When giving a party, you need a dress that works even harder than you do ...
From INTELLIGENT LIFE Magazine, Spring 2011
Even if you weren’t the kind of little girl who dreamt of being a princess—and I confess I wanted to be a Formula One driver—there are nevertheless occasions when you want to feel like one. A princess, that is, not Lewis Hamilton. That’s because you are right up there on the podium: you are the hostess, and without you there wouldn’t be an occasion at all. At such times, a special dress is called for. All you have to do is find it.
It is a fundamental law of the retail experience that when your diary is blank the shops are full of lovely things you need an excuse to buy, but when there is something important in the diary, the shops are empty. This law is exponential: if you are the person giving the party, the shops are even emptier. You set out full of optimism, flexing your bank card and muttering “it’s my party and I’ll buy if I want to,” only to find that there’s nothing you do want to buy. At all.
The hostess dress, like the perfect man, is hard to find because it has to do so much. It sets the tone for the event, like the key signature on a piece of music. It signals that you have made an effort, and inspires confidence in the other arrangements—(notably food and drink) in a way that dressing gown and slippers just won’t. It has a more overt social function, too: if the dress is remarkable—in the literal sense of the word—it can be a good ice-breaker. And as custom dictates that your guests say you look wonderful, it helps if they can do so with a straight face. Because of its semi-public role, the usual if-it-feels-good-wear-it test doesn’t work—it needs to be more outward-looking. The narrow dress codes available to men suddenly seem enviable.
Queen Elizabeth I used to send written reprimands to any ladies of her court who tried to wear higher or fuller ruffs than her own. In the same way, without perhaps adopting royal tactics, the party-giver should ideally not be out-dressed by the guests. You should, for the duration, be the jewel in the crown, not some dull bauble in a plastic tiara.
When shopping for a centre-of-attention dress, I would adapt Thoreau’s dictum and say “distrust any enterprise that requires new underwear”. The moment a shop assistant starts talking about needing “a clever bra that works with this neckline” or, worse, special adhesive tape that keeps the dress stuck to your body or your bosoms to each other, is the moment to bolt for the hills. The last thing I want any occasion to be memorable for is the fact that a part of my body escaped from its container.
And then there’s Factor X—the cut, the colour, the fabric, the touch of wit—whatever it is that makes you fall in love with a dress. All of this is, I know, a lot to ask of a piece of fabric, especially one at a price that doesn’t make you feel sick when you type in your pin, which you feel sure no one else will be wearing, which flatters the bits you like and covers the bits you don’t, and which also fits well whilst still allowing you to breathe (there are lots of dresses out there for non-breathers, I’ve discovered). So it’s wise to leave plenty of time for this grail-like quest.
When faced with it recently, it goes without saying that I left it too late, there was nothing in the shops (see above), and I ended up doing some panicky browsing on the internet. After what seemed like several days in cyberspace, there it was, Excalibur-like: a Marc Jacobs dress of black duchesse satin swept together at the front into a silver zip. Sort of biker-meets-ballroom. Better still, it was on the Outnet, the discount sister of Net-a-Porter. There was a dark moment when it arrived and didn’t quite fit, but I trotted boldly off to the Marc Jacobs shop to ask if they would alter it for me. There, the lovely Dolores magically made it fit me, and so my princess dress and I became one.
Like the perfect man, the perfect hostess dress is hard to find because too much is demanded of it and expectations are absurdly high. As with Mr Right, some degree of compromise may be required. The difference is that if you ever fall out of love with the dress, you can hide it in a plastic bag at the back of the cupboard without being sent to prison.
Rebecca Willis is associate editor of Intelligent Life. Her last Applied Fashion column was on holiday dressing. Illustration: Bill Brown.