The Symphony: An Occasion To Dress For

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Occasion is all about how clothes and the event make you feel. Orchestra music makes me feel great, so I should dress accordingly when I get to see it live!

I think everyone can tell that my essay about my relationship to music (and how it informed my take on menswear) is my favorite blog post. I’ve been told that it’s actually the hardest one to get into, as most people don’t really have an interest in film score or orchestral music, let alone the drive to analyze its construction and thematic narrative.

What’s funny is that I’ve actually been self conscious about my music taste ever since that article came out. A few people pointed out that while its fun to get into the nitty gritty of music, my obsession is still based around something mainstream or at the very least “pop”; aka my constant comparisons of music and menswear would be better if I had instead talked about classical music, or orchestral written for concert performance rather than to support a blockbuster. After all, film score is built on the tropes established by opera and concert music. Would it not be best if I looked to the old masters? It would be like watching samurai, westerns, and war movies to see the inspiration behind Star Wars or 60s French films for Wes Anderson. I was self conscious because it was a valid point. I already did this with menswear: I like Drake’s and B&Tailor, but I also look at Esquire Man.

I decided to take up the challenge and get into classical music (I know classical is an era, I’m just using the casual term as I know I tend to prefer Romantic and Modern styles), but it was tough! When you rely on the algorithm or whatever people suggest it to fill a Spotify playlist it can feel dispassionate, almost like assigned reading. There’s something to be said about the Tangibility of interest and passion. After all, I’ve seen all the films that have the music that populate my 64GB iPhone; I’ve experienced all the scores “in person” and taken in the pieces that call out to me. Getting attached from a first listen can happen, but it’s not the same as the Tangible experience (more on that later).

So what’s a tangible way to get into music? Seeing it live! I mentioned this before, but shortly before the pandemic I decided to start going to concerts…for indie bands. Hey, it was a way for me to get into non-film score music. To be fair, I did already like indie music but the Tangibility was a way to connect me physically to such music. I saw Miniature Tigers shortly before the pandemic and later on, I was able to see Big Thief. These were new experiences for me, but it did a great job in letting me connect with the music. This was especially true for Big Thief as it was a band I had never heard before (Isabel recommended it). I went to a concert, fell in love with their music, and I now regularly listen to them.

I knew the same could be done for orchestra music.

I wish I had evening slippers to further emphasize the black tie inspiration!

Perhaps it was the perceived pretension of classical music, but I was always intimidated by such concerts. It definitely felt like a “me” thing to do, but a future me. An aspirational one. But I kept thinking to myself that I truly liked classical music; I already loved it when film score analysts make comparisons to existing work or show historical examples of certain techniques and tropes that show up in my favorite cues. I just had to remind myself that classical music was for me and that I should just go to a concert.

My first ever non-Pops concert was going to the Hollywood Bowl to watch the Los Angeles Philharmonic play Rachmaninoff with Nobuyuki Tsujii. And even though it was a casual venue, I decided to take the opportunity to dress up. And by dress up, I mean intentionally doing something a little more formal than the ivy-trad/Esquire Man look I wear on a daily basis. After all, I wanted to get into the spirit of classical music even though strict formality rules for the symphony are a thing of the past, for both performers and attendees.

Attending an orchestral concert not tied to a film is a special occasion and I wanted to treat it as such. Sir Stephen Hough notes in his book Rough Ideas that a performance is like a wedding to the composer: a celebration. And like a wedding, this was a real opportunity to wear black tie.

Now as you can see above, it’s not a super formal look. Honestly, it’s more of a preppy black tie-adjacent outfit. The only “correct” piece was the satin bow tie; I wore it with a navy sportcoat, an OCBD, yellow OG-107s (wild, I know) and white socks with black tassel loafers. It’s definitely inspired by some creative black tie looks I’ve seen from some ivy friends as well as RL Purple Label.

What matters is that it felt elevated. Even though I was holding a tote bag full of snacks and surrounded by casual attendees for a summer concert, I felt like I was dressed appropriately for how much the concert meant to me. And when I saw Nobuyuki play through Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2, I knew I was hooked. The symphony would always be an occasion for me. After all, Frasier and Niles do wear black tie whenever they go to the opera; I have friends in NYC who see the Nutcracker each Christmas and use the opportunity to wear true black tie.

Oh and I put Rachmaninoff immediately into my “non film score” play list. The pieces within, at least the the two I heard in person, were now Tangibly linked to me.

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Most of the Hollywood Bowl’s orchestra concerts were pops, so I was forced to take a hiatus from the symphony. I did see John Williams for his 90th birthday concert at the Bowl, but I remained casual for that one (it was also hot and packed to the brim). In order to stay true to my word and remain an active listener of classical music, I made to decision to check the Walt Disney Concert Hall concert schedule (a more “serious” institution for orchestra music) and commit to seeing the LA Phil once more. The fact that they have $20 tickets (for youth) was a godsend.

The WDCH was truly special. Keep in mind that I had only been in once before, which was for Dapper Day. This time I was returning of my own accord, as a (wanna be) patron of the arts. It would also be the first time I’d see Dudamel conduct in person. Prior to this, I had only seen videos of him doing Bernstein and Williams standards, admiring his precise yet jaunty approach to conducting. It would be time for the real deal.

Most importantly, the concert I decided to attend featured Mahler’s Symphony No. 1. Mahler featured quite prominently Absolutely on Taste, the recorded conversations between Haruki Murakami and Seiji Ozawa. I’ve heard snippets of Mahler and always admired the post-Romantic dissonance and chromaticism, but like with Dudamel’s conducting, it was time to experience it in person.

I hope I am making the sense of occasion clear: the symphony and black tie are simply a match that makes sense. After all, I have no other real reasons to wear a rig; even I can’t escape the stuffy connotations of black tie, even if it’s done creatively. But when you at least have a reason for it, it makes it that much more fun.

What’s funny is that I have given away almost all accurate pieces of my black tie attire. I outgrew the tuxedo suit I wore in this NYEE blog post (it was also much too heavy for LA) as well as the silk DB dinner jacket I wore to LACMA. All I had left was my satin bowtie, 1950’s soft tuxedo shirt (which is falling apart), and a satin cummerbund from high school. The acquisition of my Sagans during my NYC trip almost feels ironic. But that’s okay: I just needed to get into the spirit of black tie in order to match my attire to the sentiment I felt toward the symphony.

For my return to the WDCH, I used creative black tie to my advantage and wore something that I felt really special in. I put on what I had and instead of a dinner jacket or even a sportcoat, I went with my Visvim kimono jacket. With the dark panel on the lapel location (it technically doesn’t have lapels), it actually evokes the vibes of Western evening wear, which was absolutely perfect. The big sleeves, boxy silhouette, and long length gave it a dramatic flair that enhances the basic black tie rig underneath.

To be fair, I am wearing dark charcoal trousers (with cuffs) and white socks, which aren’t canon to black tie. But hey, the occasion isn’t adhering to strict black tie. This is about dressing in a way that made me feel special due to how much the occasion meant to me. And boy did I feel like it when I wore this outfit! Isabel even got into the spirit and wore her old prom dress; she’s kept it in hopes of formal occasions and this was the right moment. We didn’t mind being “overdressed” (it’s LA), but I do think it helped that it was an evening concert with complementary wine in the gardens before the show.

I don’t think I have to tell you how incredible Mahler was to hear, especially when it was conducted by Dudamel. It was also fascinating to listen to Altar de cuerda, a contemporary violin concerto composed by Gabriela Ortiz. I love hearing truly modern concert works that don’t rely on too much avant garde techniques like John Cage; I like fun uses of traditional orchestra through melody and chord structure. Classic with a twist, I guess? My musical taste really does seem to echo my own take on classic menswear.

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I think this might be one of my best fits of all time, just due to the feeling I had when wearing it.
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Isn’t she lovely?
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Free drinks!
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I was so enamored with my WDCH experience that I decided to immediately look for the next affordable concert. As luck would have it, Dudamel was conducting Copeland (as well as two more Pan-American compositions) the following week; I quickly bought tickets for MJ and I.

Since this was a Saturday matinee, I decided to scale back my attire. Creative Black Tie was still my vibe as it presents a sense of occasion for this special event. As such, I made use of my newly acquired cotton plaid trousers. I feel like I’ve seen plaid trousers worn with dinner jackets during the 1950s-1960s, so I felt like it was a good move to do; it also makes this feel a bit more casual, even if I’m still wearing a proper tux shirt, satin bowtie, cummerbund, and what are basically suede slippers. I’d also consider it a shoutout to Copelands status as an Americana composer. I decided to wear my Crispaire navy DB jacket in order to add in the needed dramatic (but minimal) flair; the wide lapels and big body help anchor the loud pants, again even if it isn’t “correct” for true black tie.

MJ didn’t go with evening wear, but he did take some inspiration from Jake’s attire in this Permanent Style article. He’s definitely in elevated attire, wearing a Palm Beach jacket (I grew out of that too) with a solid knit tie, OG-107s, and paraboots. I think a black bow tie would’ve been great here if he actually owned one!

I think he agrees with my sentiments on how special attending the symphony can be. We even kept the vibe going by wearing the attire all day, even though the concert ended before 5PM. Black tie is meant for the evening but who cares: its all about how it makes you feel.

Our outfits actually became Going Out Attire when we met up with our friends for drinks. I added those photos below because they provide a great full circle moment about getting dressed. Seeing your pals is always good reason to get dressed up, especially since the last time we all went out together was for Tiki Night! Life is all about making special occasions happen— and getting dressed accordingly.

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Cat eye sunglasses give this a fun day time edge.
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MJ looks so good in my clothes.
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There was light rain, so I brought my Barbour. Talk about subversion!
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Orchestra boys.
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Everyone has their own Going Out Look.
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Silvia is actually going to the South Pole soon, so one of her last hangs is definitely a special reason to get dressed up!
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Jay wears black to signal his sense of occasion.
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Spencer uses our hangs as inspiration to wear a sportcoat.
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Marco even showed up!
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Youmna and Jay.

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Your favorite podcasters.
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A simple look with black tie pieces (including real tux trousers) worn under a green corduroy safari jacket and a beret.
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I wore this to a concert of Saint-Saens and Shostakovich.
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I guess I didn’t really fit the dress code, huh?

I think it’s safe to say that watching the LA Phil was going to be a regular thing that defines my life much like trivia night, “free” movies on AMC A-list, randomly working from a boba cafe, or the Rose Bowl Flea. I have many friends who regularly go to concerts (like Marco) and Tangibly get to experience their music. I’m so happy that I’m able to do that in my own way!

Most importantly, this really does give me a sense of occasion, a reason to dress up in a special way. I’ve been searching for a reason to wear more black tie and this is it. In the past I’d wear black tie on NYE because I didn’t want to “waste” it, even if my NYE plans were spent at home. Now, black tie is linked to the exhilarating experience of watching live orchestra music. Music that was made for art’s sake, not just for a movie. Nothing beats the link between occasion and clothing, but it helps that if you help guide the two together.

I guess with the more concerts I go to, the more variance in black tie I’ll get to do. I’m excited for both.

Thanks for reading! Don’t forget that you can support me (or the podcast) on Patreon to get some extra content and access to our exclusive Discord. I also stream on Twitch and upload the highlights to Youtube.

Always a pleasure,

Ethan M. Wong

Big thank you to our top tier Patrons (the SaDCast Fanatics): Philip, Shane, Jarek, Henrik , and John.

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