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The Party: For Washington events, especially, you're invited to look great

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By Sally Quinn
Thursday, December 10, 2009

Recently, I was a guest on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" with Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski. Joe was wearing an old T-shirt under a loose half-zip sweater. Mika was elegantly dressed in a very chic suit, silk scarf and pearls. Joe was getting a lot of ribbing from the gang about his clothes. When I came on, I told them I had once read an article about marriage and it said that you could always tell what kind of marriage a couple had by whether or not they looked like they were dressed for the same party. I pointed out that Mika and Joe did not. It is a conversation I have had often with my own husband.

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Now that the holiday season is in full swing, with parties going on all over town, the question of what to wear is on people's minds. Everyone wants to be dressed appropriately, nobody wants to look underdressed or overdressed. I am constantly being asked, "How do you know what to wear?" So that's our question this week.

This is a complicated issue. Some people scoff at the notion that clothes are important. Their attitude is that people should not be concerned with what you wear, but rather they should be happy to see you. Clothing is superficial, they say. Clothes don't make the man. But they do signal one's sense not only of oneself, but also of others.

When Warren Christopher was secretary of state, he was the best-dressed man in Washington. Though never ostentatious, he always looked like a million bucks. When asked by a reporter why he dressed so well, he replied, "Out of respect for others." Katharine Graham once told me that shortly after she became publisher of The Washington Post, she ran into Washington hostess Lorraine Cooper, wife of the mighty Kentucky senator John Sherman Cooper. Kay was dressed in loafers and an old kilt and sweater. (This was many years ago, before yoga pants and jeans became the on-the-street equivalent.) Lorraine admonished her, according to Kay, saying that she should start dressing more appropriately because it was not respectful.

When you are asked to a party, the invitation will generally give you some guidance. Casual, very informal, business attire, cocktail attire, festive, black tie, and if you're going to the Gridiron dinner, white tie and tails. I'll never understand "black tie optional." It makes no sense at all and leaves everyone feeling insecure, whether you wear a dark suit or a tuxedo, a short cocktail suit or a long evening dress. When I get one of those invitations, I automatically assume that it is not black tie and dress accordingly. Why bother to dress up if the hosts can't decide whether it matters?

My feeling is that if your hosts have provided great food and drink and attractive surroundings, the respectful thing to do if you want to accept their invitation is to follow their suggestion. If you show up at a party looking beautiful or handsome or well turned out, you are sending a message that you care enough about the hosts to make an effort to look good. Who wants to be at a party where all the guests look like slobs? Even if you're going to a Super Bowl chili party you can still dress appropriately. One of the nicest compliments I ever got was at a large New Year's Eve party I had. A man came over to me and said, "I love this party. Everyone here looks so beautiful." (Candles, rose-colored walls and pink light bulbs never hurt.)

Now back to the marriage thing. Men prefer to dress down. Women like to dress up. I usually ask my friends what they are wearing -- or the hostess, if I know her well. I always suggest to my husband, if he feels like being casual, that he might want to put a tie in his pocket, just in case. Sometimes he does and sometimes he doesn't. (You'll know how well the marriage is going if you see him in a turtleneck and tweed jacket and I'm all dolled up in a cocktail dress.)

I'm clearly talking about Washington here, which is more formal than many other cities. People often come here representing somewhere else -- another country, a particular region, maybe a political belief -- and people use dress codes so that people of all backgrounds can feel comfortable together. Now we have so many different cultures within the Washington community. California men, for instance, rarely wear ties or even jackets back home. A young Hollywood producer once came to meet with me and seemed very uncomfortable in an ill-fitting suit. Finally he admitted he had just gone to Brooks Brothers that morning to get a suit so he would fit in in Washington. I expect friends from the Internet-based workplaces to be less formal, and younger people invariably dress down. But no matter one's background, whenever invited into someone's home, rise to the occasion.

What I'm trying to say here is this: Giving and going to parties is about feeling good and making others feel good. If you are a guest who has made an effort to look nice, then you are honoring your hosts and vice versa.

In the Gospel According to Luke, Jesus says, "Don't worry about having something to eat, drink or wear. Isn't life more than food or clothing?" But he also advised to treat others the way you would like to be treated. And everyone wants to be treated with respect. It's the golden rule of entertaining.

Need advice on how to entertain with style and grace? Send an e-mail to theparty@washpost.com.


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