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DRESS UP: CHOOSING THE PERFECTLY APPROPRIATE PARTY DRESS

By Alan Behr and Julie Hackett Behr

NEW YORK, 23 FEBRUARY 2009 - If there is one point at which high culture and popular culture converge, and one concept on which religious fundamentalism and atheistic Communism concur, it is to give having a good time a bad name. You can hardly pick up an example of the popular press without reading about some nitwit celebrity who went out dressed for a party and ended up with a DUI conviction or worse. On the opposite side of the contemporary upper end, opera and classical music concert goers, as well as people who regularly attend charity functions, are either so busy during the day or simply so jaded by it all that they leave the performance at intermission or vacate the party the moment dessert is served.

In politics, we need only remember H. L. Mencken's definition of Puritanism as "the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy." Think about the socialists you know: it's the same with them. And let's remove intellectuals of all stripes from the conversation: no one, on looking for advice on how to enjoy a garden party, wedding or extramarital assignation, seeks the counsel of an intellectual.


Pink babydoll dress by Marchesa
Photo courtesy of Rizzoli

For style points, we can't ignore the influence of Hollywood and the music business, but male and female, movie stars and pop stars buff their bodies, only to dress for everyday play in the Los Angeles version of mall clothes: everything you wore when you were twelve, from jeans to baseball cap, only overdone. When they go out, a stylist will doll them in clothes given or loaned by a reputable designer, but good clothes do not breed good conduct, and trouble continues from there.

Tips for Evening Dress

"Many American women have one idea what evening clothes are: it's based loosely on what they wore to the prom."

Some people still know how to have fun and to dress the part. After the annual Opera Ball in Vienna, men in tailcoats and women in sumptuous ball gowns will stumble into the Hotel Sacher for an early breakfast. True, on that night, a good number of women wear frightful gowns, but many others look dazzling, the transvestites always show panache , and there are even a few men in uniform to add that Hapsburg touch of tumbling grandeur.


One-shouldered dress with turban by Bill Blass, 1965
Photo courtesy of Rizzoli

It is fair to say, however, that, except for pockets of Paris and Milan, and a few vest pockets in New York, by and large, those people who still know how to dress well and those people who know how to have a good time belong to separate groups that are barely on speaking terms with each other.

It was not always so. Artists, writers, professors, bank presidents and celebrities, and their spouses, mistresses and paramours once put on fine clothes and enjoyed fine lives without guilt and without earning an arrest record. Not surprisingly, therefore, The Party Dress, the new coffee table book by Alexandra Black (Rizzoli, 336 pages) has a decidedly retro quality. Many of the photographs have a patina of age, that faded-to-pink look that Father Time brings to old color prints. The cover photograph (of a woman holding a bird in a garden setting while wearing an elaborate bell-shaped gown) is just such an image, by Cecil Beaton. Even though it aims to guide the reader in enjoyment of the present, therefore, the book is really a look backwards upon a faded glory in both fashion and mood.


Black and white lace ensemble by Gianfranco Ferré
Photo courtesy of Rizzoli

Coffee table books are meant to be seen and not read. The coffee table itself is a twentieth-century invention, appearing just as broad interest in the written word was making its sad and still ongoing decline. It's a library table for books without words, which is all the more reason to admire Black for writing what, were it not for the obligatory big photographs, would be a clever little book on the history and philosophy of party clothes - a readable mixture of gossipy fact and opinion. Like a fashion show, the book is divided into phases, progressing from the masquerade ball, through the formal party, to the cocktail party, to the garden party and finally arriving at the inevitable wedding celebration.

As Black demonstrates, more than for any other occasion that calls for the wearing of good clothes, the party is about artifice and illusion for a purpose: it is as true to life, yet as obviously fabricated as a play. Party clothes can therefore easily become costume, and Black shows good instincts about that in her choice of the masquerade party as the subject of her opening chapter:


Purple dress by Escada
Photo courtesy of Rizzoli

For many historians and cultural commentators, the idea of the costume ball, or masquerade, is equated with sexual freedom and certain union. In putting on a disguise, or at least appearing to take on a new persona, the partygoer takes a step into the unknown. The act of concealment creates a sense of fascination, sometimes bordering on fetishistic. Black traces the masquerade - that party in which you are your own Doppelgänger for the night, starting with the story about how, at a masquerade in 1393, four friends of King Charles IV of France were supposedly killed and one seriously injured (the married king himself only escaping harm because he was "engaged in a playful tussle with the Duchess of Berri") when their hirsute satyr costumes accidentally caught fire. From there, Black moves along the time line to Truman Capote's masked Black and White Ball (the "party of the century") held at the Plaza Hotel in New York in 1966, and beyond.


Black dress by Escada
Photo courtesy of Rizzoli

She notes that the masquerade was particularly popular in Venice in its prime - when it was a mercantile power humming with suspicion and intrigue. What would become the traditional Venetian carnival masks and masquerade clothes served as a kind of shield, enough so that legal countermeasures were employed: a law enacted in 1458 forbade men from donning women's clothing and entering convents (there to annoy or even assault the nuns), and a 1776 law required women to wear both mask and cloak when attending the theater.

In the section on the formal party, Black offers more tidbits, such as how Marie Antoinette was resupplied weekly with eighteen pairs of perfumed gloves and four pairs of shoes. But she never loses sight of the fact that party clothes are not objects in isolation but an integral part of a package that includes food, friendship and good, old-fashioned erotic energy: It is at the small intimate dinner party that dress takes on even more importance than usual. Rather than impressing with wealth or status, the dress is intended to seduce. What intimate dinner party can compare with that held by Casanova and a mystery woman in Venice in 1753? Casanova had received an anonymous invitation while in church. The invitation read: "A nun, who has seen you every feast day for the past two months and a half in the church of her convent wants to make your acquaintance."Needless to say, for the rendez-vous, the bride of Christ abjured her habit in favor of clothes, "in the sophisticated style of an aristocratic woman in pale silks with lace ruffles, ribbons, jewels, and with hair pulled back in a chignon."


Dress by Carlo Pignatelli
Photo: Mauro Balletti

Photo courtesy of Rizzoli

It is stories such as that one that make the book worthwhile. It may not be critical to the ascent of the West to know that Coco Channel invented the little black dress in 1926 or how Catherine de Medici may have been the first woman in high heels, but it is rather critical to us all that we celebrate the imperative of feminine mystique and its role as the ignition for so much of what we categorize as the joy of sharing our lives with others. Which is to say, the book isn't just about party clothes or even party style; it is about the pure pleasure all humankind takes in getting together.

The illustrations show beautiful women wearing great examples of the clothes that have made parties worth going to, from before the days of the court of Versailles through the present. It is important to note, however, that The Party Dress was originally published in Britain, and Britain has been the capital of many great things, but not unrepentant femininity.True, the clothes and the women in them are almost all beautiful, but to a French or an Italian eye (and to a number of American eyes as well), there is a mannequin-like fineness to a number of the illustrations. Many of the dresses are grand. (Such as the 1951 ball gowns by Jacques Fath.) Some are quite dramatic. (Such as a 1980 Bill Blass dress with a cartwheel hat and leather gloves.) And there is no doubt that women such as Sophia Lauren and Elizabeth Taylor were young beauties. But the problem with showing party clothes is that it is difficult, perhaps impossible, to convey in a still image the kinetic spirit of a party done right; you really have to be there for that to happen. That may account for why, in quite a few illustrations, despite her brilliantly conceived and executed dress, the woman looks less like an opening flower than a walking evocation of a stately home. At least Black has done us the resounding good favor of largely avoiding fashion photographs plagued by that haughty "go thither" stare of the model who looks too expensive to touch and too anorexic to be worth the trouble.


Black satin dress with cut-uts by Zac Posen
Photo courtesy of Rizzoli

That all may be part circumstance and part authorial choice, but it hints at a dilemma that the party dress brings to the contemporary woman: the uniquely feminine pleasure that a woman brings to the party, in both demeanor and choice of clothing, is her allure. That may have done for grandmamma when she was a debutante, but the contemporary woman, in the hours leading up to strutting her stuff at the ball, may also find herself replacing a patient's hip, releasing quarterly earnings above the Street's expectations, issuing an arrest warrant for hard-partying celebrity, or running for president. The only place in the world in our own experience where that balance is managed well is Paris - the only place left in the world where just about everything is still well balanced. And there we have the problem that the nostalgia of the book illustrates: it is hard to have too much fun these days without looking like a hedonist or worse; and it is hard to dress up for fun without looking like a bimbo, or worse. Not to spoil the party entirely, but exactly where in the Jimmy Choo clutch that goes with the Dolce & Gabbana gown are you supposed to hide the BlackBerry you'll use to check on how your associate is coming along with that brief she is writing while you are out on the town, doing the allure thing because you promised your husband you'd go?

The Party Dress should therefore be seen as a book that represents an age in transition. It is a solid, enjoyable chronicle of great celebrations of history and the clothes worn to them, and it is, in parallel, an illustrated warning about what has gone wrong with the pursuit of pleasure in our own age.

The Party Dress
By Alexandra Black

Hardcover: 336 pages
Rizzoli (November 2007)
ISBN-10: 0847829618
ISBN-13: 978-0847829613
$60.00

A regular contributor to Culturekiosque, Alan Behr practices intellectual property law at the New York office of Alston & Bird LLP. Julie Hackett Behr is a style consultant at the New York flagship of a luxury department-store chain. They have been married too long to remember why.

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