Photo: Alamy


How to style out the dress code dilemmas of party season

From the “no shoes” rule at a house party to overdoing it at the office do, Kerry Potter on the pitfalls of party season and how to avoid them

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By Kerry Potter on

It’s the question that always strikes fear into my heart. No, not “Will you come to this immersive theatre experience with me?” or “Can you put Galway Girl on the Sonos again, mummy?” Rather: “What are you wearing tonight?” Aargh. I don’t know. I never know. Because getting dressed to go out is a tricky old business, especially at this time of year when many of my outfits walk a fine line between “making an effort” and “looking like human tinsel”.

I was discussing this recently with Jo Bennett, head of womenswear at John Lewis – she admitted she struggles with how to dress up without losing her personal sense of style. Most of us have got workwear and casual wear nailed, but after dark? Hmmm. And if she flounders what hope is there for the rest of us? It doesn’t help that these days invitations are issued via WhatsApp rather than proper paper, so rarely include a dress code.

It’s the question that always strikes fear into my heart; “what are you wearing tonight?”

I’ve had more dress code mishaps then I care to recount (turning up in jeans when everyone else is in posh frocks? Been there, done that). With that in mind, here are some pointers on how to style out various festive dress-code dilemmas.

Help! The host’s asked you to take your shoes off at a house party and you’re wearing holey socks

I once went to a glitzy party in a grand country house and was insanely excited to debut some showstopping Lucy Choi silver snakeskin spike heels. But – horror! – the host made us remove our shoes at the door, leaving me in a boring black dress and tights, not to mention four inches shorter. Taxi for Potter! Lesson learned – if there’s any chance you’ll be traipsing around on cream carpets, don’t let your shoes be your only statement accessory. And if you’re wearing trousers, wear sparkly “party” socks just in case. But what if it’s your own house party? Go wild, I say. I always wear my most ridiculous heels and masses of sequins when I’m the one serving the mulled wine. There’s something about being in your own comfort zone that turbo-charges confidence levels.

Help! The office party is looming and you want to look fancy but not too fancy, swanky but not too swanky, etc.

That whole “getting changed in the loos” thing is such a faff, isn’t it? And no one wants to look too booby, sexy or OTT in front of the CEO. Assuming your office do isn’t a black-tie ball, I’d advise keeping it simple, adding in festive pieces to your day look – a disco jumper (but make it a fine-knit, to avoid the tipsy, sweaty beetroot look), a sparkly ankle boot, a statement clutch or a louche silk skinny scarf (I have this one from Rockins). Or grab some faux fur. I have an ancient black fluffy gilet that I can throw over anything – it’s like a magic hedonism cape. Faux fur is also good for jazzing up your boring black wool office coat for the evening – check out Helen Moore’s tippets and collars.

Help! You've turned up to Christmas drinks at the pub in full sequins

It’s easy to go overboard and feel a bit of a plum – says the woman who’s turned up to an old man’s pub in the countryside wearing a slinky green pleather mini-dress and silver boots that even Aladdin Sane might’ve found de trop. Instead I’d suggest employing the classic “high/low” styling trick and wearing a fancy top with a pair of jeans (FYI a look that’s big this season – even Victoria Beckham is doing it) or a plain jumper with a pair of party pants. I went to the pub last weekend and wore an intricate, lacy, high-necked black blouse with froufrou sleeves (it was the gone-in-60-seconds Erdem X H&M one, but there’s loads of similar ones around), with battered blue jeans I’d earlier done the gardening in (slobby, yes, but I was ready in record time). Alternatively there are some great flashy trouser options around like these pearly jeans from Zara. And warm, comfy boots are key for pub-based carousing, because you never know how much walking you’ll end up doing – in my experience, one pub tends to lead to another pub. And another. And another…

Help! You've got a fancy festive dinner but can't face a prohibitively pinchy frock

It’s all about the top half of your outfit if you’re sitting around a table, so save the wowzers sequinned skirt and plain black T-shirt combo for another occasion. If you’re buying something new to wear for dinner don’t just stand in front of the changing room mirror. Sit down and assess how it looks from that angle. Does the blouse gape or will that waistband dig in once you’ve attacked the bread basket? I like a sharply cut blazer or tux to give my top-half silhouette some structure – every single fashion industry luminary I’ve ever interviewed owns a black tux so they’re clearly useful. And they don’t actually have to be black – I’m currently after Jigsaw’s navy velvet version.

Help! You’ve been invited to a posh party but you’re not a dress kind of person

In the words of Prince, let’s go crazy! The prevailing mood in fashion is for going out-out (save your Netflix and chill for January), with that deeply annoying phrase “effortless chic” finally binned, thank god. There’s nowt wrong with putting a bit of graft into your look, after all. The good news is that while the cocktail party or fancy do used to always mean some kind of dress, now we have myriad options to choose from. I love an evening jumpsuit – easier to dance in, feels slightly edgier and avoids the tights-or-no-tights debate. I have a fantastically foxy satiny navy leopard print one from Kitri, which is old but the current season's version would also hit the spot. Or how about a silk T-shirt with an iridescent pleated midiskirt or a statement blazer (like this one from Topshop) and trousers? And if you do plump for a dress, how about going green? It makes a change from black and is festive but in a more low-key way than red. Have a look at this one from Whistles or this from Warhouse.

All that said, ultimately you should just wear the thing that makes your heart sing and your sap rise when you're heading out on the razz. And after years of extensive research and fieldwork, I can confirm that somewhere between two and three drinks in, you really won’t care anyway.

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Photo: Alamy
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