Holiday Party Dressing

Suzanne D'Amato
Deputy Editor, Sunday Source
Monday, November 20, 2006; 12:00 PM

Sunday source assistant editor Suzanne D'Amato was online Monday, Nov. 20 at noon ET to discuss how to dress for the holidays.

A transcript follows.

Suzanne D'Amato: Good morning, everyone! I'm here to answer your questions about what to wear to holiday parties this season. I'll also take any and all questions about other fashion conundrums: Can't find a coat? Going batty over boots? Wondering when the skinny jean will finally sing its swan song? Let's get started...

Washington, D.C.: This weekend I'm going to the Nutcracker at the Kennedy Center. I've never been and I'm unsure about what to wear. I have a black dress that's just a smidge on the casual side of a cocktail dress (no sparklies) is that too dressy? Thanks!

Suzanne D'Amato: I don't think it's too dressy (what better time to look festive than at the Nutcracker?), but if you're worried about it you can always choose more casual accessories. Flats instead of heels. Opaque tights rather than sheer stockings. A cardigan sweater as opposed to a wrap or a beaded capelet. My guess is that you'll see people decked out in everything from ball gowns to blue jeans, so go with what makes you feel comfortable, yet chic.

Fairfax, Va.: Where can a petite, relatively thin person find a decent winter coat (max. price $250)? Most of them seem to be cut large.

Suzanne D'Amato: I'd try H&M and Zara, both of which tend to cut their clothes small. Better yet, I'd try vintage stores. The Remix, in Alexandria, is having a coat sale this week -- you get 20% off many styles. Annie Creamcheese in Georgetown is definitely worth checking out. And I myself scored a 3/4 sleeve, tomato-red topper from the 1960s at Meeps last year. Its blindingly bright color means it's not the sort of piece I'd want to wear every day -- but it cost $50, so I don't have to!

St. Louis, Missouri: Looking for the key trends in day to evening-wear for the holidays. Going from the office to a party after work, what "little gems" can be added to jazz up the look without changing the whole outfit? How to not look like you're going to a party while you're at work, when actually you really are.

Suzanne D'Amato: You don't need to do much. For example, you might pack a dressy clutch in workaday tote, swap out your daytime earrings for something more dramatic (perhaps a swingy chandelier style?) and trade in your sensible pumps for something a little more glamorous (which doesn't mean teetery stilettos, necessarily -- there are some great dressy flats out there this season!)

Washington, D.C.: I love the tights that are in this season. I'm on the lookout for patterned pair that I like but in the meantime I'm wearing a plain black pair. I feel like my pointy toe black heels look funny with them. Am I right?

Suzanne D'Amato: Black on black is always safe, but there is room to experiment with leg wear this season, because as you've noticed, stores are stocking a lot of interesting styles. Particularly there is a lot of play with texture: What about a herringbone or cable knit tight in grey or chocolate brown? (You can find gorgeous -- albeit pricey -- options from Fogal and Wolford.) Alternately, you could try layering tights -- try a pair of colorful fishnets over your basic black opaques. For high quality tights at a good price, I like Hue's offerings. They offer a style called the "Spare Ribs" tight at many department stores -- it's lightly ribbed and comes in black and espresso, and I think it's about $11 per pair. Check it out!

Southern Md.: Hi - this is not just a holiday question. I am in need of a wardrobe consultant! I need someone to report me to the "What Not To Wear" folks! I'm 45 and don't know how to dress. Where can I find a local person to help me with this? What is this person called???? Please help and take this question!

Suzanne D'Amato: You might try a personal shopper. There are all sorts of these shoppers around Washington, though their level of experience (and their fees) vary dramatically. Department store personal shoppers are generally free, and they can be helpful, but they usually receive a commission based on what you buy, so you may feel some pressure. (Certain tony boutiques, such as Intermix, also have these.) Then there are the freelance shoppers, sometimes known as image consultants. They charge by the hour, whether or not you buy anything, so they can get expensive fast. The Association of Image Consultants International ( is a good place to find one of these, though many shoppers operate solely by word of mouth. Incidentally, the "What Not To Wear" hosts came out with a really useful book called "Dress Your Best: The Complete Guide to Finding the Style That's Right for Your Body." I'm generally not a fan of these kinds of advice books because they tend to be overly rigid/prescriptive, but this one has lots of good ideas while still encouraging you to go your own way, sartorially speaking. Good luck!

Arlington, Va.: My company holiday party is next month. The flyer we received indicates cocktail attire. I am lost about what exactly cocktail attire is. Last year I noticed fellow employees dressed in a wide array of attire: long gowns, casual attire (right from work) and the usual ann taylor strapless dress. I am not that crazy about the sleeveless look since I am a size 16 and have somewhat heavy upper arms. Please advise.

Suzanne D'Amato: Personally, I'd pass on a long gown unless the invite specified black tie -- it strikes me as too formal for a company party. What about wearing a classic, knee-length tank dress with a capelet or a shrug to cover your arms? Or you might forgo the dress idea entirely in favor of wearing a curvy bolero jacket (perhaps in a dressy brocade or some such, to make it feel less "office"), with a top, slacks and strappy heels?

Big Law Firm: What does a young paralegal wear? This is my first job out of college. I need to be covered up, grown up -- and -- fashionable. ACK! Help!

Suzanne D'Amato: If you're worried about appearing grown-up, wear a tailored suit and leave the "holiday" elements to your accessories -- an embroidered clutch, say, or velvet pumps. If you wear a skirt, make sure it skims the knee and isn't too tight, and leave the fishnets and glittery eye makeup for when you're going out with your friends.

Washington, D.C.: I was wondering about white. Does winter white have to be a creamier-than-white or can I go for true white this winter and make it seasonally appropriate with my shoe and accessory choices? Or can you elaborate on winter white in general?

Suzanne D'Amato: Ah, winter white. I tend to opt for coffee-stain-proof black myself, but if you're tidier than I am, it's a lovely option. What shade you choose has more to do with what works with your skin tone than anything else. Creamy white tends to flatter fair-skinned types, while those stark blue-whites look great on olive and darker skin tones. The stark white does feel more summery, but I think that choosing something that looks good on you matters more than what time of year it is.

Shirt Styles: Suzanne- Thanks for all of the great style advice! I am petite (5'1") and find that many of the more stylish shirts are soooo long -- a trend that has continued from last year. How do I wear this style without looking frumpy? Many times you can't find some of these fun clothes in petites! Besides the usual suspects (Banana Republic, Ann Taylor Loft), where should I look?

Suzanne D'Amato: It's all about balancing out the proportion -- you can easily wear those blousy tunic tops, just pair them with a skinny pant (or, as is your wont, leggings) on your lower half. A platform heel works really well with this look -- its chunkiness balances out the sleek line of the leg and gives you a little height to boot. If the top is really too long, you can wear it as a minidress -- or take it to the tailor. Or take a pair of scissors to it (my preferred method).

Holiday Dress: I have a red, sleeveless, wool dress from this season's Banana Republic holiday collection. Any ideas how to make it current, or even dress down the red? Would boots look out of place? Should I just stick with heels?

Suzanne D'Amato: Ankle boots are having a moment, though they can be tough to pull off unless you're quite tall. Another current, more wearable option? Pair your dress with dark opaque tights and strappy gold heels.

Richmond, Va.: Following up on the earlier tights question: Does wearing tights with pointy-toe shoes look odd? Do I need chunkier, more substantial shoes when I wear tights? All of my shoes are of the pointy variety -- do I need to invest in some rounded-toe pumps to wear with tights? (I haven't worn tights since, oh, the fourth grade or so, and I'm experiencing some tights anxiety!)

Suzanne D'Amato: I don't think it looks odd, exactly, but chunkier, platform shoes are more in vogue this season than their pointy, ultra-sleek counterparts. Round-toe pumps are lovely, and very chic with tights. But if you're at all petite and/or young-looking, they can make you look like you're in the fourth grade.

Rockville, Md.: I noticed you mentioned chocolate brown tights -- are you saying it is ok to wear black with brown? How does that look work best? Thank you.

Suzanne D'Amato: I love black with brown, navy with black, grey with any of the above, and so on. Rules were made to be broken, I say! The trick is to choose shades that differ obviously enough that people won't just think you got dressed in the dark.

Swollen ankles and backache: Hi there, I'll be 39 weeks pregnant during my husband's work holiday party. The office is small -- maybe a dozen or so people -- so about 30 people total would be attending a fine dining dinner in DC and another event lined up afterwards. They follow a business dress code in the office. What would be appropriate to wear? Please, please tell me I can wear flats.

Suzanne D'Amato: You can definitely wear flats. Old Navy makes a great pair of gold bow-tie flats that cost all of $20. For a small office gathering, I'd wear a showstopping piece of jewelry and keep everything else neutral and comfy. Maybe an empire-waist dress, tights and a delicate crocheted or embroidered cardigan?

Washington, D.C.: How would you describe DC's style? I moved here recently from New York and find that I'm letting myself go a bit because it doesn't seem that people here care that much about how they look. Adding to that is that I work in a very casual work environment. People wear jeans that must be 20 years old, although there are some people who really put themselves together and look great every day. Any tips on how to motivate myself to keep myself up?

Suzanne D'Amato: Funny you should ask...I wrote an essay on this very subject a couple of months ago, and the reaction from readers was just amazing...both positive and negative: Washington: A Style Capital? As for motivating yourself, check out Unsung Designers, the Rock and Roll Hotel, Ben's Chili Bowl at midnight on a Tuesday...there's lots of style around here, if you know where to find it.

Wintertime Skirts: Help! I have a ton of great skirts for the summer, but at winter my closet is so limited to grays, blacks, and browns. What can I do do liven up my winter skirt collection? Thank you.

Suzanne D'Amato: Fashion is really much less seasonal than it used to be -- I'd inspect some of those summery skirts in your closet and see if you can't wear them for fall. Pastel floral prints might be a no-go, but cream, peach and grass green shades are more versatile than you might think. If you'd like to buy something new, tartan plaids are quite "in" this season, and they're a bit more zippy than basic black. Or try a quiet color in a different texture -- I saw the loveliest pale grey velvet skirt at Barney's CO-OP a few weeks back.

Washington, D.C.: I think fashion advisers focus too much on the trend of the moment. Style is a form of communication and personal creativity. Certainly one should strive to dress appropriately. But if a look is flattering and appropriate, what's wrong with being delightfully out of fashion? Isn't there an argument for encouraging creativity beyond the boundaries of current trends?

Suzanne D'Amato: Most definitely -- I think fashion, at its core, is about expressing yourself. But since what you wear says something about who you are, a lot of people want their wardrobe to say they're hip/cool/on the pulse of X/Y/Z. Which is where trends come into play.

Washington, D.C.: It seems like every year there's a big trend that plays out pretty quickly. I.E. The brooch. I know Robin Givhan wrote about the footless tights (amen, they didn't look right on me the first time around), but any other white hot trends that might not be so shiny by after the holidays?

Suzanne D'Amato: I think that crazily layered look is over and out (hey, even Mary-Kate has moved on). The "fashion mullet" is on its way out. Skinny jeans seem like they'll still be with us for a bit.

Washington, D.C.: Hose or no hose? I want to wear my skirts in colder weather, and I feel too sexpot wearing my tall boots to work. But pantyhose just feels so ... passe. Can someone bring back leg warmers or something?

Suzanne D'Amato: Actually, leg warmers ARE back! (Not that anyone over the age of 19 necessarily wants to go there.) Definitely wear stockings of some sort -- but I'd suggest tights over old-school tan pantyhose.

Bethesda, Md.: I love leopard print. I recently purchased an "investment" pair of leopard flats but am not sure what to wear with them without looking too "over the top."

Suzanne D'Amato: I'd wear them with jeans, with black pants, with just about anything, really. (Except more leopard print.) If you're worried about them standing out too much, wear them with clothes that mimic the palette of the print -- cream, tan, black, etc. and gold jewelry.

Indianapolis, Indiana: I have a calf-length back lace skirt with some coppery threads in it. What shall I wear with it for a party, and can it be worn for anything else or is it just too holiday party?

Suzanne D'Amato: Maybe a black satin top and strappy, mid-heel pumps in a coppery hue? I think you could wear it to any evening affair, but it does sound pretty dressy to me -- I wouldn't try it for work or anything.

Washington, D.C.: Do you know where to get sexy/elegant/flattering high-waisted trousers? I am so tired of the hip-hugger look.

Suzanne D'Amato: Chloe makes jaw-droppingly elegant, investment-grade slacks, so if want to drop some serious cash, I'd start there. Otherwise, maybe try Zara? I've had surprisingly good luck there with high-waisted, full-leg slacks.

"Semi-formal" holiday party: I have a party I'm attending on the West Coast. People there tend to be very hip, in a very grungy sort of way, and I am usually overdressed in my business suits. The party says "semi-formal" - at least one woman told me she is wearing a cocktail dress, what gives? If I wear a nice skirt, sweater tights and boots (pretty much my uniform on the east coast) will I be boring?

Suzanne D'Amato: If anything, it sounds like you might be a bit warm in boots and a sweater. Maybe sass up your nice skirt with funky shoes or a screen printed T-shirt instead? Nana on U Street stocks a variety of repurposed vintage tops that might work for a situation like this.

Thanks so much, everyone, for all of your great questions! I wish I had time to answer every one. If you have more, feel free to email me at ___________

© 2006 The Washington Post Company