How to Rock the Formal Wear: Sean Osborn

Making sense of stud holes and cuff links with one of the city's busiest clarinetists.

Do the math: 11 seasons playing in the pit of the Metropolitan Opera orchestra, seven performances a week, September to May—plus freelance work with the Seattle Symphonyand other ensembles. Having worn a monkey suit oftener than any man should have to, Seattle clarinetist Sean Osborn has developed sartorial strategies to cope handily with the hectic life of a gigging musician who basically just keeps his tux in the truck ready to go.Truth is, Osborn would like to see a greater level of informality in the classical world. His annual "Clarinetissimo" festival of masterclasses and recitals, happening next month, is tux-free. Still, even he admits, "No man looks bad in tails." I asked him to share the secrets he's gleaned from a life in formal wear.As the clarinet teacher at the University of Washington School of Music, Osborn shifts naturally into pedagogical mode. Our discussion went from top to bottom, and didn't neglect the very basics. "Clip-on ties may work with Oxford shirts, but not with tuxedo shirts with wing-tip collars," Osborn begins. "The wing tips have to go over the bow, leaving nothing to clip the tie to. My preference is for a mandarin collar and a button cover, a dot where your Adam's apple is, which looks better."Along with a compatible shirt and tie, you need to choose the right coat. Unless you're a classical musician, you may never encounter a situation in which you mistakenly show up in tails but are supposed to be wearing only a black suit. But if so, Osborn admits, "you can staple your tails up inside the coat. I have done it."Another issue unique to tuxedo shirts: "They have stud holes and buttons so you can wear it either way.Make sure the stud holes are next to the buttons, and not above or below them, which will create a buckling in your shirt between the top stud and the collar button (always a button) when wearing studs." Speaking of studs, you have some wiggle room on the accessories: "Don't worry if you have mismatched cuff links, because unless you hold your arms in an unnatural way, most people won't ever see both your cuffs at once."A cummerbund looks swanky, but can make it hard to keep your shirt front neat and crisp and your pleats straight, since it's more awkward to tuck in your shirt with it in the way. Here's a trick Osborn learned from the associate conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra: "Reach into your pants pockets, grab your shirttails from inside the pockets, and pull down."Shoes looking a little worn? Nothing fazes a man who once subbed in the pit for a Pacific Northwest Ballet performance on 30 minutes' notice (and sight-read that evening's music). "It's really easy to cover up spots and scuffs with a black Sharpie, which I have done on many occasions." And here's a trade secret: If you forget your shoes altogether, he says, "Unless you sit in the front of the orchestra, you can get away with wearing only black socks."Last but not least: "Always do a zipper check before you go onstage," he says, adding: "You can wear black underwear as a fail-safe."

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