Don’t answer that “Who are you wearing?” question — it’s a trap! This is a second-time-around Inaugural. A thrifted, pre-loved, pulled-out-of-the-closet affair at which one should look presentable, not spectacular, unless one is dancing on 10 stages across town. Even first-time ball-goers should exercise restraint: four-inch heels and sequins should be avoided at all costs.

Because at Inaugural balls, “dress to impress” quickly morphs into “dress for duress.” After the ball, you’ll be waiting for a taxi for at least an hour. Comfortable shoes, long-enough dresses and basic black are in demand at this quadrennial party. And although we know it’s coming, few Washingtonians plan in advance.

“Washington is a buy-now, wear-now fashion community,” said Julia Farr, owner of the Julia Farr Boutique in Friendship Heights, who has been clothing women all week for Inaugural festivities. “People are being practical. Because the events are so huge, women are not concerned with having one sensational look. They are fine with a lovely multipurpose dress.”

Brea Ellis tries on a Tracy Reese dress previously worn by Michelle Obama at the Rent the Runway pop up shop. (Via Instagram, @carannk)

This is a town, after all, where gowns are reusable. (And where they should have two pockets — one for a Blackberry and one for an iPhone.) While some women dress for style, Washington stalwarts know that this not the party to spend money on.

“It’s not like the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, where people want to have a moment in the spotlight,” Farr said. “That’s not the case with the Inauguration. It’s more ‘I have a pretty blue dress, I’ll wear that.'”

For men, the problem may be exacerbated by procrastination. Many store managers said they are expecting an eleventh-hour surge of men who realize the tuxedo they pull out twice a year may not fit so well after the holiday binge. Not to mention out-of-towners who forgot their cufflinks.

“I think we’ll see a big rush when the hotels fill up, maybe on the 18th or 19th,” said Sharron Moore, general manager of Brooks Brothers in Dupont. “Then a lot of people come to town some of them come and thinking they’ll buy their garments here.”

A bow tie tying lesson at Brooks Brothers. (Via Instagram, @carannk)

Moore has her full staff of 15 tailors braced for a long weekend of work and a marathon day Monday of tie-knotting and jacket-steaming.

Nordstrom Pentagon City and Nordstrom Tysons Corner Center are likewise bracing for a rush of unshined shoes and shirts in need of pressing, hosting their “Drive-By Bow Tie” event to provide final touches and bow-tie-tying refreshers (pinch, then create the hole and pull).

“Sometimes they come to town and put their shirt on and it doesn’t fit… [or] gentleman don’t know how to tie their bow ties,” Moore said. “During the Correspondents’ Dinner or press club things we’ll have people stop in and have their bow ties tied just on their way. Happens all the time.”

For some young professionals, the Inauguration is still a chance to enjoy getting dressed up, even if they didn’t spend hours in the Neiman Marcus fitting room. The knowledge that they can order first-lady-approved designers such as Narciso Rodriguez and Diane von Furstenburg for around $150 to $300 from online sites like Rent the Runway takes the pressure off.

The dress-rental site, which launched in November 2009, is capitalizing on last-minute invitations, renting gowns until the day before the Inauguration. Customers started reserving dresses months ago, says co-founder Jennifer Fleiss. To meet demand, Rent the Runway partnered with LivingSocial to launch a pop-up shop in Washington. The online deal site sold nearly 2,000 tickets for the pop-up shop last weekend, which turned LivingSocial’s F Street location into a mini boutique packed with fitting rooms and racks of gowns.

Last-minute shopper Stephanie Hollay chose a flowing one-shoulder gown from Rent the Runway Friday night. Having received an invite to the Agricultural Ball not too long ago (her husband works for a dairy farmers’ lobby firm), she was happy to check finding a dress off her to-do list.

“On Saturday I didn’t have to worry about anything… it wasn’t ‘Okay, I have to go to the mall and check out this store and this store and spend all day trying on things.'” Hollay said. “So it was just nice to know that I had that time.”

More on Inauguration:
The Inauguration Day walking guide
Wait, Soundgarden is performing at one of the official inaugural balls?
Golden Globes red carpet: Your Inauguration beauty cheat sheet
The 2009 People’s Inaugural Ball changed lives