Stagewear and performance

composite of recent photo of man in a suit and hat playing a saxophone and old photo of a guitar player on stage wearing a cowboy hat and jacket with fringed trim on the sleeves and hem

Jazz musician (left image) © iStockphoto.com/NWphotoguy.
Hank Walters (right image) courtesy of Hank Walters.

Stage costume seems a simple enough thing. A performer in a certain idiom dresses according to the conventions of that idiom - a bebop musician wears a suit, a folk musician wears ordinary clothes, a Liverpool band of the early 1990s wears 'casual'. The way performers dress is part of an identity they are trying to communicate, so that the audience will be able to locate both them and their music, and the performer will be able to engage with the audience. When the early country music singing star Jimmie Rodgers dropped his 'Singing Brakeman' railway worker's clothes for a Texas cowboy outfit he was responding to his Southern audience's aspirations to move westward. The audience also understood it as a sign of the gradual westernising of the music itself.

Another function of stagewear is to help the audience understand the performance conventions. In the vaudeville era of the late 19th century solo performers adopted striking and individual stage outfits in order to make themselves a focus of attention and to differentiate themselves from other acts. In some pop acts it is common practice for a lead performer in a musical group to have a stage costume that is more striking in order to visually underline the performer's importance within the act. If there is no such differentiation, the audience will be more inclined to see a group of equals.

Stagewear can also help to signal a break with conventions. The tradition of uniform stagewear was a constant feature through many musical movements of the 20th century, from swing bands through to the beat groups of the 1960s, and in many examples from pop and rock ever since. However, when these traditions began to break down and more emphasis was placed on the individual within the ensemble, uniformity began to give way, first in favour of a look that was only loosely unified, then into more individual clothing.

But these straightforward variations are far from being the end of the matter. One reason for this is heritage: in part, popular music performance stagewear derives from theatrical costume, and theatrical costume was invented to assist role playing. Even though few popular music stage performances involve dramatic roles, the idea persists in the audience that anyone dressing up is doing so to assume another identity. In many cases, this is an advantage to the performer, especially in styles of performance where the interpretation of other people's music is highly valued. When a singer such as Frank Sinatra performs in a dark suit the audience takes it as part of the conventions; but when Sinatra sings 'One More For My Baby (and One More For the Road)' seated on a barstool, that same suit suggests, perhaps, Sinatra is playing the role of an emotionally exhausted business man or office worker.

This element of ambiguity about performance stagewear enables some performers to play with ideas of identity and confuse our expectations about their music. The flamboyant costumes of Little Richard in the 1950s (as seen, for example, in the movie 'The Girl Can't Help It') confused audiences, who had grown used to a certain type of rock 'n' roll masculinity.