right outfit for the gig

Dress the part: Choosing the right outfit for the gig

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When you take the stage, the music comes first — but wearing the right outfit can play a small (or not so small) part in helping you give a performance your music deserves.

For every live music performance you play, the right outfit can help create a vibe, set the atmosphere, and build a story around your music, enhancing your performance and entertaining your audience. Wearing the right clothes can also get you in the right headspace to deliver an unforgettable show.

You don’t need to know anything about fashion, or care about it in the slightest, to use your clothing choices to set you up for musical success. Here are some simple strategies to help you don the right clothes for any gig.

Understand expectations

If you’re being hired for a show — whether it’s filling in as a backing singer with a great touring neo-soul act or playing bass in a jazz-Zydeco trio for a fancy wedding — make sure to ask about dress code ahead of time. Your bandleader, party planner, client, music director, or other point person should be able to tell you whether you’re expected to show up in a tux, casual all black, or something else entirely. And even if the response you get is “just look good,” you’ll earn points for having the professionalism to ask in the first place.

Keep it functional

When you’re thinking about what to wear for a show, it can be easy to put looks before comfort, so remember that your top goal at any gig is to make great music. Any clothing that interferes with that goal is clothing you should leave at home.

If you’re a singer, in particular, regardless of how good it may look, don’t wear shirts, pants, dresses, or anything else that hampers your breathing, unless you’ve rehearsed extensively wearing that very outfit and know how to deal with any physical restrictions in a high-pressure performance situation.

Similarly, regardless of your role at the gig, don’t wear shoes that are going to make it hard to stay centered on your kick pedal, trigger your guitar stompboxes, or strut the stage while you sing, no matter how cool the footwear may look.

A personal example — I have a sports coat that looks wonderful and makes me feel great when I wear it. At the same time, it’s a snug fit and can make my shoulders feel a little tight and constrained. If I’m the frontman on a gig, or am playing limited keyboard parts that don’t require a lot of finger-based fireworks, wearing it isn’t an issue. But if I’m leading a three-hour trio gig where it’s high-intensity piano and keyboard work from top to bottom, that little bit of fabric resistance can turn into a big deal after a couple of songs, so I make sure to set it aside before I start playing — or wear something else entirely.

Regardless of the details, remember that making music can be a rigorous athletic activity, so make sure your clothes put you in the best position possible to let your body do what it needs to do.

Think about the setting

When choosing what to wear to your next gig, be mindful of the physical climate, natural or man-made, you’ll be performing in.

Are you going to be playing in a large auditorium that will be kept cold ahead of time, so it doesn’t overheat when hundreds of people pack in? If so, make sure you wear plenty of layers so you don’t freeze during soundcheck and then overheat during your set.

Are you playing outside in the fall with overcast, windy weather predicted? Make sure you dress with plenty of insulation so you’re not shivering the whole time. (This may seem like common sense, but I’ve played any number of outdoor gigs where musicians show up woefully under-dressed for frigid conditions).

Is your next gig at a summer festival in the desert, and you just found out you’ll have zero shade for your blistering, two-hour metal performance? Leave the jeans, vinyl, and leather at home and find something that will put you in the performance zone without giving you heatstroke.

Are you going to be part of an intricately produced stage show? It can get awfully hot under intense stage lighting, so factor that into your decision-making as well.

As you’re deciding what outfit to bring, protect your most valuable assets for the gig. If you’re a keyboardist or bassist playing outside in less than warm weather, for example, make sure your arms and upper body stay plenty warm, and consider experimenting with gloves that cover much of the hand but keep the fingers exposed. Likewise, for singers in cold weather, a warm hat and scarf can be lifesavers.

Independent of individual items of clothing or preparations, the last thing you want to do is take the stage cold (physically or metaphorically) or overheated and dehydrated, so choose your clothing accordingly and set yourself up for success.

Don’t forget recording

Just because you don’t have a packed audience in the studio with you doesn’t mean clothing should be ignored when it’s time to record. After all, a recording session is still a performance — and mindfully choosing your outfit can help you deliver one that you’ll be proud of.

As with a live gig, make sure to wear clothes that don’t restrict your movement or breathing — and that are temperature appropriate — and avoid putting on anything that may distract you from your music-making in any way.

Beyond that, think about what will put you in the best emotional space to deliver a great performance. Is your top goal to feel utterly relaxed when you sing, so your performance comes off as warm and intimate? Maybe a favorite pair of pajamas makes you feel that way, or there’s a hoodie you’ve had for years and always wear on lazy Sundays. Alternately, do you want your performance to feel elevated, energetic, and polished, as if you were on stage at Carnegie Hall? If so, then maybe donning a three-piece suit or sequined ball gown will get you in the headspace you need.

Keep in mind that you never need to dress a certain way when you record, plus there are no audience members to entertain, so your clothing choices are purely about what will make you feel the most inspired. Whether it’s white tie or super casual, tie-dyed flower-child or street clothes, make sure that whatever you wear helps you get in the zone you need to make the music you want to make.

How do you approach dressing for a performance, whether on stage or in the studio? Tell us in the comments below.

Disc Makers’ regular contributor Michael Gallant’s debut trio album Completely received a four-star review from DownBeat magazine and a five-star review from Critical Jazz, which stated: “This, my friends, is the future of jazz. Fresh, invigorating, progressive – there are simply not enough positive adjectives to list here.” Learn more, download through iTunes, or purchase through CD Baby. Follow Michael on Twitter at @Michael_Gallant or on Facebook.

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Michael Gallant

About Michael Gallant

Michael Gallant is a musician, writer, and entrepreneur living in New York City. His debut album for the Steinway & Sons label, Rock Rewind, features solo piano reinventions of Pearl Jam, U2, Halestorm, Janis Joplin, Bob Dylan, Radiohead, and more. Read his recent article for the National Endowment for the Arts and follow Michael on Twitter at @Michael_Gallant and Facebook.com/GallantMusic.

12 thoughts on “Dress the part: Choosing the right outfit for the gig

  1. I’m an older amateur perpetual open mic’er with no aspirations, but I play country songs of my own devising and I dress the part – jeans, boots and a cowboy hat. I’ve watched over the years as younger more career oriented singers came and went and the common thing of all those who moved on to more of a career was that even for a 3 or 4 song set they had a distinctive look that matched their music, some effort at between song patter beyond a boring “I wrote this cause my girlfriend left me.” In short, they understood that they had to entertain because, truthfully, their original songs were good but not great and their covers were the same. Willingness to entertain is what sets a singer who is going someplace apart from one who is too caught up in their self love to understand the audience doesn’t owe you anything when you are just starting out.

  2. Agreed. I even factor this in when deciding whether or not to buy tickets to see a band live. (Note how often it is called “seeing a band” rather than just “hearing a band”). The visual is very important in a live show. Before I buy expensive tickets to see and hear a band, I check out some of their concert videos online. If their visual presentation is poor — and that includes how they dress — then that factors against me going to see the show. It seems like they just couldn’t be bothered to make the effort for the audience. The audience is sitting there for 2 hours watching you, not just listening to you; consider that. Also, it shouldn’t be seen as a burden; it’s another opportunity for creative people (which musicians obviously are) to be creative, in the visual medium as well as the sonic medium.

    As a performer, I consider the visual element extremely important: clothes, behavior, interaction (or not, depending on the music and mood) with the audience, lighting, stage set-up, projections (if used), video, all that. All of this is part of the live experience.

  3. I’m a rock singer. And I’ve always lived by the idea that you have to entertain the eyes as well as the ears.
    I absolutely HATE it when I see a bunch of guys that look like they just finished cleaning out their garage and then jumped on stage. Remember those key words: “ON STAGE.”
    You’re a musician, but you’re also a performer.
    When was the last time anybody said they were going out to “hear” a band? No…It’s always: We’re going out to “SEE” a band.
    Learn your instrument. Write the best songs you can. Deliver them with maximum visual impact.

  4. Is not easy to choose stage clothes when you are a 40’s metal player, but I always try to make a statement without trying to appear as a kid, always being comfortable.

  5. Back when the world was young a manager might prepare his people to make a better appearance, advising them to wear suits instead of leather jackets. Or, conversely, the gig made the leather jackets the preferred look. Anyway, someone was thinking about it. I’m betting TV producers advise against certain colors and patterns that don’t do well in TV cameras.

    That’s all about the ‘look’ for selling the product.

    Your comfort while sorting out the elements of dressing for the part is of extreme importance.

    Options are always advisable. Again, back when the world was young, at The Concert for Bangladesh, George Harrison takes off his elegantly white suitcoat, and exposes the rich red shirt beneath, and it’s a whole new show.
    Johnny Cash, The Man In Black; “You look like you’re going to a funeral!”
    “Well,” Johnny says, “maybe I am.”

    Costume changes between sets are usually easy, and can make your act look more like show business. Give ’em something to talk about.

    The advice is simple enough; think about what you’re going to wear.
    Think about what you’re going to wear if the drunk girl spills her tequila sunrise on you
    What will you wear if you have to change a flat tire en route?
    What if it’s hot in there and you’re soaked at some point?
    I used to find a shirt I liked for stage wear and then buy three or four of them, identical shirts, so I could change out of a wet one into a clean, dry one when I went out to mingle with the crowd. I wanted them to recognize me as the guy they just saw and heard onstage, now there vis a vis, still marketing my product.

    Billy Crystal says Ricardo Montalban said, “I would rather look good than feel good.”
    Ridiculously good advice.

  6. One other note on recording… Make sure to wear clothes that make no noise (i.e., wind pants), or have anything in your pockets that causes noise, like keys or change. Little details like that can make or break things on quiet passages. Great article!

  7. I play in the church worship band. Years ago, I used to wear a shirt and tie, dress slacks and dress shoes to play. As the years went on, the dress code for the worship band became less and less formal. After all those years playing electric guitar in dress shoes, I don’t feel comfortable working my multi-effects in sneakers… too big and clumsy for the pedals. So I still wear dress slacks and dress shoes when I play, because that is what I am most comfortable in when playing.

    I agree with the author that distractions caused by clothing issues can upset your performance and pull your head out of the game. I cannot play the guitar in a suit jacket, for example, I could never get comfortable with it.

    One other note, if you are playing under a light show, check with the lighting director to see if they have a preference on what you wear. We wear muted colors and definitely NOT white in church, as that is what works best under the lights.


  8. I know I’m old school, but I don’t like to see a musician showing up at a gig looking as if he just came from unloading a container ship down at the docks. Have a little class. And with regard to the current goofy hat fad: musicians are supposed to be nonconformists. Why are you trying to dress like everyone else? It’s silly.

  9. You under-emphasize the need to look sharp! So many bands take the stage in frumpy jeans, sneakers and sports team tee shirts. Any sorry guys, except for the drummer, shorts are a no-no, no matter how hot it is.

    As you noted, you are entertainers, not musicians in a pit band.

  10. It’s also important to know how far away from the audience you’ll be. If they’re farther away you’ll want to wear bigger jewelry and brighter colors, especially if you’re under intense lighting. But a smaller stage requires slightly less and smaller accessories and toned down colors. For example: If you’re playing a coffeehouse and the audience is super close, you don’t want to overwhelm them by wearing a lot of big shiny jewelry with a big patterned, loud colored shirt. Look interesting but tone it down a little. However on a bigger stage where you can’t get close to your audience, you’ll need that color and sparkle to be seen at all.

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