The advantage Royal Ascot has over the average hostess is that they make very clear the fact that, if you buy the ticket, you’re essentially entering into a contract. It seems to me that people accept these stipulations because they know they’ll be refused entry (or thrown out – if they try to subvert the rules by stripping off once they get in) if they don’t go with it. Perhaps we should consider that, given the stress most brides put themselves under before their ‘Big Day’, they would be perfectly within their rights to ‘bounce’ their more hideously dressed guests. Since I’ve never heard of this happening, I can only assume that they are blinded by endorphins. Which bodes well for both their future marriage…and for the village idiot.
The most important thing to remember is that – at most events – you are a guest: you are not the host. It may seem obvious – but many sets of wedding photos are ruined by the friend who decides to sport a tea dress with Doc Martens. You know the type: she’s alternative, she doesn’t ‘do’ social convention and she’ll make all your memories look less like a New England WASP family gathering (think the photo montage created by Jennifer Garner’s character in 13 Going On 30) – and more like a patchwork of style mayhem. Or the teenage goth who wouldn’t deign to ditch the death mask or Morticia chic – even after the kind of persuasive efforts by their mother that would make most UN diplomats quake.
If you are this type of person (consider whether you have a CV comprised of three month long ‘career’ choices or a string of failed relationships – of approximately the same length – to your name) then please understand that the polite guidance given on an invitation is there for a reason. If you can’t conform – yes, it’s a horrid word, and an objectionable concept to me too – then don’t accept the invitation. If you say ‘yes’, then you are taking on board that obligation. The furore generated by David Cameron’s original intention to wear a lounge suit to the Royal Wedding (mostly, I suspect, by women who have actually organised the ‘happiest day of their life’) gives you some idea of how much contempt this behaviour is held in.
Now, on to the dirt. With weddings (or any formal event – other than Royal Ascot – actually), there is no longer any requirement to wear a hat. I think that, in all honesty, they are only really appropriate at the races or weddings nowadays. However, nix the idea completely unless you are comfortable with millinery. If you aren’t – but really, really, really want to wear one – then take my advice: fascinators are easy to wear and a good stepping stone to headwear. However, they are no longer cutting edge fashion. I’m sorry but the Middleton sisters have made them sloaney – not chic. To their credit (and I’m not even going to mention the amazing Middleton genes or the fact that Pippa can apparently charm both twenty-something and septuagenarian members of the Royal family), they cottoned on to the basic fabulousness of fascinators – they are so easy to wear. Unfortunately fashion is no respecter of ‘easy’ as a concept. If you’re going to go with one, I’m assuming it’s because you don’t want to commit to a hat – but still want to make some type of statement. If this is the case, I suggest getting a fascinator with some type of ‘stand-out’ detail. Say, bold feathers, some type of veil or – at the very least – beads, sequins or general sparkliness. It’s a magpie piece so show off a little – it’s not like it’s going to take over your head.
If you want to go the whole hog (I love the excuse to wear a hat – sad drama queen that I am), I recommend a solo trip to a big department store. My favourite approachable and, reasonably affordable, choice is John Lewis. The place is amazing – indulge yourself and have an Audrey Hepburn moment: the key is to be open-minded. Don’t dismiss any style or colour. The staff in the millinery department will happily allow you to play dress-up – and provide constructive advice.
Try every single hat on. Lots of us shy away from the styles we perceive as Mumsy (you know the ones – they look like they belong on camp highwaymen), but they were all created because they suited someone. They seem mostly to be bought by middle-aged women who, clearly, don’t read my pieces. However, I think they’re perfect for those of us who might wear a smart, 70s style, flared leg trouser suit given the chance. A look, by the way, which is approved by the Royal Enclosure – no less. Even the pill-box has had a moment recently – thanks to Sam Cam and VB. Both of whom wore them with élan.
Alternatively, wear some sort of super decorated hair decoration – by which I mean one of the quite beautiful embellished hairbands, combs, slides or grips that you can find almost anywhere. This is an especially good look on a younger person. For an older lady, it’s also a good compromise at an evening do. They catch the light and can be bought in a colour and style that compliments your outfit. Or shoes. Or bag. Or whatever.
With clothing, trousers can be worn pretty much anywhere. If Ascot says it’s acceptable, it’s acceptable. However, colour, style and material should be considered – just as they would be if you wore a dress. I will give an example from my own experiences. At my own wedding (which took place on the first day of the heatwave of 2003), the most comfortable guest wore wide legged, white linen trousers with a silk jersey, embroidered and embellished vest top. She wore decorated flip flops, hoop earrings, carried a silver, snakeskin clutch and looked amazing. No hat, no fuss – just extreme panache.
I learnt a very important lesson that day – comfort and style are not mutually exclusive. It is a look I have adapted at both a recent wedding and christening. Admittedly, I wore heels, avoided tops which exposed my not very Michelle Obama-ish arms and chose fabrics that wouldn’t crease so obviously, but I was at events where my appearance was scrutinised by more conservative family members. I think I passed – I certainly got a compliment on my ‘originality’, which I think referred to the daring use of trousers!
Now, If you do choose a dress or skirt, please remember that length is important. On the knee is as short as you should go – there will be younger people there. Younger people with better legs and, probably, more money to spend on fripperies like fashion. And expensive shoes, accessories etc etc etc. This is a generation that doesn’t pay a mortgage, have a landline or care about savings, pensions or investments. Their lives are very social (or only social, in some cases) and revolve around beautiful things. Plus they have the bodies to go with it. No matter how much of a gym bunny you are, you can never – in the words of Hercule Poirot – ‘disguise the age of your knees’. Or your elbows, hands or feet. So…be careful.
Fabric is equally crucial. Jersey wrap-dresses are very popular. They are flattering as – theoretically – they skim and gather in all the right places. However, the cheaper versions use lighter textiles – which can be inadvertently revealing. There is a risk of VPL and many stick – rather than skim – to your bumps. You don’t buy wrap-dresses because they’re heavy and constricting, so don’t choose one that means you have to wear heavy and constricting underwear. Just lay out a little more money and get one in a thicker jersey.
With a more structured dress (there are numerous copies of the Ponti or Galaxy style available everywhere), there is the advantage of a more flattering cut. They seem to be almost universally forgiving – even at the lower end of the budgetary scale. Plus they come in ladylike lengths. There are also shift dresses and 50s styles in abundance. With the 50s look, I don’t recommend strapless as, even with an expensive bra, they don’t afford much support. Think of Betty Draper – but remember that even the slightest 1950s style icons didn’t leave support to chance and stuck with straps. Boobs are heavier than you think and only the most expensive (or young) ones defy gravity. Plus, small busts can just look squashed. Unfortunate. Then, prom dresses are – ironically – crap to dance in. If you don’t believe me, search Youtube for ‘New Jersey weddings’. Terrifying.
You can do separates but they often look less smart. However, they are very ‘this season’ if you opt for a bright colour or interesting shape. Pleated skirts were popular on the catwalk and are a summer perennial. Crisp cotton or silks (in all varieties – satin, raw, sugared etc) look great as they offer a more elegant and defined shape. I’d advise either going for a blouse or twinset with that look. Don’t think twinsets look frumpy – Grace Kelly and Ava Gardner pulled them off with elegance and sex appeal, respectively. They come in very fine knit silk jersey now – which is like a very posh t-shirt material. If you need visuals, try this link which (surprisingly) gives superb advice and ideas for wearing one – very affordable and versatile – skirt in a variety of situations. I think many of the examples are food for thought when you consider the varying degrees of formality involved in modern invitations.
When it comes to christenings and weddings, I like colour. However, this is a personal thing. It’s really just because I think of them as joyful affairs. A little bit like Easter, these two categories of events are celebratory – they’re all about fresh beginnings and hope. Unlike Easter, the colours don’t have to be pastels – which usually look silly on anyone under the age of eight. I’m not saying ‘go mad’ but, as an example, Victoria Beckham’s recent example at ‘the Wedding’ was almost too funereal. I get navy…but her dress was so dark it was nearly black. Plus, there was no lift or flash of colour which might have been supplied by bright accessories – and I’m afraid that wearing hooker shoes in midnight blue still means that you’re wearing hooker shoes. Even if they are custom made Christian Louboutins. He must have been rubbing his hands when he saw her coming. To quote my friend’s six year old son, ‘Sucker’!
For the most part, guests at a somewhat high profile wedding wore colour. ‘Brights’ are very this season and, on Friday 29th, Sam Cam proved that colour can look grown up. In contrast, Princess Beatrice proved that ‘nude’ could look Satanic. Surprises all round…I alluded to possibilities offered by accessories earlier and, once again, they could be your key colour moment if you are scared of colour or don’t often wear it. Push the boat out – try a rich jewel colour or a flash of metallic. I’ve talked about ‘statement jewellery’ before and it still has a place for adult women. It’s also cheap, cheerful and, most importantly, fun.
With all kinds of clothing, remember accessories. Don’t take a huge, ‘elbow peril’ handbag. If you read my earlier article on Christmas party dressing, there’s advice about size worth sticking to. This S/S, there are lots of foldover, envelope shaped clutches and they’re generally a practical, but sill modest, size – due mainly to the practicalities of making a tiny item out of a lot of folded leather. With jewellery – a dress can look too matchy-matchy if you wear very smart items: a little matronly, if you like. With separates, however, go mad! Use a great piece of fun dress jewellery – really go for it if you’re wearing something which might be misconstrued as ‘alternative’ – play it up and make a statement: great beads, a plastic brooch, cocktail rings, excessive earrings, detailed bracelets. Do, however, take my advice and try the respective articles out before you wear them for an entire day – they tend to be heavy, cocktail rings can ladder even the finest knitwear, brooches can mis-shape clothing and bangles can clank on smart dinner tables.
Re shoes, see my earlier piece on party dressing – but with a few caveats: this season, heel height really has dropped. Not by inches: the renaissance of kitten heels didn’t really catch on – but their diminutive stature did influence wedges this year. Of course you could argue that Stella McCartney’s collection did that too – but I’d like to think that the 5cm heel popularised by the likes of Doris Day and Audrey Hepburn really started the discussion, while Ms McCartney just argued the point. Anyway, wedges are big and go with separates and most dresses – with the exception of the aforementioned highly structured styles. They’re good with shifts and prom dresses, though. With the Ponti / Galaxy options, you’re best going with either a very contrasting, architectural design (perhaps a heeled gladiator or cage shape) or a smart court – if you aren’t feeling that adventurous. Courts don’t have to be boring – I have two pairs that are totally wowzer: one faux snakeskin in shimmering, peacock flip colours, with a brooch corsage on each foot and one a combo of classic Chanel two-tone (burgundy and emerald green) and Gucci tassellated amazingness. Both of these styles are very supportive of your feet – which is always essential at any do where you’re expected to stand up and sit down ad infinitum (for church services and toasts) and possibly dance.
Something to go on for now…