I have always had a soft spot in my heart for a pretty dress. The line in my bio that says “gown addict” should be taken seriously… I really do have a problem. That being said, it was only a little over a year ago that I decided to move away from my standard concert black, or black pants/cardigan sweater uniform for gigs. Don’t get me wrong… there is absolutely nothing wrong with choosing to wear this type of clothing for a wedding, party, or event of any kind; I know many musicians who are very successful who choose this path. The choice to move away from black into the world of gowns was one that felt necessary to me after living in Miami for about a year.
Miami is a very image driven place. With celebrities and models around every corner, it’s either go with the times or be left in the dust. At least that’s the way that I felt about it at the time. After a long talk about my image with my long time boyfriend, duo partner, and general confidant Dannel, the decision was made that I would begin wearing make-up (something I hadn’t ever done before) and gowns for all of my professional performance engagements. It was a social experiment of sort to be honest; I was curious what, if any, a difference this change would make…
One small thing can change everything…
And this is certainly true of my experience since I began putting more effort into my appearance for gigs. I have found that clients are more prone to respond with positive feedback (reviews), as well as being more likely to recommend me to a friend if I show up in full glam-mode. Playing the harp for a living is such a privilege… but ours is a world that most people know little to nothing about. The couple that is hiring you for her wedding has likely never seen a harp up close… all they have is an image and a preconceived expectation of how you, as a harpist, will present yourself. Playing into the image of the glamorous, mysterious harpist has become my new favorite gig-time game and it has paid off in repeat hires, recommendations, and more opportunities. On my days off you will likely find me with no make-up on, wearing gym pants and a tank-top… but when its time to turn it on I have learned that a little effort goes a long way.
Building your work wardrobe:
One of my main concerns in making this change was the cost associated with purchasing gowns. In the past year I have searched, googled, shopped, bargained, and thrifted for spectacular gowns and have found a few sure fire resources for finding good dresses at decent prices. Here are a few fast and easy examples of specific stores and store-types that are always good for finding discounted quality dresses, and others that I have learned to avoid:
- Online designer discounters – Such as Gilt, or Hautelook. These site requires you to sign-up for a free account in order to browse their sales, but they are constantly updating their merchandise (new sales every day) and often have a great variety of gowns at any time.
- Department Stores – If you have the patience to dig through the sales racks I highly suggest checking out your local Macy’s, Dillards, or Lord & Taylor! Nordstrom also has some stunning dresses, but they are rarely available on sale in-store. Don’t feel like digging through the racks? Check out the websites for these stores to see whats on sale!
- Saks Off 5th – In my opinion, this is the best of the discounted stores for designer gowns (Nordstrom Rack rarely has gowns in stock) and they are usually pretty abundant! You can also shop on their website.
- Chain bridal stores – David’s Bridal, BHLDN, Alfred Angelo, and others are great for wedding-wear and some prom-style dresses that might be appropriate for parties/cocktail hours. Bridesmaid dresses make for great wear-all gowns!
- Online only retailers – One thing that makes online only retailers awesome is that they avoid the traditional retail costs of advertising, physical retail space, and unsold inventory. Every dollar spent on these sites goes directly into the design, materials, and craftsmanship of the dress ordered. Azazie is without question my favorite of these types of stores. Although they target their advertising mostly towards brides and bridal parties (you can get a stunning wedding gown here tailored exactly to your size for less than $500!) there are a ton of options that are perfect for harp playing! But wait, there’s more! They offer free custom sizing, swatch samples for only $2 a piece (so that you know you are getting the perfect color), and the option to have up to 3 samples dresses sent for you to try on before buying for only $10 (to cover shipping both ways)! I literally just ordered a dress from this site a few months ago in anticipation of a colleagues wedding!
Stores to avoid:
- Chinese custom internet shops – Dresses bought through Ebay, or on sites like Light in the Box have always left me disappointed and frustrated (I go further into this below). These sites have pages and pages of options at extremely reasonable prices (a handmade custom gown for only $80?!!? Sounds too good to be true… and probably is!) and perhaps you might have better luck than I have… but as they say, you get what you pay for, and that has certainly been my experience with these types of companies. Now, you might say to me… isn’t this the exact same thing as that Azazie site you were just telling me about? The answer is simple. No. One main difference can be found in the focus in a company like Azazie. Light in the Box, Ebay, and other sites such as these sell everything from gowns to frying pans, keeping their financial growth at a maximum, often at the disadvantage of their clients.
- Amazon.com – Don’t be fooled by cheap dresses on Amazon. These dresses are, in my experience, made of a netting material that catches very easily and doesn’t hold up to normal gigging wear-and-tear. Amazon does carry more pricey designer gowns which have potential to be great dresses if you are willing to take the chance!
Tricks for buying the perfect harp dress:
Consider this dress as a part of your work wardrobe. You will need to be comfortable, while still looking good… so keep that in mind when purchasing a dress. You aren’t doing yourself any favors by buying the satin mermaid gown that is tight through the thighs just because it’s pretty! When you try on your dress make sure that you can:
- Walk comfortably (is the dress too long? are you able to use a normal stride?)
- Sit with your legs in harp holding position
- Lift your arms to harp playing position (watch this especially in dresses with cap sleeves… ouch!)
- Bend all the way over to the floor (or as close to it as you can comfortably get)
- Dance, shimmy, and sway!
Basically move in any way that you can in order to ensure that your dress would never prohibit you from saving your harp if the situation arose!
Below you will find a description of each gown that I own (corresponding to the number on the main photo of this blog), along with where it was bought, the approximate price I paid, each dresses specific use, and some tips I have learned along the way to help avoid wasting money!
1. Designer: BCBG Store: BCBG Factory Store Price: $150 Use: I love the back of this dress! There is a lot of lace on this dress, and it is probably my most “revealing” dress that I own. For this reason I have to be very careful about when and where it is worn. Wine-tastings, fund-raisers, and cocktail parties are perfect examples of potential outings for this spicy number. Tip: Outlets are GREAT for finding deals. The BCBG store, in my experience, usually has a good variety of dresses for discounted prices.
2. Designer: Nightway Store: David’s Bridal Price: $140 Use: This is the dress that I wore for my Master’s Degree recital in 2010. This gown is great for evening recitals, performances and parties. Tip: David’ Bridal can be a great resource for finding dresses. Bridesmaid dresses make for great gigging gowns!! They also usually carry a number of prom-style dresses such as this one. I only wear this gown for indoor events… the satin doesn’t do well in the Miami heat!!!
3. Designer: Adrianna Papell Store: Ideel – Online discount designer clothing retailer. Price: $119 Use: This dress has worked very well for me for evening weddings and parties, as well as restaurant and hotel work. If a brides color is pink this dark maroon works well. Tip: When shopping on Ideel for dresses it is good to be patient… but not too patient. I wasn’t patient enough, and now the dress is now being sold for $60!! My best advice is if you love it, buy it… there is a chance it might sell out while you are waiting for the price to go down!
4. Designer: Unknown Store: Ebay – One of the Chinese services where you send them your measurements, choose a dress (this dress was modeled after this gown) and they send you a custom, handmade gown. Price: $110 Use: This dress photographs beautifully, and has been worn a fair few times for recitals and evening fund raising events. The length of the train is pretty ridiculous, which makes it very cumbersome to walk in (not to mention move a harp), so I only wear it for occasions that I know I will have an opportunity to change into the dress at the location. Tip: This dress is not without its flaws. The quality of craftsmanship, fabric, and beading is pretty subpar, as can be seen in the picture to the left. This is one of two dresses (the other is #15) that I have bought from these type of services… each has it’s own issues… in my experience it is best to avoid these types of online discount dress makers.
5. Designer: Joanna Chen Store: Macy’s Price: $170 Use: Great for outdoor/beach weddings, cocktail parties, and restaurant/hotel work Tip: Every few months check Macys.com for sales on dresses. You can often get a good deal on a pricey dress if you keep an eye on the sales!
6. Designer: Adrianna Papell Store: Macy’s Price: $300 Use: I debated getting a white dress for a long time. Although I have heard stories of people requesting all of their wedding guests to wear white, I knew in purchasing this gown that I would likely never be able to use it for wedding work. This dress is great for holiday parties, hotel and restaurant work, fundraisers, and church playing (especially since it has more conservative cap sleeves!) Tip: Don’t be afraid of white… it makes a big impact on patrons!
7. Designer: Le Gala Store: Bridal store in Richmond, VA Price: $380 Use: This dress was purchased when I was in high school to be worn for a concerto performance with my Youth Orchestra. Later it became my senior recital dress at Eastman (seen on the right). Now I use this gown for evening parties, fundraisers, recitals, and hotel work. Tip: Cut is extremely important when choosing a gown this dresses “mermaid” style is really inconvenient and uncomfortable to play harp in. This dress was purchased when I was 17, and I had little concern back then for comfort. Remember: when deciding on a dress always try sitting with your legs in harp playing position, standing, bending all the way over, and moving in pretty much any way possible… especially if you plan to move a harp in the dress!!
8. Designer: Aidan Mattox Store: Saks Off 5th Price: $200 Use: This is my #1 go to dress for outdoor events. It’s light and breezy which is great for sunny Florida days. Tip: This dress has silver polkadots which are just pieces of metallic fabric woven into the chiffon. These little silver things get EVERYWHERE. The first time I wore this dress out was for a cocktail hour on a yacht at the Fort Lauderdale Boat show last year, and my little area was covered in little silver threads by the end of the night.
9. Designer: Jenny Yoo Store: BHLDN Price: $260 Use: Weddings weddings weddings! This is a work-horse dress, appropriate for almost any wedding situation! Tip: Bridesmaid dresses make for great wedding-wear! If you are lucky and you have great friends, like I do, they will allow you to choose a dress for their ceremony that you will be able to transition into your work wardrobe (thank you Stephanie!)!
10. Designer: Calvin Klein Store: Macy’s Price: $120 Use: Great, comfortable dress for orchestra work. I generally either toss a sweater over top, or wear a long sleeve bodysuit under it to cover my arms! Look nice, and be comfortable!
11. Designer: Von Vonni Store: Ideel Price: $55 Use: I actually own three of these, blue, black, and the pictured green. These are good for outdoor events, and more casual parties. Tip: The fabric is extremely thin on these dresses. You can twist the scarfs to cover yourself in any number of ways but I always felt more comfortable with a little lace camisole underneath!
12. Designer: Caché Store: Caché – all of these stores are sadly now closed! Price: $280 Use: This dress was purchased and used for my 2011 concerto performance at Eastman and my first doctoral recital. Since then I have been using this dress for evening cocktail hours, and recitals. Tip: When I purchased this dress the skirt actually had a huge slit in the front. I had the two sides of the gown altered so that only a small slit remained on the interior of the skirt! Think outside of the box when trying on gowns. A $50 alteration can add a lot of life to a dress you might not normally consider.
13. Designer: Monique Lhuillier Store: Nordstrom Price: $280 Use: Another work-horse dress that is great for weddings, parties, teas, and pretty much any other daytime event! Tip: I keep a little white shawl in my bag incase I need to cover my shoulders.
14. Designer: Joanna Chen Store: Dillards Price: $180 Use: Fall/Winter Indoor weddings, parties, cocktail hours, etc. Tip: Department store make for great dress-hunting territory. Check the website of these stores often to find the best deals of great dresses!
15. Designer: Unknown Store: Light in the Box – A Chinese company that makes replicas of other designers dresses as well as producing original dress designs Price: $130 Use: I had intended this dress to be used for recital, and fundraiser type work, but unfortunately due to design flaws it has never been used for a gig. Tip: Much like the dress I purchased through Ebay, this dress photographs beautifully (I am wearing this gown in a great deal of my most recent headshots) but has issues that keep me from wearing it. The straps do not connect in the back and the front is extremely structured. When I bring my arms around into a normal harp-playing position, or relax my shoulders at all the dress comes completely off of the front of my body… which is less than desirable in a work situation (in my opinion). The quality of workmanship and fabric is higher on this dress than on the one from Ebay, and I believe that if I were to have alterations made to the back of the dress it might become usable, but for now… it sits in the back of my closet.
16. Designer: Adrianna Papell Store: Nordstrom Price: $250 Use: I love love love this gown! It’s my “big show” dress and I wore it recently for a performance of the “Concerto for Flute and Harp” by Mozart. I have also used it for orchestral work if I know I will be on the outside of the stage, or if I have a particularly important part (think “Scottish Fantasy” by Bruch). Great recital, evening party, fundraiser dress! Tip: Beware the ballgown… There is A LOT of fabric in this skirt, and I had to spend some time practicing in it before I was comfortable that my feet wouldn’t become tangled in the skirt mid-recital.
17. Designer: BCBG Store: BCBG Factory Store Price: $180 Use: Much like the other dress from BCBG (#1) this gown can only be used for specific events. Evening parties, cocktail hours, and restaurant/hotel work are the main events for this gown! Tip: Always pay attention to the material that is on the inside of the gown and will sit against your skin. This dress has a kind of netting on the inside that I learned is extremely uncomfortable to sit on for extended amounts of time!
19. Designer: Jovani Store: Binn’s of Williamsburg Price: $450 Use: This was my senior prom dress! I have used this dress for spring-time teas, Easter services, outdoor wedding receptions, and parties. Tips: Again with the ballgown. This dress has even more fabric in the skirt than the Adrianna Papell, and can be very cumbersome while playing the harp.
Lesson learned: you get what you pay for!
Whether you stick to concert black, or you go full-glam, what’s most important is that you are comfortable and that you are representing yourself to your patrons in the way that you, personally, desire. What do you wear for gigging? Comment below with your experience and any other suggested resources for stepping up your glamour game!!