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Sunday 22 February 2009

Conductors' clothes

Without clothes, 2005 by Susie Mallett


As a student at the "World Famous Petö Institute", as we always used to call it in those days, I would sit in the Bufé for a few minutes each day just observing in wonder the transformation of the Hungarian conductors and students. They would descend the staircase after a five or six hour shift wearing their regulation whites, most often a baggy white shirt over leggings, though with their hair still looking beautifully groomed. They would then disappear for fifteen minutes, I never did find out where to as we Brits had a separate changing room in the depths of the cellar, but wherever they went it was a place that worked magic.


When these young women emerged, they walked through the Bufé and out of the front door as if having undergone a metamorphosis. They looked like painted butterflies. Bright coloured butterflies emerging from their white cocoons.

With flowing locks, high heels and painted faces, with a look of pure elegance, as if stepping straight down from a fashion-show catwalk.


I loved it when we were given an extra break between our lectures, as this always meant another opportunity to observe this phenomena. I really do believe that I secretly wished that I too could work just a little bit of the same magic on myself, instead of kitting myself up after work in the more practical gear needed for riding home by mountain bike.

It was obvious to me that these Hungarian conductors spent a lot of time thinking about their appearance when not at work, but it was not so obvious that their appearance while they were at work was of equal importance to them. This has interested me ever since.

Anything goes!

When I began my training at the Petö Institute in 1989, as far as working clothes were concerned it was a case of “anything goes as long as it was white”. There were still conductors who wore the old white coats, possibly provided by the institute, but gradually this “uniform” had begun to transform into stretchy leggings and long, shapeless baggy T-shirts. In the early 1990s all rules on clothing slackened, or were ignored, I am not sure which.

Things were changing all over Hungary at that time so it was hardly surprising that it happened within the Petö Institute too.

A hole in the wall, a ray of sunshine, a splash of colour

Towards the end of 1989 the Berlin Wall became just a tourist attraction, no longer something restricting people’s freedom of movement. In Budapest new houses were build, cars from western Europe appeared on the streets, many new import-export shops were opening, people started talking openly on the buses instead of keeping their noses glued to a book. Language schools opened on every corner, the people felt free to do something different. Grey Budapest suddenly brightened up, and so did the World Famous Petö Institute.

Some conductors started to introduce colour into their work attire, but unfortunately they never introduced the chic appearance they had as they came into and left the institute. They stuck to the baggy T-shirts with leggings. Goodness knows why. Maybe it was the cost factor and they miay have preferred to spend whatever money they had on clothes for wearing after work. Maybe it was a matter of practicalities and comfort. Although here I must add that, as well as looking sloppy, baggy clothes are not always the best choice. They get caught up on chairs, door handles and straying children’s hands.

Communicating through clothes

The introduction of colour at the Petö Institute meant that some conductors were recognised by being the “conductor with the pink top” or “the conductor with the black spotted trousers”. I was the student with white clothes and the bright multicoloured socks, usually with pictures of animals on them. My then very young niece and nephew sent me these sockson on a regular basis. They thought that my “poorly children“, as they always called them, would enjoy them. How right they were.

In those early days, when I spoke hardly a word of Hungarian and communication with the children in my group was difficult, those socks often saved the day. When they caught a child’s eye they would help me cross the language barrier. We could sing a song together or make funny noises like the animals depicted.

A return to the 80s

Now at the Petö Institute there is a uniform once again, one provided by the Institute. There are different-coloured polo shirts for conductors and for students, worn with white trousers. There is even a choice of T-shirt, fitted or less so, whatever suits your figure. The conductors at work look very smart, but sadly still not as chic as they still do as they walk out through the Bufé!

Wearing white

I have always worn white, ever since my training. In Germany some conductors say the colour frightens the children because doctors always wear it, but most physiotherapists and occupational therapists wear white too and we can’t all be bad!

Anyway, I do not have the same inner image of white as being the colour associated with doctors. The Doc I saw as a child, when I had earache on most Monday mornings, was always dressed in an old tweed jacket with leather patches on the elbows. This was usually worn over a checked shirt with a brown tie. His stethoscope would be dangling around his neck just to prove who he was. A bit like Dr Findlay I suppose.

I have never had a negative reaction from my clients because of the colour of my clothes, so I continue to wear white, along with my funny bright socks. I wear white because I think that it suits me, because it is smart and it is always clean. If it isn’t clean it shows, so I change immediately.

I choose the type of clothes for their fit. Trousers that are not baggy, but also not tight and not stretchy. I usually buy the ones sold for assistants in dental and doctor's surgeries, which fit well, are hard wearing and good a quality and usually don’t need ironing. I wear shirts with a collar, which are a close fit, so hat I avoid getting caught up in the furniture and the waving arms. If it is cold I have a small white cardigan to put on over the top. As I said in the shoe blog a few weeks ago, I always wear lace-up shoes.

I do have an exception to my rule of wearing whites. I have a dark green bib-and-brace overall to wear for painting, that I can quickly pull on over all my clothes so that I and the children can be as messy as we like.


White is neutral, which is practical for the type of work that I do as it fits in anywhere. I work in many different places so I don’t get asked to wear the uniform of a place where I am for just a few weeks, that is if of course if it even has a uniform. In Germany most places don’t.

In England and other countries I believe that many centres have a uniform, a T-shirt or a polo shirt in the school colour or with a badge, with the staff often deciding on the trousers. Both in schools and in CE centres in Germany anything goes, for children and usually for staff too.

Although I have not heard of other schools where the teachers have to wear a school uniform too, several conductors in the UK have told me that they do have to!

In the National Institute for Conductive Education, England they distinguish between students and conductors in the same way as in Budapest, by the colour of their T-shirts.

In establishments where the clothes are provided the conductors have no choice about how fashionable they look, unless they have actually been involved in the initial decision-making.

A conductor in America has told me that the trousers that conductors are given to wear restrict movement, and are very revealing of their underwear. This is something that we are very conscious of in a centre where I often work in Nürnberg and, although there are no restrictions on the colour of our clothes, a strict eye is kept on how revealing they are. I am in total agreement with this.

The same conductor in America told me that she is happy to have to wear “uniform” clothes, despite their being restrictived or revealing, as she doesn’t have to make any decisions in the mornings on what to wear. I don’t have to decide on clothes either when I put on my “whites” and bright socks each day, but I am comfortable and covered up!

First impressions are lasting impressions

As conductors I believe it is not only important to consider what impressions we leave behind from of what we say and do, but also from what we wear. Our outward appearance helps shape people's impressions.

I have asked many of my clients about the impressions they took away with them from first meetings with conductors. I wondered whether it is maybethe voice that makes a lasting impression, or the appearance. Is it the clothes, or the hair, or the posture? Is it only the information on conductive pedagogy that they remember afterwards or are they also influenced by other factors, by the conductors themselves? Generally the opinion on appearance is that untidiness would suggest less than the best work. A degree of casualness is acceptible because of the need for “therapists” to wear clothes in which they can move around easily.

“But not,” one client said, “as casual as being dressed for the beach”.

Some clients said that the personality is more important than the clothes, but went on to say that in first sessions, when they did not really know anyone, clothes did play a role, especially influencing how at ease they felt with each other. They meant in this instance both what the conductors wear, and the other members of the group.

A mini-skirt or jeans?

In one an earlier posting I wrote about my decisions on what to wear on two occasions when I was asked to give presentations on conductive pedagogy. Mini or stretch jeans, shoes, no shoes or boots?

In the long run it didn’t really matter. I did what I wanted to do in both mini and jeans, with and without shoes, but how I felt on the day and what impression I left behind with my potential clients were important to me. I felt good in both sets of clothes and I hope that the impression that I left behind was good too.

It was however quite strange to be doing familiar movements (when I demonstrated) in unfamiliar and somewhat impractical clothes, but it all fitted to the situation that I was in.It felt OK and it worked.

And so back to the soul

Clothes are so important to me for the comfort of my Seele. I have thought a lot about my appearance at work, my hair, clothes, my shoes and even which glasses I have on. I need to feel good in what I wear,both at work and outside work. I need to feel that I have on the clothes most suited to the situation that I find myself in. I do not like to wear formless clothes and I like my clothes to be made from material that feels nice on my skin. At work this is preferably cotton.

Now you tell me

There are probably all sorts of different house rules in centres around the world. What do conductors wear elsewhere?
  • Do conductors think much about clothes worn for work?
  • How much depends on the climate, the culture, the clients, the type of programme?
  • What clothes are ideal, are they smart and functional?
  • How important are clothes for the public image?

Is it a case of being unable to be both chic and comfortable?

Most conductors are women so I imagine that clothes are as important to them,as there are to me. I assume they are also just as important to the male conductors, but I don’t know.

How about telling me what you a think about this.


Bufé – this was a very lively area at the Petö Institute where parents, children, conductors, students, just about anybody really, gathered to eat scrambled-egg rolls and turó rudi (a chocolate bar), drink strong Hungarian coffee, swap information, do last-minute swatting-up before exams, take a well-earned break, or simply watch the “glamorous” world go by.

Dr Findlay – Scottish doctor on TV during my childhood.

Seele - soul

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