Auditions: What Not to Wear

Question: Help. What are we supposed to wear for auditions?

Angela: This is a complicated topic. Advice about what to wear and what not to wear can get super-confusing because the guidelines frequently contradict each other, and it can be hard not to take a lot of the commentary personally. So here’s my two cents, and I hope it sheds some light on the subject.

WHO CARES WHAT I WEAR?

It’s a visual business, so people do care, even if they’re not conscious of it. What you wear to an audition matters. From the second you walk into the room, you’re broadcasting messages about yourself to the panel, and it’s important to be in control of what those are.

It also matters because panels really don’t want to be distracted from your singing. But “distraction” has nothing whatsoever to do with attractive vs. unattractive, with one body type vs. another, or anything personal at all. And frankly, “distraction” really isn’t about distraction. We’ll get into that further on.

WHAT TO BROADCAST

First of all, here’s the ideal message to broadcast in an audition:  that you absolutely, 100% get where you are and what you’re trying to achieve while you’re there. You get the ins and outs of the musical world; you’re a trained professional; you’re easy to work with and will present well on stage; you’re socially savvy and personally aware. You look nice, neat, professional, put together, and elegant.

The best way to achieve this is to check your personal style at the door and wear the uniform, like how fresh-out-of-business-school grads go out interviewing in business suits. They might change into tie-dyed muumuus or rainbow disco pants as soon as they get home, but when they’re walking into the investment bank, they absolutely look the part. An auditioning singer should consider copying this mindset.

Now, if a panel knows you well or if you’re walking in with a gold-plated resume, you can relax your diligence about NNPPT&E, because it’s established by your creds that you absolutely, 100% get where you are and what you’re doing. You can get away with being quirky or edgy or glam or whatever your personal style is. I mean, Richard Branson can wear whatever he damn well likes to a business meeting. But if you’re at the point where you’re trying to get your foot in the door, NNPPT&E matters, because everything you do in the self-marketing process has to support the message that your voice and resume are sending about your brand.

THE BASICS:

Auditioning is somewhere between interviewing and performing, so the best thing to wear is somewhere between an interview outfit and a performance outfit.

Men: You can’t go wrong with a well-fitting suit, or sport coat and slacks, and a collared shirt. Bring a tie in your music bag in case everyone else is wearing ties. Here are some tips:

  • Check your look in a mirror. Clothing must be loose enough and pressed. Pants must be long enough, cuffs must be the right length, and shoes must be shined. Panels can notice whether or not you noticed the details (which says a lot about you as a professional), and being well-groomed is a great way to show that you took the audition seriously.
  • If you’re not known to the panel or if your resume isn’t quite to The Gold Standard yet, try to avoid flashy accessories, like big belt buckles, and fashion suits, like those narrow-leg shiny hipster suits that are hot right now. They may look fabulous for a night on the town, but in an audition setting they can veer you into Unprofessionalville really fast.

The Tie Test: You have on the whole audition outfit. You’ve pressed and shined, combed hair and shot cuffs. Now, look in the mirror: could you add a tie, walk into a corporate job interview, and be taken seriously? If not, consider what’s wrong and see above for how to fix it. Men sort of have this easier, because it just comes down to Does Your Suit Fit and Is Everything Pressed. No need to reinvent the wheel here.

Women: You can’t go wrong with a nice dress, nylons, and pumps, or an elegant pantsuit for the mezzos. Color and pattern don’t really matter, although you probably want to avoid any prints that make people’s eyes cross when they look at them too long (remember, most panels are tired). Ultimately, pick what color, fabric and cut look best on you. One caveat: I’m told that they don’t like purple in Italy because of the whole royalty thing, so if you’re auditioning in Italy, check with them on this.

The Blazer Test: You’re ready for an audition. You have on the dress, the shoes, all undergarments, all jewelry, and all makeup and hair is done. Now put on a black blazer. Could you, right now, walk into a corporate job interview and be taken seriously? If not, then something is wrong. There are no hard and fast rules here. Some women pull off big earrings or big hair or bright colors or big necklaces or certain fabrics or certain shoes better than others. But if, on you, something doesn’t present as NNPPT&E, then consider rethinking the outfit. Women definitely have a harder time here, because there are Just. So. Many. apparel options for women with all kind of seasonal and regional rules. Sorry, ladies. It *is* totally complicated, and this is why men never understand why we need thirty pairs of black high heels. AND WE DO. But I digress.

After The Blazer Test is done, I suggest taking the blazer off. Businesswear (i.e., serious Brooks Brothers suits or Victoria’s Secret-type sexy suits) doesn’t really work for auditions. I mean, you can get away with an elegant, fitted dress suit, but an ideal audition outfit is somewhere on the spectrum towards a performance outfit. If you’re trying to determine whether or not a suit will work, then ask yourself “would I wear this to perform in an afternoon concert at the country club?”

DISTRACTION

I’ve seen a lot of commentary about what constitutes “distracting” apparel choices in auditions, some of them veering into pretty personal territory that borders on hurtful. This can get really confusing and frustrating. And the idea of “distraction” can make singers think that audition panels have the attention spans of magpies. But since I’ve audited probably hundreds of singers who’ve blurred into a veritable flipbook of visual experiences, I think I understand what some of these comments are trying to convey, and it’s important not to take them personally. The message has nothing to do with attractiveness, which is a subjective thing and really has nothing to do with the conversation, and it also isn’t really about “distraction”. No, I think the conversation is about discomfort.

You know that Southern Comfort commercial with the guy at the beach walking around in a speedo? It’s instantly funny. Really, have you noticed that any image of a guy at the beach in a speedo is an instant gigglefest? Well, I think this is because Speedo at the Beach Guy is making everyone intimately aware of his body in a way that wasn’t invited. It makes people uncomfortable. Now, since Speedo at the Beach Guy is at the beach and doing his own thing on his own time, then I say more power to him. But in a professional audition, if a singer’s clothing makes the panel uncomfortable (like Speedo at the Beach Guy), it can be dangerous, because making the panel uncomfortable won’t help that singer get hired.

This is how panels can get distracted from your singing. Yes, ideally, panels should be able to tell the difference between a voice and a diamond clip (I quote the great John Hall of UCLA- see John, I told you that I still quote you to this day), but in an audition, especially when they’re meeting you for the first time, they’re also looking for all the information they can gather about who you are as a person. If you wear something that makes the panel uncomfortable, then it’s not so much that you’ve “distracted” them so much as you’ve presented information that they will now have to process while also listening to you (as they’re simultaneously scanning your resume, etc.). In the precious few minutes you have in front of them, you’ve planted half of their attention squarely on dealing with their own personal discomfort and/or on figuring out if you’re aware of how you’re dressed and if it’s a sign of a professionalism problem. See what “distraction” really means?

When you’re walking into an audition, you’re sort of walking into another country…meaning that you adopt the customs of the country you’re visiting out of respect. It’s kind of like going to someone else’s house of worship or a formal gathering at your bosses’ house. You don’t wear what makes you comfortable. You wear what makes them comfortable. What you choose to wear at an audition should create no discomfort whatsoever so that 100% of the attention goes to your voice and your performance.

Common Distractors

Skin. It’s a fundamental rule of costuming that if you show skin on stage, people will stare at it. Next time you go to a mainstream show, notice how very infrequently costumers show skin (even a bare look is usually created with illusion netting). Good costumers (or stage directors) use it deliberately when they want to call attention to something, because it’s an uncomfortable distraction for the eye, kind of like rubbernecking on the highway.  So, if you show skin at an audition, people will stare at it. Where do you want them staring? Be mindful of when and where you show bare skin, unless you are deliberately marketing your body as part of your brand (and if that gets you hired, more power to you). If it’s 105 degrees out and EVERYONE is in sleeveless summer dresses and bare legs, then no worries. But be season and location appropriate, and make skin-showing choices consciously.

Jiggling. My favorite quote from Some Like it Hot is “it’s like jello on springs”. BEST LINE EVER, and Marilyn Monroe was a goddess. But for auditions in smaller rooms, this can be a genuine, discomfort-making and common distraction that’s best to avoid. It’s also easy to miss even when you’re putting incredible thought and care into choosing your audition wear. So here’s how to catch it: stand in front of a full-length mirror in your chosen outfit and sing your pieces all the way through. Move around like you actually do in an audition, using all your gestures. Turn around and check the back (this is important, because often you have to walk in past the panel). Do you see anything jiggling? If yes, then consider rethinking your outfit. Try wearing more undergarments or going up a size, or choosing something that offers you more coverage, etc. The Jiggle Check is kind of a must for anyone who sings The Queen of the Night. Seriously, think about it. And this is totally awkward, right? No one will ever spell this out. I feel awkward just typing it. Instead they’ll say things like “don’t do sleeveless” or “nylons would be better” or whatever. But this is why. 

Tight and Short.  Clothing that makes a panel intimately aware of a singer’s body can make the panel uncomfortable (Speedo at the Beach Guy, right?). Check the fit of your audition clothes frequently. If your hot, awesome self changes weight a lot, then consider planning ahead by investing in a couple of different sizes to keep in the back of your closet. Ladies, anything shorter than knee length, even if you’re wearing tights, can veer into unprofessional (see The Blazer Test). Gentlemen, your shirts, pants, and blazers are best reasonably loose.

Sloppiness. Honestly, this happens more to the guys. Sorry, guys. Wrinkles, mismatched suits, scuffed shoes, pieces askew….all easy to fix. SeeThe Tie Test.

Wrong Occasion. Seasonally or time-of-day or venue-inappropriate clothing hits the women more because there are so many fashion options for women. I mean, guys never show up to auditions in tuxes or shorts or morning coats, because the rules for men are more rigidly defined (although, guys: if you are showing up for auditions in tuxes or shorts or morning coats, then consider this paragraph and The Tie Test). So, sorry, girls: summer dresses in the winter, shiny evening cocktail dresses in the morning, 6-inch platform pumps that are more nightclub-appropriate, etc…this one is kind of a pain, but consider being mindful of it, because panels can start wondering if you understand where you are. The Blazer Test can totally help to spot these.

RULES, SCHMULES

The audition outfit guidelines are all contradictory and confusing. Wear black, don’t wear black, wear prints, don’t wear prints, wear ties, don’t wear ties…but honestly, there are no hard and fast rules to audition outfits, because how could there be? The best audition outfit I’ve seen recently was a flower-print sheath, but it worked because it worked on the singer who was wearing it, and it certainly doesn’t mean that flower-print sheaths are the definitive way to go. Everyone is different, singers come in all kinds of beautiful shapes and sizes and ages, and auditions happen all over the country at all different times of year in front of all different people casting for all different kinds of gigs.  But understanding what you want to achieve at each one, what’s best to avoid, and when you can relax about it all can help personalize NNPPT&E to you and for the panel who gets to see all your fabulousness at its best.

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