Easy and Elegant Life

The Search for Everyday Elegance and the Art of Living Well.

Party Frocks


It occurs to me that we men have a limited choice of party-going “formal” wear: dinner jackets (which is actually semi-formal), daycoats, strollers, cutaways, tailcoats, cummerbund, waistcoat, wing collar, soft collar, pumps, oxfords… that’s about it. And you’re likely to live your whole life not seeing a man in anything other than a dinner jacket.

Women, on the other hand, have a whole range of clothing from which to choose. It used to be that cocktails called for a cocktail length dress (the famous LBD fit this purpose perfectly.) Evening events, at which the men were expected to wear black tie, called for an evening gown and wrap. That is no longer the case. Or so I gather from the latest issue of Harper’s Bazaar.

I, for one, miss seeing women in evening gowns. They seemed to have gone out of fashion at all but the Academy Awards (which I’ve stopped watching.) The designers still produce them and we are a far cry from the encrusted 80’s numbers that may have done the gown in. (I also have a thing for those Oriental dresses with the stand-up collars, frogging and cap sleeves, but that’s another post.)

Do you wear an evening gown? Vintage? Couture? And do you wear it more than once? And for what sorts of occasions? Or, if not, what is your go-to party frock?

19 thoughts on “Party Frocks

  1. I have a couple of long party skirts (one silver and one mauve satin) that I wear with antique Japanese Haori (jackets). Or I might do teal or gray velvet pants and a sweater. I have a couple of LBD (very plain and long sleeves) so I can wear shawls (pleated silver metal or antique gold sari or wool paisley) with them.

    One year I wore an Afghan coat (think Hamid Karzai) in red/green/white stripes with black pants and a white shirt and huge earrings of green African trade beads. I also have a couple of beautiful antique Chinese robes for holiday mornings.
    (I don’t do Halloween because I like to dress in costume all the other days!)

  2. E&E – of course I wear an evening gown! Always once and sometimes twice a year. I definitely recycle, but stick to classic styles mostly with a memorable one thrown in on occasion. There’s no better feeling. So girlie.

  3. There is, however, a fine line between a gown for evening and a gown for a ball … and often the distinction is not entirely clear to some, it seems. I was at a birthday dance in Virginia hunt country last year and chanced upon one of the hundreds of guests—a dazzling dark-haired young beauty wearing a blue-trimmed, full-skirted, white gown that made her seem like a Winterhalter painting come to life. And her hair was dressed low in back, in a heavy chignon. Really quite something. And no jewels.

  4. I sadly haven’t had the occasion to wear an evening gown for several years now. I do have a few go-to cocktail items that work well for evening. I couldn’t imagine wearing a gown once and then parting with it – I always find reasons to wear them more than once: holiday parties, symphony/opera galas, benefits. One is a dress of my mother’s – a beautiful cocktail length robin’s egg blue from the 60’s. It is sari-inspired and made of a filmy, light fabric, which moves beautifully and ends with a flowing drape from one shoulder. It is edged with a silvery embroidered band that is very typical of indian fabrics. The other is one that I expect to become a go-to – It is a beautiful silk dress that I had made in Vietnam. No frogging, but cap sleeves and a standup collar. The fabric is a gorgeous purple – not quite as deep as aubergine – covered with golden flowers in a traditional aisan pattern. This one I plan to wear to my engagement party over the holidays.

  5. Aesthete, a rare sighting. I wish I had more of them.

    Welcome TBD, thanks for the comment and congratulations on your engagement.

    Mrs. B., HORRAH!

    ELW, no halloween… you had me chuckling out loud. Quite the diverse wardrobe! It sounds lovely.

    Turling… indeed.

  6. Thanks E&E – I’ve enjoyed your blog for quite some time now and have finally decided to join in the discussions!

  7. Oh, Dah-ling. Yes of course! Do I recycle… ahem, is that any question to ask a lady? 🙂 Alright, yes, but not in the same city. One dress appears in NY and then in Palm Beach, possibly again elsewhere. But my Mum always told me to very, very careful that no one could ever have reason to say – “I’ve always loved you in that dress.” That would never do.

    As to new vs. old: I was in couture and that made life easy for a good long time but even that luck ran its course things get very done and you want something different: I keep an eye peeled in any season for vintage couture ever since I saw the same Oscar dress on three people at a January event in LA! Hideous. Frankly, had I been one of those well heeled couture customers I would have called the store and explained it was indeed their responsibilty to prevent the dress from turning up at the same event on someone else. In my years with Dk we cut 5 or 6 of the best gowns, if that, and made sure they went to different geographical areas, and warned everyone not to alinate our girl by letting her be bested at an event. Evening gown customers are not to be trifled with!

    Lovely that you thought of it – don’t hesitate to have that sort of party at home, people love to dress for evening still.

  8. Whatever is happening in the world of Harpers Bazaar – I can assure you it isn’t happening in most of the world (and thank god for that)
    DC is pretty big on dressing up for any reason and our tastes are pretty conservative here (even if most of us are democrats) – so the traditional reasons for dressing up bring out traditional solutions. And over the years, DC has gotten considerably classier and less dowdy – and yet, thankfully not cutting edge by any means.
    So far this fall/winter, I’ve put on three long gowns for black tie events (and missed two more due to travel for work) and at least eight cocktail dresses. (no wrap as they are IMHO hard to wear well, I prefer a coordinating tailor silk or velvet jacket) I’m in no way particularly social or part of the party set but I’m always happy to have a chance to dress up – we just love to have parties in this city. I can safely note that no one showed up to these parties in cut off jeans although there were a couple very inappropriate (almost illegallly) short dresses at the black ties – tacky but considering it was one tasteless individual out of about 500, not bad.
    In my experience, I can easily have a formal dinner or cocktail in my own little apartment. People are surprisingly willing to dress up if you ask them.

    I find, as a women, that shopping for appropriate dresses that are not made for teenagers at prom or for hookers to be surprisingly difficult. Really, fashion designers appear to be wholey without class these days. But then, fashion is generally tasteless which is why it changes so quickly – sadly, good style is hard to find. Thankfully, my mother saved several of her good cocktail dresses and I have discovered a wonderful store that caters to grown women who wish to be elegant, classy and adults.

  9. Ms. Hostess, it gladdens my heart to hear it. I wish the trickle donw theory worked to better advantage in the “real world.”

    Hello Alex, and welcome. True. I do recall a lot of events for which we could dress in D.C. (have you seen Doc Scantlin and Chou-Chou, yet? Please do! It’s not the typical political crowd, really… .) And I am glad to hear that your crowd will dress at the drop of a hat! Please pass along the name of that shop for my readers. Unless you’re guarding a good source, of course!

  10. My favorite painting is “Madame X” – she is wearing a gorgeous black evening gown – I think for evening, “drama” be it a sleek gown or accent, a bow, a pouf, a sparkle, a glove, a cape…. oh and lipstick.

  11. Of course I’ll share my favorite shop. I love to shop at Riziks on Connecticut Ave downtown. It is a rare day that do I not find a perfect piece or outfit – well made, classic and appropriate for the occasion. The staff is fantastic, I’ve had great success with their in house tailoring and have never regretted a purchase. I have grown into the wisdom of buying less but buying only quality — and this is particularly important IMHO in evening wear as it needs to last and look lovely for at least a decade. Unlike the blushing hostess, I do ‘recycle’ my evening clothes quite shamelessly. I know quite well that my friends don’t remember what I wore last year or the year before – and even if they do remember I don’t really care if the dress is a good classic worth wearing again. If I am happy to wear it and know I look good it in — something loved, fabulous and well made — it should be worn again.

  12. If only I had chances to wear true gowns, but aside from my wedding, no. Lots of cocktail attire, and the occasional black tie, but never anything that requires that level of elegance, I’m afraid. For black tie in the winter, I have a black velvet dress (it has a bit of stretch, but is not the abomination that springs to mind when you hear “stretch velvet) that I bought when I was 19 and was going to the first event I ever attended with my (now-) husband. It has a square scoop neck and a deep V back, hits the floor when I’m in high heels and has just the right slit up the back. I was terrified buying it, but I’ve probably worn it 10 or 12 times.

  13. sadly, i do not get to attend events wearing gowns as much as i’d like, except my glorious white gown from my debut a few years ago. however, i will be happily donning a gown for my sister’s white tie debutante ball in a few weeks!

  14. No dresses for me. But I still have that fur collared over coat from Britches (circa 1995). And my dinner jacket is older than I am.

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