The most common event outfit code today is Cocktail Dress; a semi-formal day/night transitional wear. It came about during the inter-war years when it was common to meet in the evening for a quick drink before dressing (black tie) for dinner.
Men can generally get away with a dark, but not black, dress suit, white shirt and coloured tie. Modern young men might prefer a coloured or patterned suit, though this can raise eyebrows.
For women, it’s a little more problematic. Generally, a knee-length dress in a formal fabric like satin or velvet with high heels and bold jewellery. Depending on the context, dresses range from plain to highly ornamented with lace, embroidery or beads.
The first thing to do when it comes to your event outfit is to set a firm budget – for illustrative purposes, let’s say $500.
We like to kid ourselves that it’s just a dress, but the likelihood is that you will need shoes to match. And a jacket of some kind. Plus an evening bag. Not to mention jewellery and hosiery. And you’ll probably get your hair done, maybe a manicure and pedicure. And you might go past a makeup counter to find out about the latest looks and come away with a faceful of new makeup and an exotic new fragrance.
Could you get all that for $500? Or is that your clothing budget for the next couple of years gone on an outfit you will most likely wear once? For a couple of hours.
With your budget in hand, start shopping in your wardrobe. Do you have anything you can build your outfit around? Do you have a beautiful black bead necklace that will sit best on a plain coloured dress with a plunging or very high neckline? How about some red patent heels to peep out from under a long dark dress? Collect all the possibilities you have together to see if anything else seems to go in the middle.
You’ll most likely be in some kind of function centre. It may be cold to start, but warming up as more people arrive. You’ll most likely be standing, drinking and eating finger food. You might walk to a buffet or bathroom, but will mostly stand. You won’t need much freedom of movement, but should be able to flex your shoulders without your top splitting open.
Coat checks aren’t common anymore, so you may find that you are left standing holding your bag, a plate or napkin, glass and jacket, so think about how you’re going to manage that,
Bearing in mind that you’ll only wear this outfit for a few hours, once or twice a year, you might like to push your comfort zone and try a new style. If you do, keep to your favourite colours as these will be comfortingly familiar and give you confidence in your new style.
Having said that, and given it’s only a few hours, you might consider relaxing your usual high standards to buy a plain, inexpensive dress so you can splash out on more dramatic accessories.
Generally, Cocktail Dress means actual dresses, but you could try a tuxedo, or a skirt and blouse combination. In part, what you choose will depend on where and how often you can wear it aside from formal functions.
While it’s tempting to go for full-on ornamentation, you may prefer people to remember you, not your outfit. Not to mention that beaded clothes are suit of armour heavy, require specialist cleaning care and need to be stored carefully, so the beads don’t catch and come loose or tear the fabric.
Definitely. And if you’re wearing something fitted, this might be the only time that I would recommend a control garment like Spanx.
Your shoes should balance the level of formality of your dress, so the fancy beaded dress would match a plain shoe and a plain dress with fancy shoes (not necessarily decorated, they could simply be an unexpected colour, patent or a skin effect).
And the more heavily decorated the dress, the higher the heel, though of course, they shouldn’t be higher than you can comfortably stand and walk in.
Naturally, you’ll we wearing hosiery – skin tone or dark depending on your shoe and dress colour.
Like shoes, your accessories should balance the formality of your dress. Because you don’t want to look like a Christmas tree. And to help, Coco Chanel suggests “Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and take one thing off.”
Don’t restrict yourself to necklaces or earrings. Consider a bold belt, ring, cuff, or hair decoration.
Plus a small bag with the bare essentials, and a jacket or wrap as a warm layer.
Night time formal events generally demand more makeup than you might usually wear, but again, balance it with your outfit – the more ornate the outfit, the more pared back the makeup and hair.
It’s very easy to get carried away with the excitement of an event, and spend too much money on items you won’t wear often enough to recoup your investment. It might be a good time to think about adding one multi-purpose “good” outfit to your wardrobe.
And if you are hoping to buy something that will last several years you’ll have to think about how to manage your size and shape as the years go by, which might be even worse!
Not to mention worrying about whether you are over or underdressed. But Mme Chanel offers consolation as well as advice; “It is always better to be underdressed.” Which may or may not conflict with her advice to “Dress like you are going to meet your worst enemy today.”