Dressing the Part: 6/5/13

Hello to everyone in the Already Pretty community!

My name is Robin Abrahams, and I’m delighted to join Already Pretty with a monthly feature called “Dressing the Part.” I write the “Miss Conduct” advice column in the Boston Globe, and I find that I rely on my training and experience in theater to solve the problems that people send me, as much or more than my doctorate in research psychology. At Already Pretty, I look forward to bringing a theatrical perspective to style questions in the news, the arts, and our everyday lives.

June is a good month to start this feature, as the season of weddings and other outdoor celebrations is upon us. (If you’ve got a wedding or fashion emergency—or any other etiquette question—stop by my live chat at noon EST today!)

Dressing for these events can be a challenge, and invitations don’t offer much concrete guidance these days. My husband had a college reunion last weekend, and I was given the instructions that Thursday was “dressy casual,” Friday was “college casual,” and Saturday was “festive dressy.”

I mean, really.

Here are three options for a fancy event that stubbornly refuses to say how fancy it is:

Playing Dress-Up

A kindergarten teacher once told me that one delight of teaching that age group is that, regardless of your face or figure, wearing something sparkly or velvety instantly catapults you into realms of glamour in your charges’ eyes. Start with a plain outfit in a neutral color, simple fit, and slightly dressy fabric (silk, not cotton), and add an eye-catching fancy extra or two your inner kindergartener would approve of.

This is formal with a certain ironic distance to it—you’re an actress who grabbed a few quick props out of the wardrobe to play a duchess in a party scene. Make sure the accessories, whatever their quantity or quality, are attractive and appropriate to your style and age. And wear some makeup, a vivid lipstick at the very least—this look can overpower a bare face.

Accessory Ideas:
All the fake pearls (and any real ones you might have!)
An armload of bangles (high- or low-end)
Rhinestone or flowered hair clips
A turban
A Moa Boa (seriously, these are the best)
A fan
Rhinestone sun/reading glasses
Lace/embroidered shawl or jacket (these can also be found in all price ranges)

Notice that a number of these are practical as well as decorative: the fan/boa/rhinestone sunnies look is a combo I’m especially partial to in the summertime for events held in both the sweltering outdoors and the refrigerated indoors. They may laugh at me when I walk in looking like a lowrent Audrey Hepburn, but they’re envying me by evening’s end, I tell you what.

Monochrome Minimalism

The opposite end of the spectrum from Playing Dress-Up. This is what you wear when you don’t want people to remember what you wore. Yes, it happens! Style blogs, especially body-positive ones, fight back against women’s invisibility, and most of us readers and commenters and contributors enjoy bold, strong, attention-getting looks. However, there may be occasions—memorial services, certain religious ceremonies, times when you want to let others have the spotlight—when you don’t want a strong visual presence, but you still want to look dignified and attractive.

This is where the little black dress, or the tailored black pantsuit, or the flowing blue caftan, or the beige palazzo pants and top, or the silver salwar kameez come in. One dark or neutral color, one simple silhouette. Keep jewelry at a minimum—only the “always” items like wedding rings, and if you want to, either pearls or a piece with sentimental value (your grandmother’s cameo, a childhood charm bracelet). Hair and makeup should be simple but reasonably polished. You won’t look over- or under-dressed for any occasion.

Retro: Because yesterday’s casual is today’s formal.

If you have actual vintage clothes, good for you! If not, look for modern equivalents. Thanks to “Mad Men” and “The Great Gatsby,” vintage-inspired clothes are easily found. If you like the idea but aren’t sure what eras you want to look for, check out Sadie Stein’s terrific Jezebel piece.

The fancy dress I have gotten the most use out of is my Donna Morgan flapper dress (a black version of the white one here). It’s surprisingly comfortable and looks great with low heels, red lipstick, and no jewelry. What could be better than that? And it’s wicked fun to dance in.


The next time you get an invitation that leaves you flummoxed on what to wear, don’t try to decipher what “creative black tie” or “festive formal” or “tragicalcomical-historical-pastoral” actually mean. Figure out what you mean to say, instead:

  1. “I’m prepared to have a good time, even if I’m not sure what it will consist of!” = Play Dress-Up.
  2. “This isn’t about me, but I’m here to listen and be my most authentic self with you” = Monochromatic Minimalism
  3. “I’ll play my own game if I don’t understand the rules of yours. Let’s jam.” = Retro

If upcoming weddings, parties, or the people associated with them are giving you angst, join me at noon today for a live chat. And let me know what topics you’d like to see “Dressing the Part,” er, address in the future.

_ _ _ _ _

Already Pretty contributor Robin Abrahams writes the Miss Conduct social-advice column in the Boston Globe. (Got a question? Send it in to missconduct@globe.com!) Robin has a PhD in research psychology and is married to Marc Abrahams, creator of the Ig Nobel Prizes.

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12 Responses to “Dressing the Part: 6/5/13”

  1. Mel

    Welcome Robin!
    Love the post….but gimme some pictures! Unless it’s just a few short paragraphs, all narrative puts me off. Pictures, preferably colorful, draw me in. 🙂

  2. Becky

    Hi Robin, I’m your newest fan! Great post. I can’t wait to read more of you.

  3. Catherine

    Oh, what in the world is “festive dressy” supposed to mean?

  4. Dee

    Heading off to a 3 day reunion tomorrow myself….no idea what the dress is going to be, we didnt get ANY guidance, so I guess its whatever you want to wear! The weather is not cooperating – going to be cool and not sunny. So there goes my vision of wearing a cute sundress and sandals–bleah! (Ha! I guess the dress instructions should be “weather appropriate” – again, Bleah!)

  5. Heather

    On what planet is a silver salwar kameez going to blend into the crowd, unless you are actually in India or of Indian descent (in which case this blog is probably not helpful to you)

  6. Karioki

    Really enjoyed reading this. Interesting ideas, entertaining writing … great addition to the blog.

  7. sarah

    I’ll be sticking to monochrome for an upcoming memorial service for a beloved professor and mentor who just passed away, but since the man in question was a great lover of fashion, and of the flamboyant hats I wore to his classes, I’ll be pairing my basic black dress with sky-high heels and a chic little topper I found at a boutique in southern Spain last year. I think it’s a fitting tribute.

  8. Tragic Sandwich

    The invitation for my 20-year high school reunion said “Casual Cocktail.” Not one person I talked to beforehand had any idea what that was supposed to mean.

    Apparently it means that women wear cocktail dresses and men wear bowling shirts and khakis.

  9. Maya

    Robin, I love your classification scheme. So delightfully clarifying. Thank you!

  10. Ruby

    Hi, this is an interesting take on the what to where to a dress-code event conundrum. I do have to point out that I was uncomfortable with your mention of “age appropriate.” Sal and others have done a lot of work to draw attention to and critique this “rule” about dressing. Age appropriate is whatever I think is appropriate for me–and it really shouldn’t have anything to do with stereotypes that shame older women or a chronological age. /rant.

  11. LydiaG

    Hi, — love the classification system. I would say I have always treated most events (except memorials and funerals) as an opportunity to play dress up. I guess I like to wear all my wardrobe finery, and actually use the items I buy, rather than have them languish in my wardrobe.

    It is rather hard to figure out dress code ‘suggestions’ on invitations, and I usually wear a dress in a dressier fabrication, or dress up the topper for a dress (fancier jacket, shawl, or lightweight more delicate cardi). I find this works for me, and I have two dresses and a few skirts/ and tops that would fit. I usually wear the same few dresses/ tops combos to fancy events over and over, as there are not very many that I attend. Now, if I had a wedding to go to this summer, it would certainly give me a great reason to add another fancy dress… nice!

  12. nicky pierce

    I’m so pleased to find “Miss Conduct” at one of my favorite blogs. Though I have moved out of the Boston area, my father continues to send me your columns.