The Future of Formal
Parsons the New School designs orchestra attire for the Baltimore Symphony

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Orchestra attire hasn't changed much in the last hundred or so years, but thanks to a recent collaboration between Parsons and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra that might be about to change. When the Baltimore Symphony's Maestra, Marin Aslop, decided it was time to update her orchestra's apparel, she enlisted students from Gabi Asfour's interdisciplinary design class at Parsons The New School.

"The traditional orchestra attire for men is essentially a black tuxedo suit with tails worn over a white dress shirt, a white vest and a bow tie. This has been the attire for more than 100 years," says Asfour, who is a founding member of the avant-garde fashion collective threeASFOUR. "The main concern for updating this uniform was comfort, flexibility and performance and not the actual components of the suit."

But the goal of the collaboration wasn’t just to rejuvenate classic orchestra apparel in terms of functionality, it was also to modernize it; compelling the audience to re-think what a symphonic concert should look like. "We studied different ways to add functionality to the existing look without changing the way it is, but elevating the silhouette by making it more refined and more elegant," Asfour continues.

Asfour and Sabine Seymour, the director of the Fashionable Technology Lab at Parsons, supervised students from their Fall 2012 semester as they undertook the project.

 “We wanted to expose the students to a real life experience with a real client,” Asfour says. “We wanted to find a way to have a super healthy and productive collaboration between the technology students, design students, and music students."

Presented last month through a series of live music acts called The Future of Orchestral Garments, and performed by the students of Parson’s sister school, Mannes College The New School for Music, the project resulted in a selection of concert attire prototypes for men and women that integrated sound, visuals, sensory technology, and eco-friendly practices.

The prototypes maintained the elegant nature of classic concert dress, but used fabrications and inserts that would allow for more movement and flexibility depending on the kind of performer who would be wearing it. Renée Sundén, a student in Asfour's class who participated in the project explains, "The choice of materials was pivotal in ensuring that the looks were uniform, formal, and neat, while still allowing for movement. For both the men’s looks and the women’s looks we used materials such as lace, mesh, jersey, and satin, that had stretch in it. We used the mesh in strategic places such as the underarms and center back…this allowed our looks to be comfortable, while maintaining elegance." For the quintet for piano and strings performance, the students designed lightweight, breathable dresses cut in traditional silhouettes, and reconstructed vintage suiting with panels of stretch fabric.

Students in Sabine Seymour's  Wearable Technology class worked on creating wearable technologies – they integrated motion and impact sensors into the sleeves of the percussionists' suiting.

"The biggest challenge was trying keep the classic attire intact while incorporating the technology from Sabine’s class," Sundén continues. "We used jersey and reflective spandex to update the vintage looks and to really emphasize the technology that was being used."  The percussionists wore reconstructed vintage garments with hyper reflective shirts and gloves during their performance.

The students also created a white, caped dress that acted as a screen for real-time reactive light projections, worn by pianist Shulin Guo who played William Bolcom's The Serpent's Kiss. The dress was one of three projection surfaces that also included the wall behind her, and the piano itself, wrapped in muslin. All three acted as a canvas for the sound-activated digital projections.

"It was a challenging experience as we learned to work with so many different people," Sundén tells SSENSE, looking back on the project. "We are especially happy that the BSO is planning on continuing the collaboration with Parsons. We got great support from the different departments at Parsons and the members of the BSO."