To some, music is a religious experience. While many houses of worship these days encourage a “come as you are” dress code, I don’t recommend doing so either for church or a concert. While I doubt neither a god nor a rock god would question your devotion based upon your attire, what you choose to wear is a sign of respect. This is not just respect for the artist, but for the venue, the staff, and the audience around you.
Saturday night, I went to the newly renovated historic Howard Theater in Washington DC to see Chuck Berry perform. The theater is gorgeous and elegant, a fine dining establishment as well as concert venue. Waiters in crisp black shirts and trousers served us delicious fare and signature cocktails at our table where we were just a dozen feet or so from the stage where a living legend would perform. For such an event, I felt it appropriate to dress as I would for an evening at a nice restaurant. My sister and I wore dresses that would have been appropriate at work or a party, my mother wore cobalt blue cropped trousers with a black drapey cardigan and bold silver jewelry.
I knew considering the venue and the entertainment for the evening, fashion would run the gamut from jeans to sequins. Figuring the artist would appeal mainly to those from his generation, I assumed that the crowd would be dressed nicely (trousers, refined jeans with a fun or fancy jacket, more casual of dresses) and with respect. Unfortunately, I was very wrong. A large percentage of the crowd was in worn jeans, faded band tee shirts and dirty sneakers. While a concert is a place to show your music devotion, to do so at the Howard Theater in a torn black Johnny Cash tee shirt washed so often it has turned a weird shade of gray-green is not how to do it.
The thing is, such attire can be appropriate to certain concerts and live music venues. Below I try to break down the different types of concert venues and when it makes sense to wear your beloved well-worn Johnny Cash tee, and when it should be left at the bottom of your dresser drawer.
The Coffee Shop
One of my favorite places for live music is a small café or coffee shop. While patrons sip their cappuccinos and discuss politics, a lesser-known (for now) artist or small band perform an acoustic set. It’s a great way to try out different genres of music, support local artists, and often experience a musician before they get their big break. At such a place, casual attire is expected and encouraged. Wear your favorite band on your shirt (or the artist on the stage), rock your well-worn denim, and choose attire that makes you feel like yourself. At such a place, most anything goes so you can go with jeans or you can wear a dress and heels. However, do remember you are more likely to be able to meet and chat with the musician – don’t wear your tattered tee and sweatpants; choose clothing in good condition to show your respect for the artist (and to be ready in case of a photo op!).
The Dive Bar
Another fabulous place to see an artist perform – the crowd is enthusiastic, the beer is cheap, and folks are more interested in the band than what you are wearing. You will most likely be standing most of the night, so choose your footwear accordingly. A bar is a bit more social than a coffee shop, so your attire can be more festive – trade the cozy sweater for a fitted tee, and wear your most flattering jeans but feel free to be more relaxed in your attire. Dress for a night out of fun and feel free to don the sequined tank, the smoky eye, or the wristful of bangles.
The Concert in the Park
Maybe it’s an amphitheater in town, possibly it’s a day festival in the park, or it could be the Louisiana Swamp Romp at Wolf Trap – such an event is relatively small in scale and relaxed in nature. Folks bring their kids, their picnic blankets, lie back in the grass and enjoy the wonderful combination of music and nature. You’ll often be sitting on the ground, so this is not the place for the Herve Leger bandage dress or stiletto heels. However, there’s no need to don sweats. Celebrate the wonderful weather and wonderful venue with cropped pants, shorts, or a fuller skirt or dress that will make it easy to sit and kneel without exposure. I don’t recommend jeans as they are usually too rigid for comfortable ground-sitting, but also don’t recommend delicate fabrics or pieces that wrinkle easily. Twill, crisp cotton, sturdy knits, and gauzy fabrics are your best bet for an outdoor event of this style. Wear flats or wedges so you can easily walk in soft grass or on gravel, and be sure to bring a waterproof groundcloth in case you end up sitting in a slightly muddy area.
The General Admission Club
As you know from my blog, I love the 9:30 Club in DC. I have been going since I was a teen and they were at their old location, and enjoy the energy of a GA crowd. The attire for such a venue is pretty similar to that of a bar – comfortable shoes for standing, and fun yet semi-casual attire. While jeans and band tee shirts are a common uniform at such a venue, it is also acceptable to wear dresses and the sort of attire appropriate for a night out on the town. Some venues like this are more trendy than others, I recommend checking out their website before attending to see if it's a place for tee shirts, or one for more stylish garb. I often wear dresses and boots to have comfort as well as style appropriate for any location. Keep in mind that there won’t be a place for you to store your purse – carry a crossbody or bag you can comfortably keep at your side yet still lets you dance the night away. I usually pare down my purse contents to just the essentials (lipstick, maybe powder, ID, credit card, ticket, phone with built-in camera) so I can have a small bag or even just store everything in my jean pockets.
The Theater or Historic Venue
Maybe you’re seeing The Jacksons Unity Tour at the Lyric Opera House, Blue Oyster Cult at the Howard Theater, or Ryan Adams at the Strathmore. These are venues that not only showcase musical artists, but also award galas, ballets, and special events. The décor at such a venue is elegant and refined, they occasionally have dining with waiter service or posh lounge areas to enjoy before the event or at intermission.
While you may be able to see the same artist the next night at a seedy GA club, that doesn’t mean you should wear the same attire. You should dress more for the venue than the artist. Such venues have dedicated staff and committees working hard to keep them looking great, and often go to great lengths for fundraising to cover renovations and upgrades. To attend an event in a place with chandeliers wearing a pair of filthy Reeboks is utterly inappropriate. No need to don a ballgown, but a pair of proper shoes, crisp jeans with a fun top, or a dress or pair of elegant trousers is fitting. However, if the event has a theme (it’s at Christmas, New Year’s Eve, the anniversary of the venue, being filmed for a live concert video), it would be appropriate to dress in a more formal manner.
Maybe it’s Merriweather Post Pavilion in Maryland, possibly it’s where your local sports team plays. This is a large venue made to host big concerts from well-known acts, usually with big flashy sets. Such a venue is usually stadium seating with tickets assigned to each seat. For such an event, you can wear the same thing as you would to a GA club – jeans or dresses with shoes that let you stand up and dance for two hours straight. Though you will have a seat to place your coat, I still recommend a crossbody bag or at least putting your valuables on your person. The one thing to consider at such a venue is stairs – you will be climbing up and down stairs to visit the concession stand or bathroom, and will be sitting often at a strong incline (may not be the best for very high heels or very short skirts).
Such a venue is also the place for the True Fan. Here’s where Lady Gaga’s Little Monsters can get decked out in sequins and spangle, Marilyn Manson’s audience can wear crazy contacts and black lipstick, Further fans will be in tie-dye Grateful Dead tees from years ago, and you will see a gaggle of Katy Perry preteen fans in matching tee shirts and glittery UGG boots. Dressing the part of the True Fan is an accepted and fun experience.
Many venues like this also have a field for general admission seating – if you have tickets for this portion of the arena, refer to the dress code for a concert in the park.
The Music Festival
I recently wrote about this sort of venue here. Pretty much, dress first for the weather and conditions, and then dress for your personal style and passion for the music.