'The Party': Sally Quinn on what to wear to holiday festivities

Sally Quinn
Sally Quinn
Sally Quinn
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 10, 2009; 11:00 AM

Washington Post staff writer Sally Quinn was online Thursday, Dec. 10, at 11 a.m. ET to discuss the eternal question when you're invited to a party: what to wear. She says the answer may surprise you.

Today's Column: Don't wait for an engraved invitation to look sharp

Holiday Guide


Sally Quinn: Hi everyone. I'm happy to answer any questions you may have about entertaining. This doesn't have to be about clothes either. Any questions you may have on the subject are welcome. I need questions and ideas for next weeks column! Thanks for joining me today. Sally Q


Arlington, Va.: Hi Sally. Tomorrow I'm invited to a holiday party at our boss' house that starts at 4 p.m., so everyone will be going to the party directly from the office. Our office is casual on Fridays (most people wear jeans). Any suggestions on something festive to wear that would work for both the office and the party and strike a balance between not too dressy/not too casual?

Sally Quinn: If Friday is casual and people are going straight from the office, why not wear pants and a nice sweater or sweater set. Red would liven things up. Maybe take a scarf or pearls to work and add them on the way to the party. Also, don't be afraid to ask others what they are wearing.


Black dress: I have a Christmas party to go to next weekend and I'm trying to find something in my closet. I have a long-sleeve black wrap dress I suppose I could wear with sheer black stockings but -- what kind of shoes and what jewelry could I wear to dress it up/make it stand out a little more?

Sally Quinn: As we all know black goes everywhere. But during the holidays a little color would be nice. Do you have any bright jewelry to dress it up. If you're going to wear black stocking you probably should stick with some black evening shoes. Make the jewelry the focal point.


Baltimore, Md.: I'm going to an evening wedding this weekend that is "black tie optional." Generally I wouldn't wear black to a wedding, but what do you think about wearing a little black cocktail dress with a silver shrug and silver shoes to break it up? Thanks!

Sally Quinn: I'd call and find out what black tie optional is supposed to mean. Is everyone wearing a tuxedo. As I said in my column I don't believe in BTO for the very reason you are writing. Also, in the old days people never wore black to wedding but in this day and age it seems to be acceptable. But I like the silver shrug and silver shoes.


Colorado Springs, Colo.: I'm hoping it will have warmed up a little by next weekend, when we'll be attending an evening cocktail/festive attire holiday party. We've had lots of snow and the temperature has been in the single digits or negative after the sun goes down here. What are some warmer options for dressing up? Anything that will allow me to wear boots? My wardrobe is bare, so I need some guidance for shopping.

Sally Quinn: I live in boots in the winter with mid calf length skirts. Dressy sweaters are really fashionable now so why not wear something like that or a silk blouse under a sweater. I do not believe in freezing to death for the sake of vanity.


NYC: Hello there, Ms. Quinn.:

A friend has invited me to attend his office party. I understand that it will be held in a French restaurant in the city and that the dress code is "holiday business festive," whatever that is. . . would you please offer some appropriate suggestions on what to wear? Thank you.

Sally Quinn: I would wear a dressy suit or maybe a velvet jacket or a covered up dress with some pretty jewelry. Keep remembering they did use the word "business." Don't be too bare.


Washington, D.C: My regular attire at work is pretty basic -- dark pants and a shirt, nothing too formal or dressy. I've felt it works best to blend in with my mostly male colleagues and most of the other women also dress similarly. How do I transition from that to looking "festive" at the holiday party without drawing too much attention?

Sally Quinn: Obviously there is an unspoken dress code at the office is fine and you're right to adhere to it. If I'm in that boat I add long dangling earrings for the party. They indicate you're making an effort but don't want to stand out too much.


washingtonpost.com: Don't wait for an engraved invitation to look sharp (Post, Dec. 10)


Rockville, Md.: Well, this certainly puts me in my place. But actually, I am happy to stay at home. I will call your column "a postcard from another world."

Reminds me of when I first came to the District in 1969 and decided to break out of the blue suit pattern. It had all the lift of a lead balloon when I was in my green plaid sports jacket. Oh well.

Sally Quinn: I have a friend who used to wear red plaid pants if he was in a good mood. He called them his "drinking pants" and everyone knew when he walked in the room that they were going to have a good time because he was such a live wire. You have to know your crowd to wear a green plaid sports jacket.


Falls Church, Va.: I am delighted that you have addressed this issue. I am an image consultant and am really trying to make a difference with one person at a time. I am enclosing a speech I gave at The Capital Speakers Club.

Many of you know that I am passionate about fashion, style and color. That's also how I make my living. What you don't know (pause) is that it's how I reclaimed my life.

I've talked in the past about the sudden loss of my 17-year-old son Scotty in an automobile accident. The loss of my beloved son came about the same time as my divorce after 23 years of marriage and three very serious surgeries. As you can imagine, I was devastated and despondent.

I owe my recovery and perhaps my sanity to a friend Cindy Eichberg who came to my house almost every day for six months. She made me get up, get dressed, put on my make up, and go out to lunch. Sometimes we didn't make it all the way to lunch, we played dress-up because we had both been recently trained as color and image consultants.

Whenever I did go out, I looked good and I felt better. People would smile at me in restaurants. I got compliments on my outfits. My reflection in a window gave me a lift. The world seemed a little more hopeful.

I wanted others to experience that same joy. I began to realize that color and image consulting were going to be more than a business. It was a mission to make people happier. I started my business when an IV [was] in my arm.

For xx years, I have witnessed many miracles as I've helped people reshape their wardrobes, their homes, and sometimes their lives. I don't believe that their successes were all inspired by our image work together...but I do believe it helped...a 51-year-old woman who didn't think she would ever marry is now married. Professionals who became more confident and successful at work. Husbands and wives who felt a rekindled spark in their marriages. Mothers who have brought their daughters to me. Fathers who have brought their sons. They also say that their lives are easier because they don't fret about what to wear, because people respond to them better, because they're more successful.

In our society where flip-flops, tank tops and baggy pants rule and young people text instead of even using the phone, I still see them pause before a major event like a wedding or that first job interview with the realization that they don't know what to wear, how to act, and it's time to grow up. I see them stand a bit straighter, shake my hand, and thank me for educating them on the power of color and the potential to look better than they've ever looked before.

I work with women and men of all shapes and sizes. Anyone can be attractive. Anyone can have style. All they have to do is open their eyes and hearts to the power and potential of themselves.

I help people find their style, on their budget. I help them find the right shade because we can all wear any color. I help them see that they can wear sunny yellow or mustard gold and make them glow because the hues, styles, and accessories come together in a way that has radiance just for them. I believe I also help them find happiness...because that's what I found...and that's what inspires me.

Sally Quinn: Good for you. Most importantly is that when they dress well, then others will feel respected and will respond to them in a different way. Dressing well also says that you have confidence and are competent to make your way in the world. It also makes you feel better to look good. For me it's a no brainer. Congratulations for helping so many people realize their potential.


Arlington, Va.: I'm going to a party tomorrow night and want to wear a dress that I wore to a party a few weeks ago. There won't be any overlap on the guest list, but is this a major faux pas?

Sally Quinn: In this age of disposable everything I hope clothes don't become that as well. I wear things over and over if I like them, sometimes even if I know there will be overlap. If I'm going to several parties where I know the same people will be there I'll try to wear something different. Also, if I feel that I've worn something too much I stash it away and pull it out in about five years. I don't believe the idea that if you haven't worn something in two years you get rid of it. I now have what I call a lot of "vintage" clothes which I still wear and feel as if I'm wearing something new.


Anonymous: Sally:

What gift can I bring for my host and hostess for a business party situation? Wine and alcoholic beverages are out.

Sally Quinn: I'm not big on hostess gifts although I am in the minority. I find that often people don't put cards on things so I can't thank them and then of course I have to write thank you notes. But if you feel obligated candy (something special) or books are the safest option for a business party.


Fashion Help Needed: I'm attending my boss' wedding next weekend. It's a morning service and luncheon reception. I'm assuming I should treat it as a work function and dress conservatively. I was thinking a raspberry-colored silk dress, topped with a black sweater and black tights, but now I'm worried it's too dressy.

Sally Quinn: A wedding is not a work function. For mornings you don't need to dress up that much but it is a wedding. The silk dress I think would be fine with a black sweater and black tights. The color makes it festive but the sweater and tights make it more conservative. I say go with it.


When in doubt...: Hello -- The impression I get from reading your column is "when in doubt, go a little dressier." Am I correct in that assessment? Thanks!

Sally Quinn: Actually, no. I'd rather be a little underdressed than overdressed. It looks like you're trying too hard. I say when in doubt wear something basic and simple and dress it up with jewelry or a scarf or accessories. I had a friend staying with me recently who had flown down in an emergency to see a sick who was in college. She had nothing but black jeans, boots, a shirt and sweater. She was here for about five days and I took her to a party with me the last night. I loaned her a black sweater with rhinestone buttons and dangling earring and she got more compliments than anybody on how she looked.


Silver Spring, Md.: How do you get people to RSVP?

Sally Quinn: This is a constant problem for me. If it's a large party and you just can't call everyone, count on a 20% dropout rate. If it's smaller, just get on the phone and hound them. There's no other way.


Rockville, Md.: Hi Sally, I went to a dinner in my husband's boss' house a few weeks ago. The invitation said nothing about dress so I went in a dressy leather jacket and dress pants. The hostess and many of the guests were wearing cocktail attire. I felt out of place but didn't know why it wasn't specified. What do you do in a case like that?

Sally Quinn: I think if the invitation doesn't specify the dress I would call and ask. It sounds as if you looked fine. Dressy leather jackets are everywhere. The British Ambassador's wife had one on at a cocktail party the other night and she is one of the best dressed women in Washington.


Washington, D.C.: Thanks for taking my question! I am spending Christmas with my husband's paternal side, including his father, grandmother and assorted aunts and uncles. This will be the first time I meet them, as they could not come to our recent wedding due to health issues and the expense of traveling to D.C. from Tennessee. This will also be my first Christmas, as I am Jewish (my husband converted a long time ago). As a liberal, Jewish, somewhat over-educated New Yorker, I am worried I will make a bad impression, or somehow offend the family or accidently say something scandalous. The Tennessee branch is very conservative and not financially well-off. Although I have never had a chance to speak to any of them, because of my background my husband has the impression they are slightly embarrassed and not thrilled to meet me.

My husband's mother, who is on very distant but civil terms with her son's father and family, suggests I dress very conservatively and avoid all discussion of politics, culture and any words over three syllables. I think her suggestions are perhaps a slight overstatement. My husband seconded the statement of dressing very conservative (tights, dresses and skirts (no pants) at least below the knee and minimal skin showing, no or low-heeled shoes) for Christmas eve, Christmas morning and the day after. I don't own anything like this, and am now even unsure of what to say or how to act or what to wear. Help! Any suggestions or guidance would be appreciated.

Sally Quinn: First of all your husband converted to Judaism so they must have all accepted that on some level or you wouldn't be included. I once had a boyfriend whose southern parents were very conservative socially and politically. When I spend any holiday with them I called his parents ma'am and sir and dressed conservatively. I stayed away from political issues. You must own a knee length skirt or two. If not, I'd go to Walmart and get a couple. You should have them in your closet anyway for these kinds of occasions. My feeling is that you should be as charming as possible and just ask them questions about themselves and their family. People always love to talk about their ancestors and relatives and it will show them that you are interested in them and that you are making an effort. Go expecting to have a good time, not expecting the worst. Also, watch your husband and take your cues from him. And have a Merry Christmas! Remember it's only two days.


Grand Rapids, Mich. : Hi Sally...what do you think of leggings with a longer sweater look for late 50's age group? What could dress the look up a little?

Sally Quinn: Wouldn't work for me but I have friends in their mid to late sixties who look great in them. It depends on your legs. Maybe play with your hair and makeup a bit so it appears that you're going for a new look.


Ankle boots?!: Hi Sally,

Here's a holiday party dilemma: a wedding reception in the middle of the day in an exceedingly cold location two days after Christmas. And I'm the bride (the wedding has already occurred -- the reception is for less well-to-do relatives who couldn't attend.)

I have a bright pink dress and a black sparkly jacket. Could I wear black tights and ankle boots? Or would that be too dark? Thanks.

Sally Quinn: If you're not wearing white then any color is fine. If it's in the middle of the day you should think about how sparkly the jacket is. You don't want to wear an evening jacket or be too overdressed, especially if these relative are not well to do. But boots are fine. It's cold!


Vintage: Since you mentioned "vintage": my mom worked in Hollywood in the 50s and I now have a lot of her wonderful party clothes from that era. But as you might guess from the dates, I'm middle-aged now (50). Am I too old to pull off a funky/dressy vintage look?

Sally Quinn: It depends on how funky. You don't want to look silly. Ask as friend who will tell you the truth.


Baltimore, Md.: I am going to a baby shower this weekend and am trying to find something to wear! I haven't been to many and am not sure how nice to dress or what to wear since this really isn't a holiday party. Thanks!

Sally Quinn: Do you have a simple dress or a skirt and sweater. I don't think you need to dress to the nines for a baby shower.


From your column today: Ohhh come on, lots of men like to dress up and lots of women like to dress down. Can't we try and move away from these stereotypes?

Sally Quinn: My experience is with most men whining when they have to wear a tie, but yours may be different.


Fairfax, Va.: So what would you suggest for jewelry? I'm looking for some special pieces that could add some interest to a plain dress or pants and a blouse...I don't have a ton of money to spend but want to get a few great statement pieces. Where would you suggest that I look?

Thanks in advance!

Sally Quinn: Actually my sister, Donna Robbins sells jewelry from a place on line called stelladot.com The jewelry is fabulous and really inexpensive. I've done all my Christmas shopping from them. You're welcome Donna, for the plug.


Washington, D.C.: For black tie journalism dinners in Washington (such as the W.H. parties this next week), why isn't norm to bring dates? It seems to create a weird divide in couples in which only one is invited, or only one is in journalism, so therefore will never have his/her significant other invited.

Sally Quinn: Are you sure the parties are black tie. That hasn't been so in my experience. You should check. I don't like parties where spouses are not asked . Perhaps, in this case, they have so many thousands of people to run through the White House over Christmas that they just can't accommodate them. These parties are huge.


Wilmington, Vt.: What would you consider to be the up-to-date and current hot outfit or accessory for this season?

Sally Quinn: I don't usually think of things as current or hot. I like classic clothes that fit me well and that are timeless. But then that's my style. The look these days, though, is not as suits as it is with short , snappy little jackets with skirts or pants.


Hume, Va.: Sari or Redskins cheerleader outfit?

Sally Quinn: Boy, that's a hard one. I would go with a burqa (the Muslim robe which covers a woman's whole body including her face!


Philadelphia, Pa.: Hi. My son, a Marine, was married in a very small ceremony in Charleston in Sept. He and his wife will be here for Christmas. He will leave for Officer Candidate School in January and he will be away for 10 weeks. They hope to have a party in May or June to celebrate their marriage, which her mom and stepdad would host. I would like to have a small Open House (cocktails and nibbles)to introduce my new daughter-in-law just to family and local friends over the holidays. But I don't want to be perceived as "jumping the gun" by doing so before her parents host the big party. Would this be inappropriate? What do you think?

Sally Quinn: Ask them. If they'd rather wait then do so. Make sure you tell them you don't want to jump the gun but that you too, would like to honor them as well.


Alexandria, Va.: I am glad you mentioned a sweater with rhinestone buttons...I have one (cream) and plan to wear it this weekend but with dangle rhinestone earrings. Husband and I are meeting up with friends for dinner...not a fancy place but not casual either. Is that too much bling? Should I consider other earrings?

Sally Quinn: The sweater sound great. How about non dangling rhinestone earring.


Gaithersburg, Md.: Hi Sally, Years ago you and your husband were on a local call in show discussing parties and a man said that you'd never invite "someone like him" to a party. You answered that you definitely would invite him and would do your best to make him feel at home. I never forgot that because it made me try to be as welcoming as possible to people coming to my home. Thank you for letting "regular" people feel special too!

Sally Quinn: My parents always told me that "a guest in your house can do no wrong." I have people I like to my house and I always treat them the way I would like to be treated.


For the Jewish-New York/Christian-Tennesee Christmas: Offer to help out in the kitchen as much as possible. It will give you specific tasks to do which will help you avoid the pressure of chit chat and political/religious landmines. And your husband's relatives will appreciate the gesture.

Sally Quinn: Great idea. Thanks. I should have thought of that.


D.C.: Hi Sally,

I'm going to my boss's holiday party next weekend. In his invitation, he listed attire as "casual." We're a "business casual" workplace, and we're allowed to wear jeans on Fridays. My thought was to wear a decent pair of jeans, nice shoes (i.e., not sneakers), and a sweater. My wife thinks I should wear slacks and a button-up shirt, but I think this is too dressy when the invitation specifies "casual."

Thoughts? Thanks for the great advice!

Sally Quinn: I agree with your wife. It won't kill you to put on a pair of slacks and you won't look too dressed up either. Wear a sweater over the button up shirt. It is a holiday party after all.


Lessons: The lessons of your column should be applied throughout the year. I've always worn a suit when I've been to traffic court (just twice) and to jury duty. It surprises me that some people dress very casually. I guess that some want to get out of jury duty via their attire, but in traffic court they certainly give the wrong impression.

Sally Quinn: Smart.


Washington, D.C.: I can second the fact that there are, in fact, people out there who don't own knee-length or longer skirts. I guess we should start some sort of secret society. I am from a Southern, rural, conservative, Baptist family, and I'm finding it hard to imagine a scenario where black slacks would be offensive, especially for around the house on Christmas morning. It may not be what the ladies there wear, but how could it offend?

Sally Quinn: I agree with you but this family may have different customs. It won't hurt to adjust to the. When they come to your house then you dress the way you like.


Sally Quinn: Thanks so much everyone for joining me. It's been fun and a lot of interesting a good questions. Have fun at all the parties. Sally Q


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