There, on your hall table. The envelope. It’s thick, uniquely-shaped, of lustrous paper. Inside, an invitation. And there, somewhere near the R.S.V.P. sit the words, dreaded or welcome. Black Tie Requested.
For movie stars, high-level socialites, and other red carpet denizens, time to call the stylist, buy a new outfit, or maybe remix an outfit from an overfull sparkly closet. For most of us, time to fret. We know that black tie usually means long dresses. You can get away with a cocktail dress, but if everyone else will be dropping their hems you may feel more comfortable following the party line.
Few of us have closets full of long.
If you’re flush, fine. I’m particularly fond of Lanvin, in my dreams. But for the rest of us?
A couple of options. You could rush off to a prom gown store like Caché, or the “dressy” department of Macy’s. A course I can’t recommend. You will feel wrong amongst the Lavin-clad throngs. Of course, if you don’t care, then go ahead. But if you are one who does care about feeling appropriate, and I confess I do, all is not lost.
Learn from those who do this for a living. The crowd who treat black tie like a tennis match have helpfully established some uniforms. We can review, and then recreate on a budget.
Uniform #1, the Asian-esque cheongsam/qipao/salwar kameez. We’ll use Cheongsam as shorthand. A cheongsam calls out for toned arms, glamorous cuffs, and jeweled sandals. I’d do this one in aubergine, with pale blue trousers, or maybe navy with a very off green. You want a striking color palette.
Uniform #2, the Carolina Herrera. The Carolina, for short. After all, the woman has made this look so much her signature that stylists photograph similarly dressed models in homage. The Carolina:
- Suits those with lovely necks and bust.
- Frames a beautiful necklace well.
- Helps the long-waisted.
- Requires high heeled peep-toe pumps or ballerina flats. Your choice, but you need a little heel and a little toe to show.
- Must avoid the Full Dowager. Grandes Dames are not quite the same as dowagers.
These looks center around pieces from Style Paris by Susan Sutherland, one of the boutiques featured at Taigan, an online retailer for specialty shops. Style Paris has stores in Palm Beach and Southampton, home sweet homes to black tie party goers. Susan knows whereof she sells, however, the perfectly appropriate has its price. Its high price. The Temple ‘cheongsam’ is $1700. The Giovanna black skirt, $1400. The Theo Plastron white shirt, $740.
Fear not. The genius of these black tie strategies is that you should be able to pull them off for far less than $2000.
To locate a Cheongsam, in most major cities, and many of their associated suburbs, Indian, Pakistani, and Chinese communities search out the last few talented tailors providing homeland garments. If you like tunics and pants, find a resource for salwar kameez. If you prefer the more fitted cheongsam (this is the Cantonese word, quipao in Mandarin), Chinatowns all over America create custom-fitted wedding outfits. You can have anything made.
Of course, tailors in America cost a fair sum of money. A much cheaper alternative would be to take something off the rack and have it customized. Or venture offshore, and try one of the many online boutiques.
- Make sure to secure a fabric swatch and samples of closures, etc. in advance.
- The success of designing your own lies in impeccable materials, and scrupulous fitting.
- You will probably need to finish tailoring locally.
And the ‘Carolina?’ How to recreate for less? Here, Etsy will be your friend. You want a skirt in silk, satin, or velvet, with detailing and some volume. Find one with a waist suitable for display, or sash it yourself.
For the white shirt, you want a substantial cotton, fitted, with an interesting detail at neck or cuff.
Wear it unbuttoned as far as is polite. Straight with ruffles and ruffles with straight. Contrast and restraint.
Alternatively, a cotton lawn shirt, transparent, embellished. This short sleeved blouse moves the look younger, towards the land of Boho, and Little Women. Can’t you just see some beautiful unknown girl, in Victorian skirt and blouse, hair up on her head, sweeping into a room full of fancy people?
Most importantly, you will want to try everything on together. Wrap, bag, shoes, jewelry, makeup. There’s no point to black tie without that feeling of, “Ta da! I’m here!” Otherwise you’re only fulfilling societal obligations. And there are lots of those more important than wearing appropriate clothes to a gala.
Collared white shirt via Style Paris on Taigan
Silk satin skirt via Style Paris
White cheongsam via Oriental-Cheongsam
Low necked “Eli” white shirt via Thomas Pink
Tailored white shirt via Thomas Pink
White short-sleeved blouse and black skirts via Etsy
Lucite cuff via Alexis Bittar