Image credit: Yuja Wang © Felix Broede / Deutsche Grammophon

It’s hard to ignore Chinese pianist Yuja Wang, and sometimes for the wrong reasons (remember all the fuss last summer about That Dress?). So it was that I went to hear her in the Southbank Centre’s excellent international Concert Series with a mixture of curiosity and trepidation. The programme was an ambitious mix of music which showed off more than just her technical prowess….. Read my full review here

“If nothing else, Fran, you’ll be the best-dressed Diploma candidate this season!”. So declared a good friend of mine who knows well my love of clothes and who has often been an enthusiastic companion on shopping sprees.

Joking apart, the Trinity Guildhall regulations state that one should dress as if for “an afternoon or early evening recital”. So an “evening gown” is not required, but something pretty smart nonetheless. Long before I’d decided on my Diploma programme, I’d already worked out what I was going to wear: a Little Black Dress from LK Bennett with 1950s styling, demure yet faintly sexy, in a fluid jersey fabric which is comfortable and easy to wear, and low-heeled mock-croc shoes. A small heel is essential for pedalling, while a high heel renders the action virtually impossible.

One of my Twitter friends made a slightly tongue-in-cheek comment to me about a blog post on piano teacher’s attire, so this article is, in part, to satisfy his curiosity, as well as my own musings on what pianists wear.

Yuja Wang at Hollywood Bowl (Lawrence K. Ho/Los Angeles Times)

Recently, Chinese piano Yuja Wang created a bit of a furore amongst critics and concert-goers for appearing in a dress more at home on the fashion catwalk than the concert platform: a thigh-skimming, body-hugging frock and gold stilettos. When I saw the pictures of “that outfit”, my first thought was “how on earth can she pedal in those shoes?”. What occupied the critics publicly was whether such attire was “appropriate” for the classical music scene, while privately many of them were no doubt slavering with delight over the view of a slim young female leg during the 40 minutes or so of Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto. This hoo-hah says something about the perception of male and female artists in the eyes of both audience and critics.

The days of the traditional virtuoso “uniform” of white tie and tails for male pianists are long past, and it is rare to see anyone but the most senior musicians in this attire now (of all the male pianists I’ve heard this year, only Charles Rosen and Maurizio Pollini wore white tie and tails). Lounge suits, open-necked shirts, Nehru collars, silk shirts with diamonté studs (Robert Levin) – I’ve seen them all this season. Paul Lewis, Steven Osborne and Stephen Hough all favour a sort of black “smock” (presumably for comfort?), and Hough is rarely seen without his shiny metallic shoes on the concert platform. Meanwhile, Turkish pianist Fazil Say cut a rather shabby Oscar Wild-esque figure in a black tee-shirt and long velvet coat not unlike a dressing gown.

Angela Hewitt

But while the men are allowed to “go casual”, women pianists are still expected to turn out in a more traditional evening gown, and any deviation from this can be met with cries of horror, the wringing of hands and general pulling of eyes. Some, like Yuja Wang and Angela Hewitt, have made the fashion statement part of their artistic persona: Hewitt favours designer gowns, bright lipstick and red shoes. When I saw her at the Wigmore Hall in June she wore an extraordinary dress with some interesting zip arrangements, not unlike the “safety pin dress” by Versace, famously worn by Liz Hurley, and I confess the zips interested me more than her Chopin. Japanese pianist Mitsuko Uchida likes the finely pleated creations of Issey Miyake, and so, when she raises her arms, a lovely image is created of the gossamer wings of a beautiful butterfly. Helene Grimaud, who I saw at the Proms this summer, chose a stylish, somewhat mannish, grey suit for her performance of Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto.

Fazil Say

At the end of the day, it is of course entirely up to the performer what they wear, but it is also important that their dress reflects the occasion, for the moment the performer walks onto the stage, the audience’s attention is engaged and awakened. Mannerisms, attire, the way one greets the audience, all these things matter, and all contribute to the experience of the performance for the audience, as well as a means of differentiating performer from audience, and defining one’s role for them.

I admit I’m torn between admiring Ms Wang’s chutzpah for wearing such a daring outfit while wondering whether she wanted the audience to focus on her music or her legs.

And as for my Twitter friend’s enquiry about what I wear to teach piano….. I favour easy, comfortable clothes, my Wright & Teague charm bracelets, which chink and tinkle as I play, low-heeled shoes or boots (it gets cold in my piano room in the winter), and some interesting beads, a pendant or a scarf…..

More on Yuja Wang’s dress here