conley6.gif (2529 bytes)


The New Formal
7 ways to rock a cocktail dress at a black-tie affair


December  2012

Fashion Editor Jordan Dechambre hosting RunUp 2012: The Roaring ’20s in a beaded drop-waist cocktail dress and custom repurposed vintage handpiece.

Late fall and early winter in Wisconsin usher in more than chilly temps and holiday cheer. This time of year also marks the beginning of gala season, with charity events and holiday affairs filling up our social calendars from October through March.

For many women, the thought of donning our most stunning looks is exciting. But it can also cause party-dressing anxiety. With all of us vying to be the belle of the ball, how can you step outside the box with confidence and style?

My suggestion? Show a little leg. The right cocktail dress can make a chic statement in lieu of the traditional gown. Here are 10 ways to put your best stiletto-clad foot forward at your next event.

1. Look for a high, draped neckline. Elegance is a balancing act. If you are showing a whole lotta leg, staying covered on top with a simple yet luxurious neckline is essential. Sleeves are also back with a vengeance for winter 2013, so don’t shy away from the classically chic arm coverings, even in just a sheer or lace fabric. Ladylike is luxe this season.

2. Go red (or pale gray). There’s a hue of red for every skin tone — the key is finding yours. In general, orange-based reds add warmth to alabaster skin, while cooler reds and burgundies are striking on darker tones. Not ready to rock bold red? Try the other "it" tone, pale gray. Flattering to all, pale gray is elegant and sophisticated, and a great neutral color choice as a base to frocks with bells and whistles.

3. Try black and white. Winter white dresses with skinny black belts were a runway mainstay this season, and have already found their way into many local boutiques. Black and white prints are also strong, and a great way to make an artistic statement without looking too bohemian for evening. Looking to skip a dress all together? Try a Tilda Swinton-esque black or white tuxedo, slim fit for just the right amount of sex appeal.

4. Pick peplum. There’s no denying peplum is THE look of the season, in skirts, blouses, jackets and blouses alike. To find the perfect peplum for a formal affair, hit an opulent note with a posh brocade or metallic fabrication.

5. Embellishment is key. To take your cocktail dress to the next level, look for embellishments that give it that extra "oomph." Hottest for this season? Feathered skirts, all-over beading, intricate lace and neutral sequins. Add rear interest with an open or illusion back or Tom Ford-inspired cape back. One-shoulder silhouettes, strategic waist bows and draping, and fabric or embellished overlays also add that something special.

6. Choose a new era. The remake of "The Great Gatsby" has fashion designers thinking Jazz Age this season, with drop-waist dresses, all-over beadwork, pearls a plenty and fur accents. Or, go ’60s with "Mad Men" inspired full skirts, printed silks, lace dresses (with or without sleeves), jacquard, and fit and flare shapes.

7. Show your curves. Confidence is the key to true style, so why not flaunt your enviable curves of any shape or size in a body-hugging sheath dress? Keep it sophisticated in a neutral color with little embellishment (let your accessories do the talking), and make sure it at least touches just above the knee — so you leave something to the imagination.

No matter your style, if you love your body, your confidence will shine brighter than any jewel.

What to wear now

A host of top designers, from Valentino to Oscar de la Renta, turned to a hair retro-redo for their fall/winter 2012 collections. Bouffants in all shapes and sizes made their mark, but the "it" look featured hair jewelry, headbands and voluminous faux bobs. Try this simple look for your next holiday part: tease your hair from the roots at the crown, toss and finger comb back, tuck longer pieces under and pin into a bob. Secure the look with a ribbon or headband for ’60s holiday flair.


Tired of your high heels slipping and sliding on the snowy sidewalks? (I know I am!) Take a nod from style-makers Gwen Stefani and Gwyneth Paltrow, who turn to classic oxfords with a twist. Go bold with menswear fabrics, such as houndstooth or plaid, or tough chic with grommet or stud adornments.



You can’t throw a nickel in a department store and miss a fur this season. I prefer the faux variety and, luckily, many designers are creating cruelty-free synthetic furs that are nearly impossible to differentiate from the real thing. For a simple and soft wardrobe addition, go for a versatile fur infinity scarf — perfect for day and night.



Turn to our annual Charity Register, inserted after page 50, to see my take on the posh trend of cocktail dresses replacing gowns at the year’s hottest black-tie affairs. Lace, feathers, sparkly embellishments and brocade all add opulence to these ultra-glam but cropped versions of their classically elegant counterparts.



This story ran in the December 2012 issue of: