You have the performance scheduled and the repertoire chosen. Now it’s time to choose an outfit. The most popular outfit choice for female harpists is a dress. Here are things to consider when choosing a dress.
- Length – In general, with the harp, longer is better. I like to wear dresses that can be used in a variety of settings, on stages (where I don’t want the front row to be looking up my dress), outside (where the wind may blow), in churches (where there may be expectations regarding coverage of skin). However, make sure it is not TOO long either. Nothing like tripping over your own dress as you walk out on stage, or worse, tripping while trying to move your harp! Don’t risk it. If it’s too long, get it hemmed. Paying someone $50 is better than risking thousands of dollars in damage to your harp or even a broken bone from tripping.
- Width – I’m not talking about the fit around your middle. The skirt portion of your outfit needs to be wide enough to accommodate spreading your legs around the harp. Even if you are playing a lever harp and don’t need to worry about access to pedals, you will still have to spread your legs around the harp. In the dressing room at the store, sit down and spread your legs like you are playing the harp and see how it feels. Is there enough slack for it to look relaxed, or will it be awkwardly stretched? Err on the side of wider. No harp pencil skirts!
- Shoulder movement – You must be able to have free movement of your arms while playing. I have wider-than-average shoulders, so this is an area where I always have to be cautious. In the dressing room, sit like you are at the harp and reach out your arms like you are playing your lowest notes. Does the dress let you move, or do you feel like someone is gripping your shoulders? Don’t spend money on a dress that you will ultimately avoid. If a slight alteration can fix this, go for it, but don’t assume that every dress can be sufficiently altered.
- Sleeves – Most of my harp dresses are sleeveless or very short sleeves, but sometimes a nice sleeve can add some warmth or elegance. For orchestral work, long sleeve black outfits are usually required. If you are considering a dress with sleeves, make sure your arms can move freely. For long, flowing sleeves, be sure the material will not get caught in the strings (yes, I saw this happen to someone once who was wearing “elf sleeves”). Beauty is great, but keep function as your priority.
- Neck cut – We all want to look drop-dead gorgeous when we are playing the harp. But as you consider different necklines and cuts, consider how the opening will shift as you move while playing the harp. When performing in more conservative circles, especially churches, some people may be offended if they feel your clothes are too revealing. This does not mean you must dress like the Amish, but you should consider your audience and venue when making your attire selection. I have a variety of “harp dresses” in my closet, some of which I would wear in church and some of which I would not.
- Material – The material a dress is made from has a large effect on the dress’s level of formality. I do have some cotton dresses that I occasionally gig in, but only for situations that are casual. More silky materials are better for upscale events. I strive to appear more dressed up than the event guests, never less. Part of what the client is paying for is the visual experience of the harp, and you as the harpist are part of that visual picture. Watch out for material that can scratch the harp (like tulle, sequence, broaches, and even glitter). If your dress has a broach or other hard item attached to the top, make sure it is on the left side of the bodice so the harp is not resting on it. And one more note about glitter – it makes such a mess! The dress may be charming, but is it worth all the cleanup, getting glitter off everything from your car seat to your floor? I have 2 dresses with glitter, and I rarely wear them. Too much work!
- Color – It’s important to have a variety of color options in your gig closet. If you are only playing in orchestras with the occasional solo concert, you will be fine with just black and a couple of glamor dresses. Even for background events, most clients are not picky about the color of your outfit. But weddings are a large part of the income for many gigging harpists. It is important when playing for a wedding that you find out what the wedding colors are. You then have 3 options.
- 1) Try to match their colors. Be careful! If you are close but not quite on, you may clash!
- 2) Wear a complimenting color (this is my most common pick).
- 3) Ask the bride if she would like you to wear black. Black does look classy and goes with everything, but many people prefer you do not wear black at a wedding, as it is seen as a color of mourning.
I have attire as a line item in my contract so there are no misunderstandings later about what color(s) are ok for me to wear. I do not promise to wear one specific dress (what if something happens to that dress right before the wedding, like losing a button or getting ripped?), but I get a list of color choices that are acceptable to the bride. Or even better, I get the list of her colors so I can use it later to choose a complimenting color. Remember, you are most likely going to be sitting up front, close to the bridal party. You will be in many pictures. Be a visual asset, not a visual eye sore.
- Cleaning – Many formal dresses are dry clean only. While some can be cleaned at home using a home dry cleaning kit, others (like my glitter dresses) need to be handled by professionals. When purchasing a dress, consider the cost and work that will be involved in the upkeep of that dress. If you have to get it professionally dry-cleaned each time you wear it, is it worth it? Let’s say you net $300 on a gig, but you have to spend $30 getting the dress cleaned afterward. That is 10% of your profit gone. Again, I don’t wear those 2 glittery dresses very often…
- Comfort – Perhaps this should have been at the top of the list. If you are not comfortable in your performance outfit, will you be able to fully concentrate on your music? Yes, you want to look beautiful, but not at the expense of your comfort. Make sure whatever you wear is something you can sit in for hours. I once bought a dress with a sequence bodice. It looks fabulous, but the sequence goes all the way up the sides and tucks over the armholes slightly. I had tried it on before buying it but never spent much time wearing it. The first (and only) gig I wore it to, I was miserable! The sequence was scratching my underarms and irritating my skin. I was almost in tears by the time I got in my car to drive home. Not worth it!
- Context – Be sure to consider the context of where and for whom you will be playing. A ball gown would be a poor choice for a gig on the beach. A casual summer dress would be awkward in a concert hall. Will you be too warm or too cold? Will you be able to get the harp in and out of the location in that dress? (You can always change there if the pack in/out is difficult). Is there an expected dress code? A church may expect a dress that goes below the knees and does not have a low neckline. Some religious groups may want you to wear a head covering. A funeral for an Asian family will want you to wear white as that is their color for mourning.
- Cost – Yes, I put this at the bottom of the list. Cost is, of course, a consideration when choosing performance outfits. But when you think about your gig closet as part of your toolkit for making money with the harp (like your other harp accessories), it can be a little less painful to drop that cash. Remember also that a performance outfit is a business asset. The cost of the purchase should be accounted for on your taxes at the end of the year under “Cost of Goods Sold” as it was a required expense in order to sell your service. The key is to purchase outfits that can work for a variety of settings, so that cost can be essentially spread over many gigs. A $300 dress that is worn 30 times ($10 per use) is a better investment than a $50 dress that is worn twice ($25 per use).
Here are just a few of my harp gig dresses in a variety of settings.
Want more thoughts and inspirations to amp up your gig closet? Check out this blog post by Kristina Finch from Harp Column.
I would love to see your go-to performance outfits. Feel free to leave comments below or post in the Harpreneur group on harpli.com for others to gain inspiration.