Cinderella goes to the ball...
April 11, 2012 8:18 AM   Subscribe

Ritzy-ditzy gala, need a dress

I've been invited to attend a type of event I've never been to before - a full-on gala for our city's symphony orchestra that requires formal attire.

I'm not from an affluent background, so the thought of something like this is giving me all kinds of status-anxiety jitters. I want to look good and blend in, not really stand out. I mean I want to look lovely, but certainly not garish or like a parvenu. I need to rock this so that I can seem to be part of these people's world, rather than someone who's trying to hard and just not getting it quite right.

I'll know some of the people who'll be at this thing, and they're really nice people. I mean I don't hold it against them that they have way more money than I do. I figure if I concentrate on them, and whatever it is we're chatting about, my other worries will go away. But I've still got to figure out what to put on.

I saw what some women wore to this same event last year. Some of these ladies were really over the top - deep backless dresses with sequins all over, gigantic fur stoles, you name it. I don't want to look like that.

I think I could pull off a certain kind of old-money look - pale skin, deep-toned lips, groomed brows, no bangs. That seems like a better choice than smoky eyes with nude glossy lips, which is maybe a bit too LA - although I saw that last time too. Clueless as to the jewelry.

As for the gown - I'm 5'5 and busty. I think I'd be comfortable in something that covers the decolletage but leaves my shoulders bare, like a halter style dress, or one of those crossover styles that fasten behind the neck. I'm clueless as to color. I'm a fair-skinned blonde, so kind of afraid I'd be overwhelmed by anything jewel-toned. I'm leaning toward mint, gray, pale gold, something like that. Nothing metallic! No fur for me, but I feel like I should have something to put over my shoulders. What would that be?

The thing is, I have no idea where to look for a fancy dress - and no idea what they cost. I'm assuming I'll be out $1,000 at least. Is it possible to rent these outfits, as you would a tux? Would a bridal shop be a good place to search?

I'm mostly worried about the dinner part, where I'll be talking to people. I want to feel confident and not worried about pieces of my outfit slipping off, or anything else going majorly wrong. Also - I know how to satisfy my own appetite without making others lose theirs, and I can follow the forks because you just start with the furthest one out and move in. I'm not sure what else I should know about eating at one of these things.

Any other tips on how not to instantly reveal that I'm in over my head socially would be welcome!
posted by cartoonella to Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion (24 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Rent the Runway. My wife can't praise them enough for their selection, service, and prices. They even send a second dress in a different size in case the size you chose is off a bit.
posted by JoeZydeco at 8:23 AM on April 11, 2012 [11 favorites]

My SIL has had a great luck with consignment and second-hand stores for gala dresses as well. And as long as you get something classy and the right length for that group of people (your look sounds great) you will blend just fine.
posted by ldthomps at 8:41 AM on April 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'll second Rent the Runway, but will also put forth that you want to avoid the bridal shops, and hit high-end departments stores and/or Filene's Basement for better pricing than the bridal places, and less bridesmaidy looks.
posted by pixiecrinkle at 8:48 AM on April 11, 2012 [2 favorites]

Go simple and classy with the dress, but jazz it up with accessories. Vintage/resale shops are perfect because you can get a ton of jewelry that looks like it's been handed down from family. Regardless of whether it's "real" or not, that's the look you want.

Vintage and resale shops should also be your first stop for a dress, particularly if you're in a relatively average size range. Then you should stop at a quality lingerie place.

I'm a (very) busty gal myself. The way you treat that depends on how your shoulders look in comparison. Personally, I don't think a halter style is flattering at all on women of chest. If you have small shoulders, it'll make your boobs look weighty; if you have large shoulders, it makes your shoulders/arms look larger. Added downside: the lack of a back scares me. But for all I know, you have a magically lovely set of shoulders that make a halter look great, so ymmv.

A wrap or deep V neckline looks great. Try it, even if you think it'll show too much; it can actually be much more flattering than something that tries to cover them. If you're uncomfortable with the amount of decolletage you're showing, you can add a modesty panel of some sort, even if it's sheer.

I know I've shown off my dress a gajillion times here, but I'll do it again. This is a Wtoo bridesmaid's dress. It takes a couple of months to arrive at the shop, but if you measure yourself correctly it won't require more than a good hemming.

A bridesmaid's or mother-of-the-bride (without the giant beaded jacket) dress like this will totally work. Go for a sheath or something; steer away from anything with that heavy, plain polyester satin. Some people pooh-pooh David's Bridal, but they've got stuff you can buy off the rack in nearly any size, and that is HUGE. David's Bridal also has a ton of wrap options, which can sometimes be the hardest thing to find, in many colors and fabrics.

Ann Taylor, Banana Republic, J. Crew and the like will also (especially now) have dresses suitable for classy bridesmaids and guests of formal weddings. A nice silk sheath will be good.

Really, the only thing to think about here will be how comfortable you are. You will see aging matrons in furs and diamonds; you will see trophy dates in nearly nothing; you will see arty types in pantsuits. Do what feels right for you -- but OWN IT.

That's what I have to do. There's no way I can hide the girls, or the fact that I'm kinda fat, so I make sure they're properly secured and put them on display because hello, everybody knows they're there. And then I buy some super fabulous shoes so people know I'm not trying to hide myself; I want people to see the awesome person I am.

You will be super great.
posted by Madamina at 8:52 AM on April 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

I also would go consignment, second hand, or high-end sale rack. Find something that really flatters you and (as long as it doesn't look too cheap) price doesn't matter. What color do people say you look good in? If in doubt, and if you don't really want to stand out, black is a good fall back. I've gone to similar events in dresses that I've bought at a rummage sale for $2 and gotten loads of compliments. Flattering fit and confidence are the most important. And for me, I'd rather have a unique dress than rent or buy a new one and risk someone else in the same dress.

Personally, I'd probably end up spending $100 or less on the dress and taking it to a good tailor to get it to fit perfectly. If I wasn't confident about doing it myself, I'd pay to get my makeup and hair done - people will probably be looking at your face more closely than your dress.

I'm not a big fan of things over shoulders because they can be fussy. I'd rather be a tad chilly than warm and awkwardly holding a scarf.
posted by beyond_pink at 8:55 AM on April 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

I don't know what overall size you are, but Igigi go down to a size 12 and they have absolutely gorgeous dresses for anywhere from $150-$400. I've had them altered very easily as well, in case you see something you love that isn't exactly the right size. Also, if you call and talk to them, they will have all sorts of ideas and recommendations for color, style, neckline, hemline etc. I highly recommend them.
posted by hollygoheavy at 9:06 AM on April 11, 2012 [4 favorites]

I was JUST going to say Igigi if they're not all too big for you (which they might be), and I was JUST going to say I bet it can be done for significantly less than $1,000, even if you buy rather than rent. I went to a gala thingy last year, wore this dress, and felt divine. Not at all saying that particular dress or style for you, and admittedly, that's not the black-tie-est formal dress ever. But I agree that you can go a long, long way with something that's really flattering on you that you combine with the right accessories.

You can get all kinds of shawls or big scarves that you can wrap around your shoulders -- when you want them over your shoulders, you can wear them flat, and then they sort of gather and hang in a band across your back draped between your elbows when you want them down.

I also would encourage you to focus on looking dynamite and feeling comfortable in whatever you pick, because that's what will make you a knockout on the day. Don't stress too much over fitting in per se. As you say yourself, the thing that huge snobs will fault the most is trying too hard anyway. Wear something you love that's effortless, and you're fine. Wear something that's too calculated to be somebody else's idea of appropriate rather than yours, and you'll look stiff and uncomfortable, and they'll know. Enjoy it! Getting dressed up should be fun.
posted by Linda_Holmes at 9:20 AM on April 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Great responses guys!

Madamina, you looked amazing in that gorgeous dress! Love the one Linda_Holmes pointed to as well.

I appreciate all your advice and tips so much :)
- kim
posted by cartoonella at 9:25 AM on April 11, 2012

This place Group USA has a location in Florida that was very close to where I was living when I needed a gown for a ball (not kidding, a ball) with three days notice. This is their Long Dresses page. There may be something similar near you. What you want is a color that looks amazing on you. It's ok if this color is black. You want a cut that, again, looks amazing on you. Go Minimal on the bows, rhinestones, ruching, beading, (and you're absolutely right) sequins. Avoid the one shoulder look if you can.

Now, having said all of that, I searched all over town for a dress and kept insisting, "no bows, no beads, no ruching, and it has got to have straps!" for I, too, have an ample bosom. What did I end up with? Well, I can email you the picture if you want. I can't post a link to it because there are several other ladies in it, and the email would come with some comments about the other dresses. Suffice to say, it has an enormous bow on the hip, and there is beading in the knot of that. The entire bodice is ruched. And the damn thing is strapless. And it buttons down the back. Like Miss Mary Mack Mack Mack.

All night long people stopped to ask me where I got this fabulous gown. Who designed it? Did I know I had the best dress in the whole ball? Who was my lucky date? It cost $139.

I am not particularly attractive, and the hairdresser really didn't manage to get a curl into my hair, much less make it stay presentable, but I felt like an absolute goddess in that gown. And it showed.

As for worrying about pieces of your dress coming off your body, when trying on the gown, walk around in the store. Cover the entire store. Boogey. Sit down. Reach across as though you were needing salt and pepper. Turn behind you like you were getting something out of your pocket book (not that you would answer your phone or apply lipstick at a dinner table. Ever.) or greeting the waiter bringing you water. Lean down as though you've dropped your napkin.

If the dress slips, you must either put it back on the rack or commit to alterations. Do not wear a dress to a gala if it needs fidgeting, regardless of what you find to cover it up. Fidgeting is not attractive, but worse, it's not fun! Dress length is important also. As much for the fact that you don't want to be tripping over a hem as that you don't want too much shoe showing. This may sound risky, but some ladies buy the shoes first, and then avoid altering the dress by getting something that's already the right length. This would drive me absolutely bonkers. Have an idea of what height shoes you are comfortable wearing to this gala. Bring that height to try on dresses. It really changes the fit of the garment, to be wearing shoes instead of walking around barefoot. Some higher end places will have a pair of shoes for trying on. One pair. And it's usually a 6 or a 7. And everyone has worn it.

So. Dresses. Specific looks that are to my taste. Bear in mind that I tend toward the conservative in my dressing.

Let's start with a sequined cowl neck halter. Sounds terrible, right? You probably hovered over the link and noticed it's in the Prom section. Click. This is a dress that might be an absolute disaster on you (or any lady). You have to try it on. Yes. It is covered in sequins. This means that it will probably be heavy. Do not shy away from a dramatic dress on the rack just because it is dramatic. It may be the perfect fit for your body, and it's over the topness will fade with that. Better still, this dress is $199. But this is not a good deal if the dress does not flatter you. Despite what the blurb on the dress page says, stay subtle with this accessories on this one. A plain silver shoe. A small bag. A small earring or a conservative dangly thing. No necklace.

Ahhhhh Here's my dress! They still have it! Seriously, I'll still email you the "in real life picture." Somehow, in this gown, my D cups don't look like they're, um, escaping. It was nowhere near as confining through the hips as most mermaid cuts. It comes in a petite size, in case you aren't comfortable pairing it with heels or don't have time to get it hemmed. Again, that bow is it's own accessory. I wore plain black low heels, and carried a plain black satin bag.

Dillards is another place that is a good bet sometimes. But again, you have to try it on and try it out. The salesperson working the floor at a department store is very motivated to get you out the door with a dress. Notice that sentence does not end with a dress that is perfect. Or a dress that fits you well. You have to test it out in the store and be confident. Once the tags are off, the dress is yours.

Here's another example of a dress that's sequined all over that might be awesome.

Here's a black chiffon gown that's off the shoulder.

Here's one in red, really highlighting the presence of the girls in a way that might work for a lot of ladies. Beaded! halter gown. Emerald green, with more beads. So. I should probably stop now, because I keep being drawn to things that are covered in beads.

Some tips for shopping for dresses online. There is almost always an 800 number you can call. They can find out how long the dress is, and any other exact measurements you want.

A perfectly subtle "appropriate dress" that doesn't fit immaculately will look awful. I promise.

However, do not, under any circumstances, go with a knee length dress. Yes. Other women will do it. I do not care. Do not. Just don't. Please. Don't.
posted by bilabial at 9:31 AM on April 11, 2012 [3 favorites]

I think you might be overstating the potential cost of a new dress. Your hair & makeup will make a far greater impression than your dress. Nordstroms has plenty of nice dresses from $150 and up.

You should also check out dresses with sleeves if you are concerned with baring your shoulders/arms. IMO short-sleeved dresses are more in fashion than wraps, and matte can look classier than shiny fabric. If you're a stranger to formalwear, I think you should go for jersey, which is infinitely more comfortable. And a black jersey dress is a really useful thing to have, and will look lovely with some bold or colorful jewelry. There are a bunch of examples from Nordstroms plus a really lovely gray dress.
posted by acidic at 9:35 AM on April 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Be sure that whatever dress you get is comfortable, that you can sit, stand, and bend easily in it. Posture is very important and the way you walk is also important. Poor posture and ungraceful moves show lack of confidence.

If you have a girlfriend who has been to this kind of thing and has good fashion sense take her with you when you check out the consignment stores.
posted by mareli at 9:57 AM on April 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Wherever you buy your gown, please inspect the seams, buttons, hooks and eyes, etc. Even newer less expensive gowns (and appalingly, some more expensive ones!) can be poorly made.

Older gowns may suffer all sorts of signs of aging that aren't noticeable until you put them on the second or third time.

Finally, be certain that you can dress yourself, or will have someone on hand to help with buttons and zips. This goes double for being able to get out of your dress when the ball is over!
posted by bilabial at 10:08 AM on April 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

I would absolutely not wear a halter to an event like that.

Other people have already given you fab advice on dresses, so I'll stick to hair, shoes, bag, jewelry, and makeup. Get your hair and makeup professionally done. It will take all of the "omg did I do this right" out of it. Individual fake lashes can do you a world of good, too. Ask for those. Jewelry should be simple and not a statement piece--since you said that you don't have a lot of $$$, I'm assuming you don't have access to fancy jewelry. Cheap dresses can look great, but cheap jewelry just looks cheap. I would rent a bag and (maybe) shoes from one of the services mentioned and possibly ask a stylist for advice.
posted by 200burritos at 10:16 AM on April 11, 2012 [2 favorites]

Avoid shiny satin/sateen fabrics at all costs. The polyester "satin" in the majority of bridesmaid style dresses photographs horribly and looks cheap under certain lighting. If you like shiny, go for beading, otherwise go matte.
posted by slow graffiti at 10:16 AM on April 11, 2012 [2 favorites]

I've always hated getting dressed up, but a couple of years ago I took a job that requires me to attend exactly the kind of event you're describing at least once a year. I'm short and busty, too, which always makes clothes shopping harder.

I found a floor-length, navy blue dress at Macy's that turned out to look great on me and looks very formal without making me stand out in a crowd - I forget what exactly I paid but it was definitely under $200. It took a few shopping outings to find the dress, but I love it, and people are going to have to get used to seeing me in it every time I go to one of these events, because I'm going to keep wearing it until I destroy it or it stops fitting me! So, definitely try the high-end department stores; the prices will not be as bad as you thought.

Also, your experience may be different, but I find at these kinds of events that the clothing choices are all over the place, and there are generally a few wacky older ladies who wear some really strange ensembles, so no matter how much you are afraid of not getting the look exactly right, you will not be the person people are talking about after the event for their bizarre or inappropriate fashion sense, I promise.
posted by jessypie at 10:19 AM on April 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

I go to events like this all the time, mostly because of my job.

Get a solid-colored, unembellished dress in a non-shiny fabric, with straps or sleeves. Spend less than $500 on it. (My pick is J. Crew's Evie dress in black, navy, or graphite — you can wear a bra easily but not look dowdy). (If you're pale and blonde, the mid-gray would probably look INCREDIBLE on you with a pink lip, pink cheeks, and minimal eye makeup.)

Spend most of the rest of your budget on expensive, comfortable, but exquisite shoes that elevate you enough that the hem of your dress is between 1/2 and 1 centimeter from the floor. Buy $300 last-season shoes from the sale sections at TheOutnet or Nordstrom, rather than paying $600 for this-season shoes with negligible difference. These are pretty fantastic (Halston!) and so are these (DVF!). These black DVF shoes are a classic black strappy stiletto, and under $200.

Spend the rest of your budget on an inexpensive but expensive-looking clutch (this is where you should go gaudy and fun: Sequins! Bright colors! Neon!.

Pin a flower or feather or brooch in your hair instead of wearing a necklace — unless your necklace really is expensive, it won't look expensive. Even some pricey necklaces look cheap. Wear a cheap but minimalist cocktail ring on one finger of one hand.

And then go off and be the belle of the ball!
posted by firstbest at 10:30 AM on April 11, 2012 [5 favorites]

As for social advice: People is people. Rich people aren't necessarily the people who look rich, vice versa, and snobs are never worth the effort it takes to impress them.

At events like this, the simple fact that you're there is an indicator that you're supposed to be there. Presumably you are at this event for a reason, whether it's a work connection, a social connection, or that you won an online raffle to attend. A no-fail conversation starter for absolutely anyone (except maybe the conductor): "So, what's your connection to the symphony?" Just be prepared for them to conclude their answer with "... and yours?"

If someone includes you in a conversation that feels over your head on any topic at all, including symphonic music, it is totally okay to say with a friendly smile, "You know, I'm not an expert on the subject. But listening to this conversation is really eye-opening."

Don't get drunk.
posted by firstbest at 10:45 AM on April 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Thanks you guys! You're making my day here!

Firstbest, I LOVE the Evie dress! Yessssss!

Thanks for all the other tips and advice, you people rock!
posted by cartoonella at 10:53 AM on April 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

N-Thing the advice on comfortable shoes. I don't find that money->quality in clothes, but in shoes, especially heels, you will feel the dollars that you do or don't spend.

If you're looking for something really simple, J Crew has a few long dresses that are lovely and not too, too expensive. They also come in petite lengths, which you may be on the cusp of needing at 5'5".
posted by ablazingsaddle at 11:48 AM on April 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm nthing that Evie dress from J. Crew. It has enough coverage (both back and front) that you'll be able to wear a bra. I love that it is in a lightweight fabric so that if it's too warm in the venue, you will not be uncomfortably overheated in a heavy fabric and also it seems more appropriate for spring/summer. I will say -- and this would be true of practically all off-the-rack companies -- that sometimes the fit will be an issue. If you buy it to fit your bust (as you should) it might be too big elsewhere. Since you initially thought that you'd have to spend a lot more, I would splurge and get the dress professionally altered, unless you get lucky and it fits perfectly off the rack. If you don't already own some, I'd also spend some money on some good foundation garments, including a good bra. Bring the dress with you so that you will know that it everything works together.
Have fun!
posted by kaybdc at 1:13 PM on April 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

How old are you? In my early twenties I worked for an opera company and often had to dress black-tie to hang with the richest of the rich society folks. I found I could get away with less formal and much less expensive because, well, I was in my early twenties and everyone thought I looked great regardless. At one gala, my same-aged colleague was approached by a fashion writer from Town & Country magazine and asked, "Who are you WEARING?" all droolly-like. My friend responded, "Um...Ann Taylor."

The Evie dress is gorgeous. Since your shoes won't really show maybe you could shell out for some halfway decent pearls? That would be a nice touch with a conservative-but-artsy symphony crowd, and you can get tons of mileage out of pearls down the line.

You're on the right track going for polished-but-understated. You want to be dressy enough - and a full-length dress in a nice fabric will do the trick - without being overly sparkly or glam. Have a blast!
posted by TrixieRamble at 2:44 PM on April 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Since your shoes won't really show maybe you could shell out for some halfway decent pearls?

Jumping in to add if you get a plain strand of faux pearls from the costume jewelry department at your local Nordstrom's or Macy's, nobody will be able to tell that they're fake. And if they did, hey, even Jackie Kennedy wore fakes!
posted by peripathetic at 3:05 PM on April 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Oh, I meant to suggest pearls when I made my first comment and then forgot until after I hit Post! Amazon has their own jewelry collection and I've bought pearls from them several times and been very pleased. I think I paid between $30-$70 for most items. The ones I wear the most often are these pearl dangle earrings and this graduated pearl necklace - each is under $40.
posted by jessypie at 3:24 PM on April 11, 2012 [2 favorites]

Post pictures of what you end up wearing!!! :-D
posted by 200burritos at 11:13 AM on April 12, 2012

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