New School News

Parsons and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra Reinvent Orchestral Garments

The typical garment worn by players in a major symphony orchestra doesn’t usually include stretch mesh and jersey. But given the physicality of live performance, why shouldn’t players be able to wear something that’s both formal and functional?

That’s the thinking behind the design of new uniforms for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (BSO). The result of a collaboration between the BSO and The New School’s Parsons School of Design and Mannes School of Music, the custom garments were created using 3D body scanning and fabrics donated by Under Armour. A total of 400 pieces were created for the 100-person orchestra.

“We had a real blast intermingling the students and disciplines,” says Gabi Asfour, the faculty member who led the project. “It seemed that everyone — starting with me – learned something new with every step. I felt a true collaboration in the classroom, where the students needed to have an open mind, as there were multiple ideas and opinions bouncing back and forth.”

The project was initiated by Marin Alsop, music director of the BSO, who in 2012 turned to The New School for help in reimagining concert dress, with the aim of producing garments that would uphold traditional aesthetics while being functional and fashionable. The designs feature hi-tech fabrics to enhance breathability, prevent overheating, and provide adequate sweat absorption as musicians perform. Materials such as stretch mesh and jersey were used to allow free movement of the elbows, underarms, and torso.

Asfour worked with student teams from programs throughout Parsons and Mannes on the project, highlighting The New School’s interdisciplinary and collaborative approach to education. BSO musicians offered input on the new designs, ensuring that they met the contemporary classical musician’s need for comfort and flexibility as well as the traditional fashion constraints of a symphony stage. After four years of researching and prototyping of new wearable technologies, a new genre of orchestral uniforms was presented at the BSO’s Centennial celebration in 2016: Active Formalwear, featuring the completed prototypes worn by selected musicians.

In order to create new uniforms for all the musicians in the orchestra, Asfour and the students turned to 3D body scanning to ensure that the musicians’ garments were tailor-made for their bodies. Direct Dimensions, a Baltimore hi-tech startup, rigged 200 cameras backstage at the BSO’s Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, scanning each member of the orchestra over a period of two weeks. Then Body Labs, a New York City–based provider of human-aware AI, used the data to create 3D avatars of the members, providing the design team with extremely accurate body measurements. Finally Alabama-based OnPoint Manufacturing constructed the garments.

“The project took on extensive research, constant interviews, surveys with both BSO and Mannes musicians, constant testing of different materials, observation of the garments in action, and the development of each individual garment in accordance with all the collected data,” says Asfour. “This was a perfect subject for a classroom of different students with different talents; they took on separate tasks and roles but worked as a team. The fresh minds of Parsons and Mannes students presented unexpected questions and answers each step of the way.”

Asfour and Alsop hope the project can serve as a model for other orchestras, as well as other industries that use uniforms and formalwear. The uniforms made their debut with the entire orchestra at a concert in June 2018.

“I am so thrilled with the new garments that Gabi and his team have created, which rework traditional aesthetics in a new, forward-thinking way,” says Alsop. “Our partnership with Parsons has been incredibly unique and educational.”

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