My 89-year-old mother is turning 90 and wants a big, lavish party: a dinner for 300 guests starting at 6 p.m. that will probably go late, despite the considerable number of octogenarians who’ll attend, dressed to the nines. What do I wear to this event, which may well be my mother’s last party? — Gigi, Hackensack, N.J.
Good for your mother, and congratulations. Ninety is a rare milestone, worth dressing for and celebrating.
Given the loosey-goosey nature of party dress codes these days, the best way of thinking about what to wear is: Dress for your mom. You don’t want to outshine her, but you do want to honor her. That sounds simple, I know, but I also know that when it comes to mothers and daughters, things can be awfully complicated, emotionally and psychologically.
One of the ways we assert our independence and identity is often through style that is not our parents’ style, no matter how much we love them. Your mother may love ruffles and polka dots when your happy place is a little black dress. You may be a dress-down type, and she may believe in the power of pantyhose and great pumps.
As a daughter who got into a fair number of … let’s say, disagreements, with her own mother about her wardrobe once upon a time, and as a mother of two daughters who is doing her best to hold her tongue and let them figure it out on their own, I have a fair amount of experience with the subject. After years of defining your own look, letting someone else’s taste take precedence over your own can feel like reverting to childhood in a somewhat uncomfortable way.
But there are ways to please your mother and remain yourself, too.
Honey Dijon, the D.J. and musician, suggests thinking of a memory you both share — a trip, an event — and wearing something that references and honors that shared experience.
Another option, similarly personal, is to wear a garment or a piece of jewelry that your mother gave you, or maybe passed down to you, as a form of thank you. Indeed, fabulous jewelry against a simple background (a basic sheath, a tuxedo) may be the easiest solution because it allows you to adapt the accessories to the moment.
If your mother is a brooch woman, you could wear a great brooch. Ditto a scarf or bangle. Think of what she values, and try to incorporate that into your outfit. It will tell her you have been paying attention.
Sara Moonves, the editor of W, suggested that the most important message is to signal that you are making an effort; that you didn’t just grab the first thing in your closet, or resort to the fallback party uniform, but that you put thought and consideration into your choice. Take a look at Valentino, she said — not to buy, but for inspiration. The label’s exuberant use of color is practically a celebration unto itself.
Finally, said Eva Chen, the author, and director of fashion partnerships at Instagram, remember that the pictures from the event will go into the memory books. In which case, she said, the best strategy may be to call your mom, find out what she is wearing, and dress to complement.
The point is to acknowledge, through what you wear, the star of the night. To make her feel seen and important. And, as a bonus, to allow her to show you off to her friends.
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.