Alix Cohen is a newspaper, magazine, and web journalist, a cabaret and theater critic, winner of six New York Press Club Awards and a commentator on women’s fashion. Here, she takes on the question of a performer’s “looking right.”
Judging a Book by Its Cover
The Performer’s Appearance
By Alix Cohen for Cabaret Scenes
Onstage, a performer creates a visual impression influencing reception. No matter how open or unprejudiced, the audience is unconsciously affected by social mores, by attire appropriate to location and the nature of a show, by what works under lights, and, of course, by what flatters. All of this can be accomplished to your advantage without designer duds.
I don’t care how cool the show is meant to be, dirty or un-ironed clothes are a bad idea. The I-have-more-important-things-to-think-about ethos doesn’t work onstage unless you’re Mick Jagger, who selects what’s unkempt from a high fashion closet and, because of iconic status, writes his own rules. Jeans are okay in a casual environment, if you pair them with a fresh shirt, possibly a sports jacket, and good boots or well-kept shoes. Eric Yves Garcia pulls this off.
Consider where you’re performing. Denim is out of place in a hotel room or private function outside a barbecue. Country/western or blues can be signified without a costume. If you’re going for a thin-whiskered Miami Vice look, the rest of your attire must be exceptionally well put together. Empty belt loops appear forgetful.
Women sometimes perform in apparel better relegated to clubs or to partying with friends. This occurs at both ends of the spectrum—with the young and inexperienced, and those who think they look more youthful when on-trend. Runways may showcase mid-thigh skirts, but they translate as trampy onstage. Regardless of what’s actually seen, we’re psychologically looking up your skirt. The impression left by “Look at ME!” stage wear is that the performer is so insecure, she doesn’t believe talent alone will make her memorable. Try sitting gracefully on a stool, let alone getting the audience to believe a serious ballad, in said apparel.
Bodycon dresses—skintight clothing—should also be eschewed. If you have a terrific figure, a garment should skim not clutch, with length balancing fit. I don’t care what you paid for it or how sexy you feel, chances are you look cheap. A skim is both more flattering and more seductive. Lingerie straps shouldn’t show unless you’re doing something like R & B and exposure appears intentional as reflected by what else you wear.
Much of today’s fashion is made of polyester, rayon and other thin fabrication; much is unlined. If your body is less than flawless, think about lingerie that works for you. Under lights, especially when moving, you’ll benefit from underpinnings, including a slip. No one’s suggesting you conform to prototype, but rather that you present the most attractive version of yourself possible.
Prim is not synonymous with ladylike. Low-cut works if controlled and the evening leans towards torch, red hot mama, or glamour. Allover sequins can look as tacky as they can smashing, depending on their quality. Get an unbiased opinion. Marissa Mulder and Karen Oberlin recently manifested sheer elegance performing the American Songbook in long, sequined gowns. A light-catching separate will spice up almost any solid color and is apt for shows at many levels. If you’re interpreting Joni Mitchell anywhere other than a formal environment, however, sequins are likely to seem wrong. Remember to factor in the material.
As a rule, uncomplicated is better. Christine Andreas and Carole J. Bufford epitomize spotlight chic. When you’ve found an appealing cut/construction, the addition of a piece of jewelry or two finishes a look. Have someone stand back and observe you under lights. Accessories which are too delicate disappear; those that are too fussy detract. Factor scale in with your body size and distance to the audience. Is the performance space a pub or a concert hall? You can always be confident dressing better than your audience; dressing at least as well is a necessity.
We don’t see enough jackets or ties on today’s cabaret stages. Several recent acts at Birdland featured entire bands as smartly dressed as they would be at Lincoln Center. Audience chatter expressed appreciation. Be aware of what your musicians look like. They represent you. Well-turned-out performers embody professionalism and make the show feel like an occasion. Do you think you’d ever see Jim Caruso on the job looking anything less than dapper?
The formality of an orchestra or big band often calls for a dark suit or dinner jacket, tea-length or long gown. These can be borrowed, rented or secured for less at vintage shops when not owned. Keep away from blaring color, most prints, and too many frills. Anything costume-like will conjure Las Vegas floorshows or theme parks. Dark shoes with dark apparel, light with light, likewise hose.
Stylish men personalize with an iconoclastic shirt (Ronny Whyte’s muted patterns), handsome tie (Eric Comstock’s careful selection), jaunty pocket handkerchief (a signature of Jeff Harnar), boutonniere (Steve Ross, who also wears a smoking jacket like no one else), or statement socks (Billy Stritch’s red ones are dashing). All are cognizant of where they are and what they’re presenting.
What about make-up? Like jewelry, too little will wash you out—this is not an on-the-street face—too much makes you seem garish and older. Take care of your nails. I once watched a seasoned performer cross her legs only to get front and center view of peeling polish on expensively shod toes.
I can’t sufficiently stress the importance of how you appear, who you seem to be. And yes, there are exceptions.