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Inaugural Dressing

A Guide to Finding the Perfect Party Wear

By Janet Bennett
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer

Washington is about to throw the biggest soiree(s) of the year, or shall we say of the next four years, with countless groups and organizations throwing parties to celebrate or bemoan the inauguration of George W. Bush. Whether you're going to the Bluegrass Ball, the Black Tie and Boots Ball or Billionaires Ball, a counter inaugural bash, appropriate attire is required.

With the inaugural following fast upon the holidays, many would-be partygoers will be in luck, having already outfitted themselves for the profusion of gatherings and events during that two-week festive season. If you haven't already bought that little black dress, tuxedo or ball gown, though, there are still many choices in all price ranges.


Still so stylish: President and Mrs. John. F. Kenneday at the 1961 inaugural ball at the Mayflower Hotel. (AP)

Splurge

Just won the lottery, got a huge raise or inherited money from your Aunt Zelda? Think of shopping for the evening gown of your dreams at a store like Saks Jandel or Harriet Kassman. The first is the type of place that Washington cave dwellers (read old money) would be apt to swirl around in, modeling a Valentino, Galliano or Lanvin gown in the back room. The family-owned shop is surprisingly user friendly despite its snobby reputation. They do alterations; and while the clothing is haute and pricey, the fashion jewelry is not outrageously priced and the selection, including evening bags, is large. If only we could wait until August to buy when the store's vast selection of evening gowns is reduced drastically.

Harriet Kassman, practically a Washington institution by this time, offers a more intimate atmosphere, which is presided over by none other than Harriet Kassman herself. Though she may be in her seventies, she watches the proceedings with an eagle eye. Since she knows the merchandise so well and has a sure sense of style, she can be a great asset when you're picking out that flowing Armani or silk cocktail suit.

It comes as no surprise that Neiman-Marcus holds its own when it comes to supplying Republicans and, okay, some Democrats with ritzy inaugural attire. Take the Oscar de la Renta ball gown, Manolo Blahnik shoes, Judith Leiber minaudiere and Kiton tuxedo provided by Neiman's for the power couple that opts for the Mandarin Oriental's Presidential Privilege package. And you can count on Saks Fifth Avenue for a Carolina Herrera, a Chanel or a Chloe (a recent visit to Chevy Chase Saks turned up a peach silk pleated dress famously worn by Nicole Kidman; it's now on sale for half the price).

The most hip of the five, Georgetown Relish carries more evening wear than its sister in Chevy Chase. At last look, the store was flush with Narciso Rodriguez body-hugging long evening gowns in light blue and black. Count on spending more than a thousand (at least) on one of those little numbers. Less expensive and less formal black-tie and cocktail party options include Nicole Farhi velvet sheaths (less than $500) in black or green, embroidered Indian skirts in silk and gauze, and beaded caftan jackets. Some of the shoes from labels like Miu Miu and Prada will also set you back a pretty penny but would do wonders to accessorize that little black dress you already own.

If your life doesn't require frequent forays to balls and other fancy black-tie events, opt for a short dress over a long gown. A short dress can go many more places than a long; consequently your dollar will go further with the former, far more versatile choice.

You Don't Have to Have Inherited Money

It's hard to get more conservative than Brooks Brothers with its preppy silk taffeta ball skirt on sale now for $148 and drape neck velvet dress ($178). By the way, formal wear for men -- tuxedo jackets and trousers -- is also on sale. At Sugar, you're likely to find more cocktail-esque dresses from their holiday stock, many of which are now on sale, like a number in olive green with velvet. Like Sugar, Luna features a girly-girl look, with selections from such names as Nanette Lepore and Tocca. Look to Corby Collection (and Bethesda cousin Wear It Well) for taffeta skirts ($180 plus) by Gypsy in a rainbow of winter colors. You can pair the skirt with a White & Warren cashmere sweater ($178) with rhinestone buttons, and you're set to party. The newly opened Alex sells vintage gowns from names like Adele Simpson and Chanel -- there's one timeless piece in stock now for $598, as well as unique, stylish and young-looking flapperish dresses and a leopard print dress for $328. Says one of the owners, Liberty Jones, "At the inauguration, you want to stand out; you don't want to wear black unless it has some detailing like beading or lace on the bodice."

Cheaper Chic

You never know what treasures you can unearth at places like Loehmann's and Filene's Basement. You can find a to-die-for Valentino scrunched between winter coats in the back room at Loehmann's, or nothing at all, depending almost entirely on luck and timing. A recent outing at the former turned up a Diane von Furstenburg or two. You can come away from Filene's Basement with some shoe steals on brands like Casadei and Fratello Rossetti. This year, the award for great accessories goes to Banana Republic's jewelry stock, which dazzles, as do the reasonable prices. In the consignment and thrift category, you can find the occasional vintage gown at places like Secondi, Designer Too or Act II. An inveterate thrift shopper, who was spending too much moolah because of her numerous black-tie and formal event obligations, likes to rummage through Best Kept Secrets (Goodwill) and Second Hand Rose. The former is Goodwill's warehouse-size collection of all its best stuff, sorted by color. The latter is a huge consignment store. And, of course, there's eBay, where a recent browse listed more than 5,000 choices in the category of evening gown, several of which indicated that they were NWT (new with tags). The best option for Republican women, perhaps.

Channeling Your Inner Cowboy (or Cowgirl)

If you're heading to the Black Tie & Boots inaugural party and find yourself without cowboy boots, head to W.J. Colt Outfitters or Zelaya, which carries Frye and Dan Post boots. The Bethesda store is located in back of Daisy Too. If it's exotic you're in the mood for, Neiman's sells Giuseppe Zanotti python cowboy boots for $1,375.


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