We have been invited to the fanciest house I can imagine for a holiday party (OK, the White House). My husband expects to wear a suit, with perhaps a holiday tie. A simple black or navy dress is my usual go-to, but that feels too basic and business-y; on the other hand, I also don’t want to look like a Christmas tree. Any suggestions on how to be festive, but appropriate? I would like to find something that I can wear over and over again. — Alice, Elmsford, N.Y.
We spend a lot of time obsessing over basic items like the perfect white shirt or the perfect pair of jeans. That’s understandable, because those are the garments we wear most often in our everyday lives. But the perfect party dress, especially the perfect festive party dress — one that walks that fine line between celebratory and too much, polite and too boring, that calls just enough attention to itself for respect but not so much that it becomes annoying, like a pushy guest — is equally hard to find. If not harder. Especially a party dresses that stands the test of changing times (and changing bodies). Not to mention changing environments, with changing expectations.
After all, it’s hard to shake the dream of Cinderella. Even if it’s Cinderella in business cocktail attire.
A great dress, one that lifts your spirits and makes you feel as shiny and effervescent as the bubbles in your champagne flute, is an alchemical experience. It gives you the confidence to enter a room, even if you don’t know many people there — even if you’re wondering how in the world you ended up in the room. But where do you start?
With a hack, according to the designer Batsheva Hay. “A little sparkle or shine is,” she said, “the most straightforward way to be ‘festive,’ rather than wearing red and green and camouflaging with the tree.”
Indeed, my go-to solution for any party that also involves a certain gravitas is what I call “casual sequins.” That may sound like an oxymoron, but consider a sequined T-shirt dress, a long sequined skirt or a pair of trousers worn with a casual sweater or crisp shirt. The sparkle says “party,” but the silhouette isn’t trying too hard or showing too much and, because it’s so relaxed, makes it easy to move. The last thing you want to be doing at any party is fiddling uncomfortably with your clothing. (I resort to this option so often that my children have forbidden me to buy more sequined clothing.)
If you prefer not to embrace the sparkle full on, Ms. Hay also pointed out that “some chunky costume jewelry and a sparkly bag or shoe” will dress up any simple black or navy look.
Along those lines, here’s another shortcut: Forget “dress” and think “outfit.” Next, think “velvet tuxedo jacket.” Channel Saint Laurent paired with a silk shell top, some narrow black pants and high heels, and it will be impossible for you not to feel powerful and elegant in pretty much any situation.
And one final hack, courtesy of my colleague Lindsey Underwood, who has actually been at a White House event: Choose “a rich color,” like burgundy or another jewel tone. And then remember, she said, that “there will be a lot of walking and standing.” “If you are wearing a floor-length gown or skirt, opt for flats, and even sneakers,” she continued.
You’ll be able to hold your own all night, she said, “and no one will be the wiser.”
Your Style Questions, Answered
Every week on Open Thread, Vanessa will answer a reader’s fashion-related question, which you can send to her anytime via email or Twitter. Questions are edited and condensed.