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The Dean’s Tips on Cocktail Party Attire

By Suzanne Pollak

It’s chic to wear a fantastic “something” over and over to make it your signature. Just as smart hosts cook their favorite recipe again and again—no matter who comes to dinner—because they know their guests look forward to their culinary specialty, the chicest women throughout history know the style repetition secret.

That something can be an accessory, a dress, a shoe. I learned from native and expatriate ladies swanning into my parents’ 1960s cocktail parties all over Africa. Women wore cigarette pants for casual affairs and jewel-toned satin mini cocktail dresses at fancier parties. Along with real hairdos (coifs, updos), eyeliner flaring out just like Cleopatra’s, brilliant lips inhaling pearl or golden cigarette holders, and perhaps even a huge cocktail ring or elaborate earrings, none of these beauties boasted an expansive wardrobe with unlimited choices, but they had a cocktail uniform that took them anywhere. Once these vital decisions are made, brains are free to tackle life’s thornier problems: whom to invite to your party; which stranger to talk to first at someone else’s; how to grab attention, connect, ignite a fire, or tactfully end a conversation that’s headed nowhere.

As a teenager, I appropriated the tip immediately and forever. Deciding and simplifying what to wear is cheaper and quicker once you know what suits you. Dressing becomes a snap, so be loyal and stick with your style. Adding that something extra or taking it off can make the outfit appropriate for the particular party and place.

Because, of course, it makes a difference where the cocktail party is:

Hollywood, California, or Hollywood, South Carolina? The ambassador’s residence or your neighbor’s garden? “When in Rome,” so the saying goes. You don’t want to be dramatically different from everyone else unless you can handle it. For example, a man does not wear a motorcycle jacket when he attends a soiree at Charleston’s Yacht Club. Men there wear the proper uniform of khaki pants and a blue blazer. I once knew two young American beauties who visited the south of France and were assured that everyone, absolutely everyone, went topless to parties at a certain place. Perhaps a little naïve, they showed up appropriately undressed to a party filled with elegant, older, couture-covered guests. They are still embarrassed decades later!

Dressing comes down to the first impression.

What can a first impression tell us about someone we only met for a moment at a party? Of course, we all know human beings are complex and contradictory, but you don’t have to live with someone to sense if you want more of them or less. The package of you starts with eye contact, the smile, and what is draping your body. Identify what you want out of the engagement. Something—or nothing? Are you there to sip one bourbon, or to possibly meet your next business associate or romantic partner? You don’t want your clothes to get in the way. A woman does not want to be so flashy that others are distracted from her substance, but neither does she want to seem too dowdy.

Figure out your primary assets—cleavage, neck, arms, hair?—and choose cocktail attire accordingly.

For your own party, you will need to move, sit, and stand. As a guest, you can swan around or sprawl on a sofa as you wish.

For reference, here is my summer cocktail uniform: Hart tassel earrings, a white blouse and cigarette pants from J.McLaughlin, and extra-pointy shoes to make my legs look longer. My favorite pair of Balenciaga mules calls to mind the time of Robin Hood! Because they are extravagant, they will be worn with jeans all fall and winter, for hosting ladies luncheons and gumbo dinner parties, with a Halloween costume, for a Thanksgiving feast and Christmas dinner, and even just for hanging out at home.

Finally, don’t forget to have a “dressing drink.”

One of my fondest memories is sitting with my father at home in Africa before another of our huge parties began. While my mother was still running around creating stress and possibly havoc, my father relaxed in the living room sipping his scotch. I always thought of this as his “dressing drink”—just finished dressing, enjoying the calm before the chaos, talking with his daughter.

— V —

Suzanne Pollak, a mentor and lecturer in the fields of home, hearth, and hospitality, is the founder and dean of the Charleston Academy of Domestic Pursuits. She is the coauthor of Entertaining for Dummies, The Pat Conroy Cookbook, and The Charleston Academy of Domestic Pursuits: A Handbook of Etiquette with Recipes. Born into a diplomatic family, Pollak was raised in Africa, where her parents hosted multiple parties every week. Her South Carolina homes have been featured in the Wall Street Journal “Mansion” section and Town & Country magazine.

The World’s Best Old-Fashioned

This is the perfect “dressing drink.” Instead of my dad’s scotch, I switched to bourbon—when in Rome!

2 ounces bourbon or rye whiskey
1 thin slice of a sugar cube
2 dashes Angostura bitters
1 dash orange bitters
Orange peel for garnish
1 Luxardo cherry for garnish

Put all the above in an old-fashioned glass filled with smallish ice cubes. Stir for precisely 35 seconds, then strain into another glass and add one or two big ice cubes. Cut a slice of orange peel and twist on top of the drink. Leave slice in the drink. Add one Luxardo cherry. Voila!

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