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The Holiday dressing conundrum


Tis the season for a million and one parties, each requiring varying degrees of dress-up.

Dressing appropriately for an occasion can be challenging. Particularly when, for example, it is your guy’s work party, you ask him what the dress is, he looks at you like you’re speaking in Ancient Coptic and says, “Um… nice?” (Totally hypothetical situation, of course).

Many men don’t understand that though ‘nice’ may be enough information for them, it really isn’t sufficient information for us girls. Though most men only have a few levels of dressiness, most women have a vast range, the differences of which are too subtle to even be noticed by the average man. But women notice. Oh, we notice. And we care when we get it wrong.

When men get dressed for an event, it is a fairly simple process; depending on what they do for a living and where they live, a lot of men have 4 ‘uniforms’ from which to choose.

The super casual: beater jeans or shorts, t-shirt with athletic sneakers/sandals.

The semi-casual: nicer jeans, nice t-shirt or collared shirt, with converse/vans/casual leather lace-ups.

‘Nice’: slacks or really nice jeans, collared shirt with possible sweater/blazer and lace-up leather shoes.

Really nice/Formal: fancy suit or tux with corresponding tie.

Some men would add a ‘work’ category, which would include not-as-fancy suits.

Still, that’s only 4 or 5 categories, and almost any occasion life throws their way can fit into one of them. (When I told my guy I was writing this article, and that I was claiming 4-5 dress-up categories for men, he looked super confused and said, “I can’t think of more than 3.” Exactly.)

Not so us ladies.  For women, each of these categories can (and are) subdivided into a seemingly infinite array of subtle variations. For example, in the semi-casual category, there can be a big difference between two casual events – requiring tweaks to wardrobe, hair and make-up. One of my favorite examples of this was when Claudia and I asked our (gay) friend what the dress was for his end-of-summer bash. He thought for a second and said, “Oh you know… BBQ sexy”. As much as I really wanted to say that I had no idea what he was talking about and that BBQ sexy was a completely ridiculous phrase, both Claudia and I instantly knew exactly what he meant; cute sundress showing leg or cleavage (not both, it was a day event after all), high heeled sandals or similar with done (but not overdone) hair and make-up. BBQ Sexy. Which would fall somewhere in the semi-casual category, but would be different than, say, brunch with the girls, which would also be considered semi-casual.

Though men have 3 to 5 categories, women’s categories are much harder to quantify. If I tried, I’d have to guess it would be somewhere between 15 and 27, depending on the woman and her lifestyle. My guy would wear pretty much the same thing to a wedding as he would to a funeral (maybe with a different tie), whereas the outfit I’d wear to a wedding would in no way resemble an outfit I’d wear to a funeral. Not only that, let’s say you have four different weddings to attend in a summer. The guy can wear the exact same suit and tie to all four weddings. Most women would feel the need to wear a different dress to each one. There was a time when a girl could get away with wearing the same dress to different events as long as she was pretty sure there wouldn’t be cross-over guests. Now-a-days those candid wedding photos end up on facebook before the bride and groom have checked into the honeymoon suite, so if you wear the same dress to multiple weddings, it is pretty obvious. No one would ever notice (or care) if a guy wore the same suit to every single dressy event two years running.

These differences can be seen in the number and varying styles of shoes women own (and wear on a regular basis) as compared to the number and varying styles of shoes men own. I’ll use me and my guy as an example.

My husband is a pretty middle-of-the-road dresser for Los Angeles. I don’t mean that he has average taste – I think he has great taste – I just mean that on the scale of total slacker to crazily quaffed metrosexual, he’s somewhere in the middle. He, like many folks in the entertainment business, does not have to wear a suit to work, so his main uniform in life is nice jeans, a t-shirt or collared shirt and converse. He has 5 pairs of shoes sitting in our closet; a pair of black converse, lace up leather shoes, a fancier pair of lace up leather shoes, a pair of flip flops and a sturdy pair of hiking boots… only 3 of which he wears with any regularity. That’s it.

And then there’s me. I too would consider myself pretty average for LA – certainly not a fashionista, but I definitely like clothes and have more than my fair share. While my guy has 5 pairs of shoes total, I think I have 5 different pairs of black boots (Dressy leather with stiletto heals, Dressy cloth with wedge heel, motorcycle style flat boots, funky half-leather/half-suede with a low heal that I can wear over jeans, and casual flat boots that hit just above the ankle), not to mention a few pairs of boots in other colors. And those are just the boots. I probably have close to that many pair of black heels. Typing that out, I feel a little Imelda Marcosian, but I don’t think I’m alone in this, nor particularly excessive. I’m sure I have a few pairs of shoes that aren’t in heavy rotation but the vast majority of my shoes have a specific purpose and are worn pretty regularly. That’s what I mean. Of course, women don’t have to indulge in this level of dressing minutia (one of my best friends refuses to engage and has fewer dress up levels than most men). I have found, however, that for most women, at least here in Los Angeles, navigating and adhering to the unwritten and often unspoken but never-the-less totally evident complex dress codes is the norm if not the actual rule.

All of which gets me back to dressing for the various events this holiday season. This past weekend I attended my first three holiday parties – each were very different levels of fanciness. Two were house parties, and though there was a wide range of styles of dress at both parties, everyone looked totally appropriate and no one seemed particularly out of place.  The third party was a whole different story. Given my dislike for being overdressed, I felt bad for the few women I saw who were wearing full length formal gowns when it was much more of a cocktail dress kind of party. Perhaps they didn’t care – maybe they thought, “When else am I going to get to wear this floor length be-jeweled number? I’m going for it!” Perhaps I was projecting, but most of the overdressed women didn’t look super comfortable. It can be tough. When there’s an actual, physical invitation (or evite), one can often intuit the dress code even if it isn’t explicitly stated. When the invite is coming verbally through a guy, it can be trickier. Here are a few tips to make it easier.

  • If you’re going with a date, ask what he’s wearing. For obvious reasons (see above), this will only get you so far, but at least you’ll be in the general ballpark.
  • If at all possible, ask another female guest what she’s going to wear. Worst-case scenario, even if you’re both way off the mark, at least you can be inappropriately dressed together.
  • If you’re totally clueless, wear all black, showing a little skin. A simple black dress (in a slightly more casual fabric) with a cute pair of heels can go pretty much anywhere. Wear a good base make-up, simple but ‘done’ hair and put a more vibrant lipstick and a hair tie in your purse. If you’re totally off the mark, get to the bathroom as quickly as you politely can. If you’re underdressed, super red lips will kick your look up a notch. If you’re overdressed, throwing your hair in a ponytail will tone things down.
  • Know your comfort zone and err on that side. Personally, I would much rather be a little underdressed than a little overdressed, so if I’m not sure, I’ll wear something that’s cute but more casual and add statement jewelry to ‘dress it up’. Or if I know it is dressy, I just don’t know how dressy, I’ll wear a simple but dressy base and layer something casual on top that can be easily removed.
  • Holiday sweaters are never the way to go unless you are in your mid to late 70’s, are a total hipster or are going to a designated ‘ironic holiday sweater’ party. Also, any piece of clothing or accessory that lights up is a no-go, unless you’re under the age of 10. In which case, what the hell are you doing ready this blog?
  • In the unfortunate event that you have miscalculated terribly and are way over-dressed (or underdressed), saying “I just came from another party” will help you save face every time.


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