want someone who is responsive
to your needs. You’re making a huge
investment in a product that you often have
to demonstrate to people how to wear.”
Talk with your apparel firm representative
about what you’re looking for—if you
already have an idea of the fabrics, silhouettes,
and colors, ask how they might look
on many people at once and from a distance.
(Audiences don’t pick up on subtle patterns,
so they are not always a benefit when making
your fabric choice.) If you don’t already
have ideas, ask to see examples of their
recent designs. The company will work with
you and offer suggestions on what they
think works best for your situation.
Give your chorus enough planning time
so that your apparel maker will be able to
accommodate your requests. Rushing your
order can add immeasurably to costs,
whether due to last-minute fabric purchases,
extra labor, or special shipping. July to
October is the busiest season for most
apparel firms; it can also get busy around the
time of spring concerts. [For a list of concert
apparel firms, consult Chorus America’s list
of Business Members, at www.chorusamerica.
Trends or Classics—
Choosing the Right Look
Apparel should “fit” your chorus. A choreographed
choir whose costumes are judged
needs a different look from a concert chorus,
whose works and venues demand more
understated apparel. “Show choirs want
more glitz and color as they perform popular
music and use choreography,” says Jim
Paxton, vice-president of sales and customer
service of Southeastern Performance Apparel.
“A performance of the St. John Passion would
be more staid. Your apparel should be appropriate
to the music that you perform.”
Image is Everything
If you’re thinking, “We don’t have time to
deal with chorus apparel,” think again. Your
image and presentation make a statement
and could be just as important as anything
you will sing.What is your chorus saying
by its appearance?
“We are a very visual society now,” says
Ronald Hellems, president of Rivar’s, Inc.
“A concert is a live interactive experience
and image can change the feel of the performance
and the audience’s acceptance of
your beautiful sound.”
Hellems suggests that those responsible for
the chorus’s image, especially artistic directors,
should be very involved and help guide the
process from the beginning so that the end
product is what they originally envisioned.
“Many of the choruses we work with
have told us that they see a boost in ticket
sales when they change their outfits,” says
Ginger Clark, designer and president of
Praise Hymn Fashions. “When your marketing
looks the same year after year, the
audience may feel that they’ve seen it
already and can perceive the music as the
same as well, even though it isn’t.”
“It’s about finding the right balance
between timelessness and being current,”
says Deborah Friend, general manager of
Stage Accents. “Choruses need to change
their attire about every three years,” adds
Clark. “You wouldn’t necessarily wear an
outfit in your closet years later—why should
your chorus apparel be any different?”
A major concern is how to create a uniform
image of one chorus.“More and
more groups want to look professional and
their conductors are concerned about all
members looking alike,” says Carol Carlson,
owner of D&C Industries. “Concert choruses
sing at the highest level in some of the most
beautiful venues and conductors want to
maintain that quality in presentation, especially
if they tour.What are you going to
look like when you get there?”
Concert apparel professionals recommend
adopting a dress code for everything from
hair to shoes to accessories. Put everything
in writing and enforce it, even small details
such as what shade of white is acceptable
and whether shirts and blouses should be
tucked in. Even pearl necklaces can vary in
style and color (white, freshwater, chokers,
Many choruses have dress codes, but
sometimes members challenge it. “You’re
always going to have people who rebel, but
Concert choruses need to consider their
chorus size and style: Are you flashy? More traditional?
Do you sway back and forth while
performing? Your fabric needs to reflect that in
its stiffness or fluidity. For choreographed choirs,
bold, colorful fabrics that look good in motion
are important. “Solid fabrics accented with
rhinestone trims continue to be important,
always done with a graceful skirt,” says Friend.
For choruses that prefer robes, there are
certain considerations to take into account.
Sleeves should break at the wrist for open-sleeve
robes, and if members will be playing instruments,
consider a sleeve cuff. The standard floor
clearance for robe hems is five inches, which
hides longer dresses and different pants colors.
For choruses going up and down risers or stairs,
the hems can be seven- to nine-inches high,
depending upon the usage and environment.
Fabrics such as modern polyester, gabardine,
or tissue faille are popular and choruses can
freshen up a traditional robe’s look with
accessories such as ribbons, stoles, and overlays.
While wine is always a popular robe color,
green is coming back again. Choirs performing
in churches should consider robes that complement
existing church décor.
Apparel makers are seeing trends, such as loose
dull crepes, giving way to more slender shiny
fabrics. “We’re even seeing a sportswear influence
with matte metallics,” says Monica Nahum,
president and owner of Encore Performance
Apparel, which specializes in custom work.
Fingertip-length is a preferred length for
jackets, and for men, vests with black shirts
are an interesting twist on the basics. An alternative
to the tux is suits with accent color
shirts and ties. Apparel makers are also seeing
a trend towards going back to traditional,
classic styling and A-line and wider skirts.
Men’s chorus apparel is usually limited to
classic tuxedos with cummerbunds or vests with
dark slacks and bow ties or long ties. If it is a
mixed chorus, their vest or cummerbund colors
and patterns usually match or complement
the women’s dresses.
When the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington
performs in their tuxedos, part of their apparel
also includes a rhinestone pin on their lapels—a
longstanding chorus tradition. The men are free
to choose their own and each is a personal statement.
The pins pick up on the light and can be
seen even from the back of a room. “A lot of people
like it as a way to express their individuality in
that sea of black. There’s almost no room for
that in traditional formalwear,” says Johnson.
Compared to the ease of choice and the
crisp, tailored looks of men’s attire, women’s
chorus apparel is often a major source of angst.
What can a chorus do to select professional,
polished, and flattering women’s outfits
that look good on a range of body shapes
Look for slender, but not fitted, pieces
such as one-piece dresses without waistlines
and an A-line feel. Choose smooth-line
jackets with no accents such as bows,
ruffles, or collars as they draw attention
away from the face. Sleeves should be
three-quarter length so that arm length
isn’t a problem. Be mindful of how much
skin members are comfortable showing,
but don’t be afraid of trying younger
styles on older members!
Interchangeable pieces can make your
chorus look fresh to your audience and
members can get a lot of use out of them.
A black dress or formal skirt with two
different tops or jackets gives you many
options. You can also try full palazzo pants
with a jacket and camisole. Try switching
from plain to sparkle, and for winter or
holidays, wear brocades, red or green, or
consider beading and glitter netting.
Look for pieces in comfortable, wrinkleresistant,
breathable fabrics, such as
washable microfibers, matte or crepe jersey,
georgette and poly-crepe that wear
and travel well and are easy to care for.
Consider the temperature of your venues,
as you don’t want to select fabrics that are
too hot under the lights.
Beyond Basic Black
Black is still the standard for most chorus
apparel, but you need not shy away from
color. Splashes of accent color can add to
the visual effect, such as a scarf, pocket
square, or vest.Women can also use it in
empire bodices or as an entire dress, but
when using color, you have to consider
how it looks under lights or as a whole.
Pastels tend to wash out from a distance,
so primary colors and jewel tones are
usually a better choice.
“Our audience recognizes and knows
us by our color,” says Jane Penfield, executive
director of Concora, whose female
members wear fuchsia/deep pink concert
gowns. Their marketing reflects it and the
color is incorporated into everything—
including the website. “While our singers
agree that they wouldn’t wear it individually,
as a collective it has a visual impact.
When we wear all black for collaborative
work with the Hartford Chorale, people
ask ‘Where’s Concora?’”
For choruses that prefer black, they can
add a hint of sparkle through tasteful beading,
metallic fabrics, or by using rhinestone
buckles and jeweled pins. They can also use
satin trims and white accents for contrast.
Fabrics such as velvet can also give a deep,
Outfitting a large chorus can be daunting,
but choruses are pioneering lots of creative solutions.
What about the 360-member Mormon
Tabernacle Choir? Wardrobe and apparel
managers Valorie Jensen and Steve Stoker outfit
the Choir in eight different dresses and seven
different suit/sports coat combinations in colors
ranging from turquoise to raspberry.Managers
meet once a month to plan, matching colors to
holidays and performance themes.While the
men’s garments are bought from manufacturers,
material for the women’s new designs is bought
in double quantities and 200 custom dresses are
created by Margot Marler and Peggy Becker,
who work in the Tabernacle’s basement.
Thinking out of the box helped the 150-plus
members of the Chicago Symphony Chorus to
solve their apparel dilemma. After years of
going through the difficult process of coming
up with a new design and having them made,
they approached retailer Chico’s with a proposal:
If Chico’s donated the apparel, the Chorus
would give them publicity in exchange. After
a series of meetings and presentations, the
singers were excited and had a positive experience.
And Chico’s donated more than enough
for current and future members—the Chorus’s
only out-of-pocket expense was for alterations
to make sure that everyone was comfortable.
“Be creative,” says Chorus manager Mark
Rulison. “Don’t be afraid to try new things.”
Choosing new chorus apparel doesn’t have
to be an exercise in frustration. By doing your
homework, being open to a new image, communicating
carefully, and going about the
process with flair, you can give your chorus a
new lease on life. Not only will your singers
feel proud and pleased, they will stop worrying
about their outfits and concentrate on the
music instead. And who knows? Your audience
may even hear the difference! ■
Lawana Holland is communications associate for
Chorus America and a former fashion stylist for
Black Entertainment Television (BET).
The MTC’s wardrobe team at work