Classic clothes part 7 – party time!

Foolproof evening options to get you through the winter party season.


Occasionwear can really bug the hell out of a woman once she reaches 40. Where are the sleeved dresses that disguise a bit of bingo wing? Why is it so difficult to find a ‘smoking’ suit? Why are there so many shiny fabrics? Why do manufacturers not acknowledge that most of us eat like pigs over the holiday season and gain five pounds?

One of the hallmarks of evening wear is that it’s revealing – especially necklines – but once you hit 40, you really need your clothes to do a bit more for you. The plain fact is that most women’s bodies don’t stand too close a scrutiny once you’ve had a couple of kids, and after you reach 50, you’ll lose approximately 250g of muscle a year, so even if you’re slim your body tends to be saggier unless you’re a real devotee of the gym. If your body is still fit and tight, then wear what you like, but if you need your clothes to help you a bit, here’s what to look for.

blog imageblog image1 Sleeves to at least elbow-length. Three quarter sleeves, fluted cuffs, a bit of sequin or beaded detail at the cuff are all nice evening options. Both of these dresses are from that good ol standby Littlewoods. The full-length dress with kimono sleeves probably wouldn’t look so good any shorter – you need the length to balance the width of the cuff, but both these dresses are classics that could take you pretty much anywhere.

2 Skirt to knee length or longer. For daytime, you can get away with a skirt above the knee if you’ve got good legs, because you can wear thick tights and/or boots. But for evening, those tights really need to be sheer, and when you sit down, an above-the-knee skirt is going to expose you up to mid-thigh. Personally, I would not do this unless you can really live up to it. Again, these two dresses fulfill this criteria, plus they both have skirts wide enough to sit down in comfortablyblog image.

blog image3 Waist detail – a sash here can hide a pot belly, or a bit of gathering on a wrap front can hide fat rolls. This teal satin dress from Oasis would suit anyone with small boobs, and that peg-top skirt allows you to get a surprising amount of hip in there.

4 Simplicity. A garment without tons of bells and whistles – keep your lines clean and elegant, not frou-frou, and then you can ring the changes with accessories. Choose items that you can layer for maximum versatility. This fabulous shift dress (far right) from Littlewoods is by Amanda Wakely and is packed with cunning details: matt fabric, exact knee length to slim your legs, vertical velvet trimmings along the princess seams to slenderise your frame. I would buy this dress like a shot…

5 Support. If you’re choosing a strapless dress, make sure it’s boned, or have a long-line bra sewn into the bodice. If it has straps, choose ones that you can get a bra under. If you haven’t checked out bra designs in a while, by the way, log onto and take a look at the invisible and plunge options, with silicone straps, silicone back sections and silicone front sections which give you support but transparency under revealing necklines.

The seduction of separates

For evening wear, not every woman is best served by a dress and it can pay to build up a capsule wardrobe of separates, especially if your evening events mostly consist of meals out or other sitting-down activities rather than dance parties and balls (I wish…). I’d recommend:

blog image1 Fluid blackblog image trousers in a matt stretch fabric, or evening fabric such as lined chiffon. I’ve had endless wear from a pair of Pringle knitted black merino trousers, which have been teamed with everything from oriental jackets to 1920s velvet tops. Trousers give you full coverage, are warm in winter and also enable you to wear almost any footwear, but avoid leather – ring a change with satin, velvet or brocade instead.

2 A mid-calf length or long skirt in an evening fabric such as lined chiffon or silk velvet. Keep it black for maximum wearability and look out for detailing such as a satin hem, beading or lace. My stretch panne velvet A-line skirt has now done eight years of service and counting, and it’s quite similar to this devore velvet skirt from Monsoon.

blog image3 Shirts and blouses (ie: optimum coverage but feminine detailing) in evening fabrics such as chiffon, organza, lace or velvet. If the fabric’s transparent, wear it over a lace-edged camisole or body, and whatever the fabric, team it with trousers, a trousersuit or a skirt. My favourite evening shirt remains a peach satin openwork shirt from Betty Barclay. This teal satin one, however, is from Debenham’s and contains some nice details such as the wrap front and flattering bow at the waist, which will hide a multitude of sins. The designer is Jasper Conran – an expert at creating wearable clothing.

4 Sparkly accessories. If your taste runs to sequins, satin and beads but you’re worried about clothes clinging to your hot spots, look out instead for glittery evening bags and wraps. Fizzy accessories like this can dress up a plain black outfit for evening and are a quick way to switch from day to night if you’re going straight out from work. Vintage stores are a good place to look if you want something unusual, but high-street stores and firms like Accessorize usually have very good options.

blog image5 ‘Le smoking’ – a tuxedo trousersuit in black or cream, with a one-button jacket, satin lapels and jacket long enough to cover your rear. If you own one of these, you will always have something to wear for an evening out. Those with great figures and youth on their side can team them with a lacy bra, a bustier or simply nothing underneath, but those of us who are clocking on a bit are better off with a blouse, or a camisole with a reasonably high neck. This version with short jacket and satin-edged lapels is from Marks and Spencer, where there are currently others available in the Per Una range. Here in France, ‘le smoking’ is so classic that some women own several – I recently saw that icon of French style Jeanne Moreau on television in a black lame one – 70 years old if she’s a day and looking drop-dead sexy.

blog image6 Knee-length evening boots in black suede, satin etc, with a stiletto or kitten heel. These are a fantastically useful option for cold weather but are quite hard to find for some reason. Avoid leather for this style of boot unless it’s metallic, and keep the heel narrow at all costs. If you balk at walking in stilettos, you may find a boot a better option than a shoe because there’s more support for your ankles. These suede ones are by Kirov.

7 Strappy evening shoes. You need three colours to cover all the bases – black, nude and metallic – in satin, suede, brocade or glitter fabric and with a stiletto or kitten heel. Wear black with your (long) black bottoms, nude with anything and metallic for a bit of pizazz. If you still have dosh left over, think of some jewel-bright satins in zippy colours. Whatever the style, make sure they’re sexy – narrow heels, pointy toes, low-cut vamp (that’s the bit at the front) and thin straps. These are show-off shoes and they’re not meant to do a full day’s work (‘car to bar’ shoes, my friend N calls them), so practicality is the least of your worries – just try to find a height you’re comfortable in.

8 Ballet flats in metallics, or jewel colour satin or brocade – for tall women, trousered women and women who don’t like heels. If you’re going to wear flats for evening, make sure they’re feminine.

9 Evening jackets, shrugs and cardigans

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Versatile top layers in velvet, brocade, sequinned or beaded fabric are about the most useful item in an evening wardrobe to quickly chuck on over something plain or strappy. For any sit-down event, people will mostly see your top half, so if this is what your evenings consist of, don’t waste money on what’s under the table. This black organza Monsoon shrug is just fantastic and I wish I had it – vertical pintucking, three quarter sleeves that won’t get in the soup, and the tie at waist level, it could be worn over virtually anything and would be useful to tone down an over-shiny vest or camisole. The oriental-inspired red number and the black sequinned cardi are from M&S and make a useful cover-up for a dress, trousers or skirt.

blog image12 An evening coat is a surprisingly useful object. A great evening coat enables you to make a grand entrance, no matter how plain your underlayers and on occasion you can find yourself keeping one on, as I did at a recent (unheated) gallery opening. Look for organza, satin, brocade or some other evening-y fabric but with a simple cut. This silver one is from M&S.

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