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The unspoken dilemma among female choir directors...
by Sarah Gilbertson, R&S Chair for Women's Choirs, guest article from Star of the North, Minnesota's ACDA newsletter, Kari Douma, Editor (used by permission)

Preparation for a performance not only includes music and logistics, but also the appropriate attire.  For our male counterparts this decision is easy – suit or tux.  For a female choir director this decision is almost as difficult as selecting your literature.  Pants or skirt? Did I wear this at the last concert?  How does this outfit look from the back?  Ah yes, the questions are endless.

This article is an attempt to gather input from other female conductors with varying lengths of experience and age to help demystify this dilemma.  Hopefully after reading this article you will have gained some additional insight that will allow you to conduct with confidence knowing that your choir sounds beautiful and you look fabulous.

The following are the questions and the responses I received.  I think you will see how passionate we women feel about this topic. 

  1. Where do you shop for your conducting outfits?

#1 response:

High-end department stores (look for deals after or around the holidays)

    • Dillards
    • Macy’s
    • Lilly Rubin
    • Nieman Marcus
    • Nordstrom

#2:       Specialty Stores

    • Ann Taylor Loft
    • Limited
    • Chicos
    • Eddie bauer (black velvet, washable dress)
    • Coldwater Creek
    • J. Jill
    • Express
    • J. Longs in Mankato

#3        other responses

    • JCPenney
    • They tend to “leap off the rack” and I have just “found” them.
    • Borrow from other female conductors
    • Barrie Pace (on-line)
    • Tadashi (on-line)
    • Bloomingdales (on-line)
  1. Do you ever decide to not wear black and if so, for what type of performance?

#1 response:

Colors are fine, but have with a black ensemble or long black skirt/pants

  • Red or green blouse for a holiday concert
  • Put a color under a black jacket for visual interest – white is safe!
  • Muted gold
  • Long black skirt with silver in it – special concerts
  • Non-black upper garment or one with colorful trim.

#2        Colors (examples given)

  • navy blue dress with a  beautiful flower pattern
  • All winter white pant outfit
  • Dark red velvet dress
  • Navy or brown for more “academic” performances or younger choirs who give concerts on a different night.
  • Black Chinese jacket that is bright blue on the inside and reversible
  • School colors – red and black were the colors
  • Occasional navy or emerald green

Quote to remember from one of the woman:

“If you wear something other than black, still bound by the rules of appropriate length, fit of dress from the back, shoes you can comfortably conduct in, no bare arms, etc.”


  1. Do you choose to wear pants or skirts/dresses?

#1 response:


  • Pants with a fancy top for an evening concert with a chamber choir in a smaller venue. 
  • Pants need to flow and be the right material
  • Big auditorium with a concert choir – usually a long dress.

Quotes from the women:

  • “I have no problem wearing “the pants”. : )
  • “I personally am more comfortable in pants, so I wear them whenever I have a really long performance day.  On concert nights I tend to go with skirts/dresses.”
  • “I am a pants person and my favorite all time outfit was pants with a long tunic over them.  It’s outdated now, because the shoulders of the tunic are so heavily padded.  I should get it restructured because it’s a great look…….”
  • “It depends on what size I am.  If I am thinner, I wear a dress more often.”
  • Suit for tours – one that covers the “tush”
  • “I do prefer long dresses, long skirts/tops – dresses make me feel more feminine and that is important for me.  I will never wear something that clings to my “tush” and I am very aware of panty lines!!  I always make sure my outfit looks good from behind!”


  1. Are you concerned with the length of skirt if you choose to wear a skirt?

#1 response:
Always wear a longer skirt (below the knee – tea length or to the floor)

  • Black cocktail length dress for an afternoon music camp or honor choir concert.
  • Be very picky about the length.  The skirt needs to be tea length or floor length.  The knee length skirt on stage is not a good look – it’s too matronly looking.  If you don’t wear black hose, it is not very attractive. 
  • Be aware of where the slit lies.  Nobody wants to see your legs showing while you conduct.
  • “I would never wear a short skirt…or any skirt, I guess.  But I don’t wear skirts in any other part of my life.”
  • “I wear what I purchase in several venues. You never know what the stage set-up is going to be, how close people will be to you, how high up you are, so I want something that will be safe pretty much anywhere.”
  1. If you have longer hair do you put it up or leave it down?

#1 response:

Keep your hair out of your face

  • Definitely wear it up
  • Shoulder length hair – curl is so it looks more formal and has body.
  • It should not be distracting
  • half back
  •  “I require my singers to wear their hair up or back and I think it is important that I do the same.”
  • Up or down make sure it’s out of your face!
  1. Any other comments/rules you follow about performance attire for yourself as a female conductor?
  • Long dresses and skirts are the way to go.  If the choir is wearing tuxes and long dress, this is a must.  If the choir is wearing robes, it is a different matter.  Black hose, not tan, and black shoes are also good.
  • Be picky about material of the attire.  Never wear traveling knit or any material that is clingy or “hangs”. 
  • Cover the rear with a jacket.
  • Clothes need to be up to date – it’s never good to keep wearing your outfits from 1970.
  • It is nice to see a conductor have a little bit of “personality” on the front of her outfit (scarf, pin, color) but when she turns and faces the choir, the conductor need to almost disappear.
  • Women should NEVER conduct without sleeves-regardless of time of year.  Sleeves should be at least ¾ lengths.
  • Women should NEVER conduct in a backless dress.
  • All blouses, shirts, jackets, etc. should have a more conservative neckline.
  • Conducting clothes should never be tight or “molded” to the body.
  • Don’t forget to save your receipts and use performance attire as a tax “write-off”.
  • “Does my butt look good (because that is what the audience sees.)”
  • “Do I look classy yet sassy?”
  • Long sleeves only.  You would never see a male conductor wearing short sleeves.
  • Stay away from dresses that are “fancy” in the back or have a low back.
  • “I used to want to make my arms look substantial so I always wore a blazer instead of a fitted sleeve.  I wanted my gesture to look strong, not quite so feminine.  I don’t worry about that any more because I’ve worked on my conducting technique.  My outfit of choice right now is a black suit or a velvet blazer with flowing pants – both with “substantial” sleeves.  I do worry about the view of my backside…and make sure that the pants fit properly!”
  • Try to get skirts or pants that are lined – they look nicer from the stage and lay flatter.
  •  “My rule of thumb is to look classy.  I also want the students to know that I take the performance seriously.  I even wore fancy black dresses with an up-do as a middle school teacher.”
  • “I personally prefer that women wear a jacket, coat or tunic-style top to cover their rear ends whether they wear skirts or pants.  Any item of clothing that calls attention to the body of the conductor takes the focus off the choir.”
  • Avoid satin on stage – especially pants!
  • “I prefer looking like a woman.  I do have a couple wonderful suits that I think are feminine looking.  I definitely prefer long skirts with a top that has ¾ length sleeves or longer.  I would not wear anything that resembles a man’s tux!”
  • Shoes are an issue – fashionable doesn’t always equal great comfort or mobility, both important on busy concert evenings or afternoons.
  •  “I always look more conservative than the students, and I usually go to the side of overdressed than under-dressed.”
  •  “It’s a nice tradition for me to try to purchase something new each year for our Christmas concert.  Then I wear it several times during the rest of the year, or wear whatever I bought the previous year or two.  You always have a few things to pick from.”
  • Aerosoles are a really comfortable brand for shoes

A lot of information to digest-if you didn’t learn anything else, remember to avoid satin pants with short jackets and definitely never wear a backless dress!

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