If you're worried about how to fit a wardrobe of cocktail attire into your holiday party budget, fear not. Your schedule is probably starting to fill up, but that doesn't mean you'll need to stock a closet with new dresses.
You've got your office party, maybe your significant other has another, your close friends are having a Champagne soirie, your favorite charitable organization invited you to its gala, you plan to attend a neighborhood fundraiser, and then there's that special night you want to just get out of the house for a really nice dinner.
Normally, this would require a separate closet stocked with a half dozen semiformal ensembles, but not if you invest wisely.
With a few well-tailored accessories, you can spin one well-selected dress into a covert holiday season powerhouse.
Here's what you should stock in your Ms. MacGyver semiformal closet:
One very versatile dress: The little black dress is so ubiquitous that we used it for our experiment, but a little red or blue dress would work, as well. We'd suggest cap sleeves, not sleeveless, because it can bridge somber and festive occasions. You want something that could be conservative or sexy depending on your mood.
The most universally flattering silhouette is the one Audrey Hepburn made famous: A princess-style cocktail dress with boatneck, cap sleeves, fitted waist and circle skirt that hits just around the knee. We are loving the trend toward below-the-knee skirts, but just above the knee is fine. This dress should not be a minidress if you want it for semiformal and the occasional formal event.
Tuxedo jacket: You're not looking for a blazer, but an evening jacket — something with a little sheen, an intriguing lapel, shimmering buttons or an attractive hue. It can be monochromatic, but it should not be forgettable.
Petticoats and crinoline: So old-fashioned that they are contemporary. If you want to pump up the volume on a circle skirt, literally and figuratively, a petticoat or crinoline slip is a fantastic tool. Pick one with a frilly or lace trim bottom so that you can flirt with a little peek-a-boo slip action. Black is a must-have, but red and white also are good choices. Add a red petticoat to a black dress with just a half-inch of hem showing and you have a great little pop. The volume of the underskirt also will add a peppy swing that is great for twirling. Shop vintage stores for affordable options. You're not necessarily looking for antebellum volume, just some buoyancy. Above all, it should be fun.
Showstopping necklace: This item does not have to be huge, but it helps. You obviously want to be comfortable, but you really want some drama here. Layer multiple thin necklaces or invest in a piece with some serious visual weight. You won't necessarily be able to wear it all the time, but it should make appearances solo, paired with a jacket, with prints and solids but rarely with other large jewels.
Cropped jacket: Because we like all things sparkly, we suggest this number be beaded and sequined. It's a great way to jazz up a ho-hum outfit whether you're wearing jeans or a tea-length cocktail skirt. When you wear this, think twice about other jewelry. It can be done, but it's tricky. You never want to look like a Christmas tree, your adornment should complement, not compete with you.
Peplum top: Take advantage of trends, don't let them dictate what you should wear; instead use them to stock your wardrobe arsenal with easy-to-wear classics. The peplums won't be readily available forever, but it's a great way to nip the waist and sculpt or accentuate a more feminine hourglass shape. It's not ideal for some pear-shapes because it can accentuate imbalance, but if you opt for a different fit, it can hug and flatter many shapes. And ‘tis the season of leather and soft faux leather top options — snap those up while they're hot. We love traditional items in nontraditional fabrics. Feminine leather tops are on our wish list; some even feature a zip-off peplum, which makes it even more appealing. This year you can wear it over a dress; next year it can go under a jacket.
Jewels: Earrings are a great way to instantly elevate a casual dress. People get their cues by what's closest to your face. And because semiformal events tend to involve cocktails, huge shiny rings look good in the twinkly lights. For a switch, wear a black dress with all black jewels, black chandelier earrings, choker, bracelets and rings. You can't overdo the drama when it's monochromatic. But for your jewelry wardrobe pearls are a must — not, Suzy Homemaker pearls but long and short strands of the Suzy Fashionista variety.
Hosiery: A lot of leg real estate typically gets taken for granted at a semiformal affair. Black is slimming, but other solid colors are mandatory. Dark, vibrant shades of purple, blue and red come to mind. Jazz up a white dress with blue legs, or punch up a black one with purple or whatever fits your mood. It's optimal to find colored tights that match the color of your shoes (you'll look taller, and it's more striking), but it's not mandatory. Your shoes will pop more if the tights or hosiery don't match, so plan accordingly.
Belts: One completely unsubstantiated fact: 99.7 percent of the time, you should throw away the belt that came with a dress. Yes, even the self-fabric ones. They are usually cheap, and they look it. Most of the time you should remove the belt loops and buy a new belt. Invest in skinny, medium and wide varieties with gold or silver accents in black, white and a few rich colors. Be mindful of proportion. You want a belt that looks like it's defining your waist not exaggerating it. Too skinny on a too-wide frame and you'll look larger. Too wide on a short torso and you'll look unbalanced.
Shoes: You can't have too many pairs. Yeah, we said it. You want flats and heels and shiny and matte. You want booties and boots in casual and special occasion. You want dramatic, and you want staid. Luckily, you can have it all without breaking the bank. Here's a little tip, don't be afraid of fancy cheap shoes (yes, we go to Payless sometimes), just don't wear them often. Maybe it's that one sparkly pair you wear once a year at different events for five years instead of five times one year.
Color: It's the one thing we didn't photograph, but imagine any of these looks with a bold infusion of red, green, cobalt blue amethyst. Eyes gravitate toward color and shiny objects. There's no better way to mask a go-to dress than a highlighting color. If your go-to dress is already brightly colored, think about color-blocking with complementary colors for belts, hosiery and jackets.
And you should never neglect the biggest opportunity for transformation: You. Hair, makeup and attitude work wonders. When you dress up, go all the way. If you're wearing your 9-to-5 hair and makeup to an after 5 affair, you're missing an opportunity to shine. A little imagination can take you far.
Model: Justine Ward, of West Model and Talent Management
Hair: Rachel McAloon, of Salon Privi, 12420 Olive Boulevard, Creve Coeur
Makeup: Kevyn Idoux, of Kolors Salon, 4188 Manchester Avenue
Stylist: Debra D. Bass