When the Los Angeles opera season opens Tuesday with a new production of "La Boheme," will the audience dress the part? Designers from here to the Hudson are making predictions and giving suggestions about how people ought to look that night.
Michael Novarese says he's designed 18 custom dresses for his Los Angeles clients to wear. But the number pales in comparison to the 26 gowns he sent his San Francisco clients for the opening of that city's opera season next Friday.
"San Francisco opera-goers dress more opulently, more competitively than women do in Los Angeles," he said, " . . . because San Francisco is a more formal city, and because the opera is a tradition there."
Ronald Mann, a Los Angeles designer known for gala gowns, said he filled no orders for the L.A. opera gala but sent five to women attending San Francisco's opening night.
Maybe Southland fashion designers expected more, but apparently stores did not. Saks Fifth Avenue and I. Magnin, each with branches in both cities, staged major opera fashion shows in San Francisco this summer, as they have for years. But neither store took its opera tour to Los Angeles, nor will either do so soon. Store spokespeople said there isn't yet the same demand for opera dresses here, because the Los Angeles Music Center Opera is only a year old.
Hollywood costume designer Nolan Miller of "Dynasty" fame is particularly unhappy about what he sees some Los Angeles opera-goers wear. "Why is it that at opera premieres in New York or San Francisco people look wonderful, but here they get out the feathers, the furs, the jewels--everything but the hounds?"
This season Miller made Yvette Mimieux's gown for the Music Center event. It's a simple, strapless design with a jacket because simple is part of his gala dress code, he said.
"There's nothing worse than sitting next to a lady whose skirt is so big it lands in my lap," Miller said.
He still remembers the night the woman sitting next to him let her white fox fur shed all over his black tux. His conclusion? "A gala demands a long gown and jewelry, but women ought to remember somebody has to sit beside them."
He has strong opinions about men's formal wear too. He likes to see tuxedos at opera openings in all cities, "even if that means you're sitting next to someone wearing a Mickey Mouse T-shirt," he quipped.
The truth, says opera director Peter Hemmings, is that tuxedos aren't worn as often as they used to be, here or in any other opera center. But more men wear black tie to openings than to other performances. Hemmings refers to his own tuxedo
as his business suit: He wears it to every performance.
Whatever anyone else has planned for the Los Angeles gala evening, members of the Opening Night Gala Committee are going full tilt at the fashion part of the evening. Chairwoman Georgianna Erskine is one of the 18 who called on Novarese to design their gowns. It is lavender chiffon with lavender beading at the waistline and along the hem.
"There's no excuse for under-dressing," she says. "Everybody I know is talking about what they're going to wear, and they want to look right."
There is an outdoor party after this season's opening, and Nancy Vreeland, another committee member, said she's dressing with that in mind. She'll wear a warm cashmere skirt and stole if the weather is cool.
To her, structured formal wear doesn't look right in this city. For New York, she said, she might like a sable-trimmed formal and long gloves. "Here, that would look ridiculous. Our black-tie events begin in daylight. We go to hotel suites or people's houses, not to overstated, citified rooms like the New York Public Library or the Metropolitan Museum."
It's easier for men to know what to wear, she said. Their tuxedos are meant for any city. She doesn't know which tux her husband, architect Tim Vreeland, will wear Tuesday. If he asks her, she said, she'll recommend her favorite. It is midnight blue.
Vreeland is a fashion watcher from way back, and she says the formal clothes women seem to prefer for Los Angeles right now are softer silhouetted outfits by Oscar de la Renta, Bill Blass and Chanel. And, she says, "Geoffrey Beene is a giant."
When consulted on the matter of opera outfits for Los Angeles, New York-based Beene suggested dresses made of lightweight fabrics, such as lace or jersey, worn at a length close to the knee or the ankle.
"A dress should not be floor length for a formal event that starts in daylight," he said. "The shorter, ankle length is more logical, practical and young. It's not so uptight.
"Los Angeles is a relaxed place," said Beene, who visits the city several times a year. "There should be nothing stiff--in silhouettes or in attitudes. The look might not work in every city, but it's right for Los Angeles. And this is California's time, so grab it."
Beyond short and soft dresses, Beene recommends that Los Angeles formal wear be black, especially if a woman wants to wear the same dress in other cities. "Black is the international color," he says.