Active Formalwear for the New Millennium

  • PARTNER: Baltimore Symphony Orchestra

    GOAL: Modernize traditional formalwear to meet the physical demands of performers while retaining the sense of ceremony essential to the classical symphony space

    APPROACH: The style and fabrication of clothing worn by orchestra musicians have remained virtually unchanged for nearly a century or more. Fussy, cumbersome formalwear leaves musicians feeling restricted and overheated as they attempt to focus on their performance.

    Recognizing the need to break with tradition to solve this problem, students from Parsons School of Design and Mannes School of Music teamed up to create a whole new concept of active formalwear. After meticulously analyzing the physical movements of musicians from the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, the students used beautiful, hi-tech textiles to create stunning yet thoroughly practical garments. The designs have all the elegance of traditional formal wear, yet provide musicians with a full range of motion and complete comfort for their performances.

    OUTCOME: As part of a multi-year collaboration led by Gabi Asfour, fashion designer and Parsons professor, and Marin Alsop, Music Director for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (BSO), students from Parsons School of Design and Mannes School of Music came together to reimagine the traditional concert dress and create pieces that could uphold traditional aesthetics while being fashionable and functional to the physical demands of performers.

    A prime example of The New School’s interdisciplinary and collaborative approach to education, students worked directly with musicians on innovative new designs, ultimately adapting their traditional garb to the demands of modern-day orchestral performance. The unique partnership required extensive research of orchestral performances and of formalwear around the world through history, many interviews and surveys of professional musicians, constant testing of different materials, observation of the garments in action, and the development of each individual new garment in accordance with the conclusions drawn from all of the collected data.

    After intensive research, designing and prototyping, students were ready to create. With the help of tech start-up Direct Dimensions, they employed 3D body scanning technology; 200 cameras were rigged backstage at the BSO’s Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall to capture the precise measurements of each orchestra member over a span of two weeks. Then, Body Labs, a provider of human-aware AI, used the data to create 3D avatars of the musicians, furnishing the design team with precise measurements to create bespoke garments. OnPoint Manufacturing constructed each outfit using breathable textiles, such as stretch mesh and jersey, donated by Baltimore-based athletic-wear company Under Armour.

    In total, 400 pieces were created for the 100-person orchestra. The entire collection made its debut with the orchestra at the concert finale of the 2017-2018 season. The fresh minds of Parsons and Mannes students presented unexpected questions and equally exciting answers each step of the way. This assignment demonstrated that their designs can serve as a model for other orchestras, as well as other industries that require people to wear uniforms and formalwear - clothing that celebrates tradition, yet liberates the wearer to perform at their very best.

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