What To Wear To A Garden Party? Because Winter Will End Some Day.

Come February, someone, somewhere, is sick of winter. Someone, somewhere is dreaming of spring and summer. To say nothing of the associated dresses.

For High WASPs, spring and summer mean garden parties. Most likely because in days of yore we had a lot of land. Some of which we would make into gardens, in an exercise of man over landscape. Which would then make great settings for gathering friends, family, food and alcohol. (You can disguise alcohol in many warm weather drinks, iced tea, punch, soda, the list is endless.)

Garden parties take place any time between 11:00am and 5pm. After 5pm it’s a soiree. An entirely different paradigm, with far more potential for drama. People rarely misbehave at garden parties, unless you count pulling off lavender flower heads from other people’s shrubs, and squeezing them between your fingers for the scent.

As always at High WASP events, there’s a dress code. As usual, unspoken. I couldn’t even tell you how I know all this, but I can guarantee that if I call my sisters or my mother and ask, they will agree.

Some dresses are garden party material, literally and figuratively, others are not. Hence, inn the immortal words of Glamour Magazine, Garden Party Dos and Don’ts.

Halfway between flowing and fitted

Shiny (particularly beads or sequins but satin is also verboten)
Jungle beasts

Color should not be too vivid in florals. You do not want to appear to be competing with the bougainvillea, the peonies, the iris. The amount of skin shown should decrease exponentially each decade. Let us consider some examples.

As a college student, (with a generous mother, to be sure), or in your early 20’s, try Anna Sui. The bloom of youth and all that. This is actually denim, on trend, but still appropriate.

As you progress through your 20’s, get a “real job”, enter your 30’s with Chloe.

At 40, that moment when impunity may be finally within your grasp, reclaim the garden party from its pastel prison. Marimekko may be making a comeback.

At 50, garden parties are the perfect venue to experiment with eccentricity. Just in case that’s going to be your elder style strategy. Eccentric transcends the usual archetypes in a time-honored High WASP tradition. Call them plimsolls, not sneakers, and you are well on your way.

And, just in case you wish life were nothing but one long, hazy, bee-filled garden party, you can wear this satin number to the soiree afterwards. Misbehave in flowers all around.

My experience suggests that spring and summer will come soon.

Belton Gardens, via Lincolnian’s photostream and the Creative Commons at Flickr
Anna Sui via net-a-porter
Chloe via net-a-porter
Erdem via net-a-porter

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  • at 31, i believe i would wear plaid to a garden party. which…might pass? i could see it going either way.

    on unwintering, i bet it would help to watch the divine ms. thompson's much ado about nothing. dashing around hedges, whispering beside the fountain…how i love much ado.

  • Yay, Keds!

  • Could you comment about appropriate footwear for those not trying out the eccentric style? It seems important to choose shoes that are "garden friendly". Also, other accessories? Hats?

  • Lord, I made a gaffe at a garden party in Maine in my early 20's. The advice from my mentor was "be yourself". Huge mistake. I was out of my element, underdressed and knew almost no one. My mistake was the location. I assumed Maine would be far more casual than my regular haunts. It was a good lesson and I enjoyed myself at the end, but I would never again wear a crocodile shirt and khaki shorts to a garden party!


  • I love polka dots, but that dress is a little TOO much for me. However, I adore the sweater with the card suits in black across the face! And you know, plimsolls are the only kind of casual shoe I can remember my maternal grandmother, The Proper Southern Lady, every wearing.

  • Um, that would be *ever* wearing.


  • A hat and sunscreen :-)

    Lovely dresses.

  • A fun, hopeful post to go with today's east coast blizzard…
    And thanks for sending "The Babysitter" song link. Lovely.

  • Perhaps you can suggest what the "mother of" should wear to an outdoor evening summer wedding, not too formal? Sounds like it might be comparable to a high WASP soiree. Must photograph well, so I'm not sure that the last dress, although lovely, would work.

  • Who has garden parties these days? Sounds like fun. I want to get on the guest list!

  • Patsy, sunscreen is critical:). Do not forget your neck and hands, BTW. Lauren, I think plaid would look fantastic, in fact. Doc, yes, garden shoes are also critical. I suggest wedges or flats. There's just no point wandering around sinking into the lawn and scuffing up your heels in gravel. As for hats, I think you have to watch out for the cliche, the overdone. That said, if it's high noon and full summer, fashion falls to comfort, IMO. BTW, I have worn hats. Several times. Perhaps the subject of a future post?

  • MJ, mother of the bride? Or mother of someone else:)? Belle, my mother has them. In Santa Barbara, with croquet:). I'll see if she's up for a crowd, next time, shall I?

  • A post on the appropriate wearing of hats in the 21st century would be highly appreciated. My maternal grandmother (not at all a WASP of any sort)had what we refer to as the "hat gene". She could wear any hat and make it look spectacular. I did save her pink feather turban. I have never worn it. Perhaps when I try the eccentric look. My cousin's daughter seems to have inherited the hat gene. I did not. My WASP relatives, all from northern Maine, wore hats for practical reasons only.

  • Garden parties mean summer frocks and straw hats to me…and as it is a rainy grey day here, I say bring on the sunshine and let's party!

  • Surely winter will come to an end, and I am grateful to you for pointing that out. And for directing me to some beauties in the dress department!

  • Mother of the groom. Neither the bride nor her mother are dictating anything, other than circa knee length (rather than long). Suggestions welcome!

  • Love the idea of plaid! Will be wearing it for sure this spring.

    What do you mean by Jungle Beasts?

    My friend and I each have at least one garden party a year. It is a fun, relaxed and pretty day that brings like-minded friends together.

    Love this post.


  • I love the idea of a garden party, but other than one family friend's wedding reception many moons ago, can't recall that I've ever attended one. BBQ's tended to be more our thing, with the horses tied nearby and dusty riding clothes and boots as the most common attire.

    Fabulous polyvore!!

  • Ha, spot on for every age! (although I'd probably still wear the Anna Sui if push came to shove)…Can't wait for spring!


  • I really like the Chloe! Guess it's appropriate since I'm in the approximate age group you described.

  • I love the dresses (and definately love hats!) unfortunately I can't see my plus size self in anything like them. Any suggestions? I'm looking for something for our 1st anniversary May 2nd. Maybe something garden party meets beach party. hmmm…

  • I have a weakness for full floral dresses. Yes the kind that attract bees LOL! When you have a garden party, please invite me. I promise to be good ;)

  • Plus Size Bride – Choices are certainly more limited for us. I'm also convinced a lot of the plus size merchandise ships later in the season – after the manufacturer's priority market is satisfied. Finally, plus size clothing manufacturers don't seem to produce much that is WASP style.

    Donna Ricco usually makes three or four basic styles in her plus line. There is currently a black background floral dress on her website that I'm sure will be made in other prints as the season progresses.

    I went to a garden party two summers ago at an Asian branch of a British public (private) school my nephew attended. Anna Scholz had a beautiful silk wrap dress in a poppy print on a light yellow background. It was perfect for the party. This spring, she seems to have gravitated to larger florals. There is a button front in a different poppy print if a button front with a set in waist will work for you. It is available from LaGrandeDame.com.

    If anyone else has suggestions, I'd also be interested.

  • this is such a fun, informative blog. wish i had you around
    when i was a timid, young bride marrying into a high society
    family. i never knew what to wear!

    still have a few struggles…

  • And for the men:

    Up to 40: colorful french cuff english shirts, ribbon belt, khakis (or go-to-hells), sockless gucci loafers

    40 and over: add a blazer or complementary seer-sucker or madras sport jacket, sockless white bucks, panama hat or similar

  • Our local art museum/botanic garden has a garden party (of course, it was a fabulous mansion that was donated by the family in the fifties)…I am embarrassed to say that I can't remember what I wore and I hope I didn't goof it up. I will certainly reference your post.

    If I may be so bold, I have a request for a future post…I have always wondered why women's clothes (even fall and sometimes winter) feature sleeveless dresses/shirts while the standard for men includes an undershirt, long sleeved shirt, tie and coat. Why so few layers for women for dress up? (I am always freezing and Mr. Lipstick is always on fire…surely we are not the only ones)

  • Thank goodness for this post! Now I know where to find my personal shopper! :) I am already thinking what I should wear in June to Boston but also what I should wear to a wedding in Scottsdale in March. I'm a party shoes, bag and jewelry girl but draw a blank when it comes to looking for a dress. I remember your previous post about your black dress. I'll have to go back and use your cliff notes. :) xoxo

  • Lovely examples, although I wish I could still wear that first one….I leave that to my daughters. I too am always cold, even in the deep South, so I'm a fan of the darling little cardigan or shrug. Now let's talk about how we can get the stores to carry something other than black or brown for Easter. So frustrating.

  • i think that yellow one is good

  • Reggie, you are so dapper. How wonderful. Lipstick, ah, the bareness of women at dress events. Well, that's a subject that most likely goes deep into social anthropology. Let me think about it…Mom on the run, really, black and brown for Easter? What are they thinking?

  • I need a warm weather vacation.
    And an iced tea laced with vodka.

    And while were at it, that Marimekko would be divine.

  • I don't normally read through comments but I think there should be an 'Ask LPC' column. If for no other reason than to prevent all of the good questions and answers from languishing unseen.

  • Excellent post, just loved it! Makes me think there is still a light at the end of this dreary, grey, cold, snow covered tunnel!

  • I, I am one who is dreaming of summer. there is something truly disappointing about dreary February. But as much as I am dreaming of garden parties, I just haven't acquired the kinds of friends that would dress in pretty frocks and play croquet. Instead, our backyard bbq's consist of disfunctional bacci ball and can's and bottles of beer. I do at least pride myself on never having served a drink out of plastic, in or out of my house.

  • i love that chloe dress!

  • and since you're on the subject, what are good occasions for garden parties? or is one really necessary?

  • Erdem is one of my favourites- your choice thrills me! I like to wear very light cashmere shawl or a pretty silk one, and also sometimes wear palazzo pants, even if not at a palazzo, as my legs are soooo white.

  • I love that you selected the Marimekko dres for a 40-year-old. I'm a 40-year-old, and I would totally rock that dress. With a giant, outrageous hat of my own making, of course. I'm certain I'd be quite a hit at garden parties.

  • I would love to throw a garden party for all of you. And Audi, I would expect nothing less than a spectacular hat. There's no special occasion that requires a garden party, they are just an option, if you're in the mood and can find the space and the attitude.

  • Hello I love your article is very good … should put more information on your topic
    What To Wear To A Garden Party? Because Winter Will End Some Day.

  • thanks for the info. I will be attended a formal British American chamber of commerce English Garden Party here in the Cleveland Suburbs in 2 weeks and had forgotten the do's and don'ts..I still want a hat and will need to procure a suitable dress…

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