Professional dress for an early evening "Gala"
May 29, 2014 11:38 AM   Subscribe

I've been invited to attend an anniversary dinner/fundraiser for a regional nonprofit advocacy group. I'll be attending as a guest of a work-related higher-up, and the event will doubtless involve a bunch of professional networking small talk. They're calling it a gala... but the event starts at 5:30, with dinner at 6:30. What on earth do I wear?

I'm a late-30s woman employed as a planner with a local government, and I've been invited to attend this event as the guest of a local elected official, along with several other people in similar positions. I've worked (as a County staff person) with this group on several projects, and I like what they do. There is a reasonable possibility that I will be starting to look for a new job in the next year-ish, so it would be smart to take advantage of networking opportunities like this.

I want to look professional and appropriately-attired for this event. People tend to assume that I'm younger than I am, and I have found that in some (but not all!) cases, going slightly more formal is one option to offset that. I'm tallish (about 5'8") and quite hourglassy, and generally wear a 12-16 in dresses (depending on hip/chest measurements-- I'm roughly 40-42" chest, 30-32" waist, 42-44" hips).

The event is next Friday evening. I could possibly buy something locally, but if I can find something in my current wardrobe that works I would prefer that. I have several vintage and/or vintage-styled cocktail dresses (some are too va-va-voom for a professional appearance), and a bunch of business-y attire separates (trending towards pencil or straight skirts that hit about knee-length) and dresses (trending wrap and shirt dresses). I have tattoos on my shoulders/upper back, so I'd lean away from strapless or a lot of exposed skin (which I'd probably do to maintain a more professional appearance anyway).

I would normally assume that "Gala" meant "gown" (which I'd have to buy)-- but given the early-evening timeframe, perhaps cocktail or business attire is more suitable? Can you help me out with general suggestions and/or some possible examples that I might either find in my closet or acquire before next Friday?

Bonus add-on question: tips for successfully not looking like an ass while trying to make professional small talk will also be gratefully accepted!
posted by Kpele to Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion (18 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
If this is an annual event, can you find photos of past years online?
posted by Sara C. at 11:43 AM on May 29, 2014 [6 favorites]

Do you have any dark-colored sheathe dresses, ideally in richer fabrics? They'd be one option for splitting the difference between "fancy" and "professional," I'd think. With bling-ier-than-usual accessories and perhaps a nice dressy wrap or shrug to cover the arms.
posted by Bardolph at 11:49 AM on May 29, 2014

Small town or large city? What's the income bracket of donors they're seeking to attract?
posted by theraflu at 11:51 AM on May 29, 2014

I would lean toward cocktail. Maybe pull a black pencil skirt out, wear with satin-y black chemise/top, nice formal heels, and punch it up with some cocktail accessories (sparkly statement necklace or bracelets).
posted by greta simone at 11:52 AM on May 29, 2014 [3 favorites]

A dress is fine. Gala seems to bring to mind the need for floor length sparkly things, but in my experience a nice simple cocktail dress, knee length works great. (Experience: several non-profit and corporate galas)
posted by cecic at 11:52 AM on May 29, 2014

This is a right-after-work gala. Wear your nicest suit, whether that's pants or dress or skirt. That's what almost 100% of the employed attendees will be wearing. Retired folks or ladies/men of leisure may be in gowns or dressier suits, but otherwise... suit is on target. If you want to be memorable, wear a brooch or statement necklace.
posted by juniperesque at 11:53 AM on May 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

I love the idea of dressing up your pencil skirt with nice jewelry and taxi-shoes, as greta simone suggests.

Do see if there are pictures of past 'galas' on-line, but don't be surprised if you see one of everything.

I'd rather skew a bit more 'business' and less 'cocktail' only because it's directly after work hours.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 11:56 AM on May 29, 2014

It doesn't mean a gown, for certain.

You might want to google "day to night" cocktail wear -- you'll see a lot of it. Little black dresses that worked well at the office with a jacket over the top. Now they've shed the jacket and added some gold and/or sparkly jewelry, or a fancy belt or some such. Maybe they replace the jacket with a pashmina shawl or shrug or some such. Have your hair and nails done the day before. Wear the best shoes (with heels) that you have. Some women here at work actually change and/or do evening makeup before these events, but it's not universal.

re: small talk: Be prepared to ask people a lot of questions about themselves - how they're connected to the nonprofit? What do they do? There will likely be nametags for everyone; use this. Take a genunie interest in people you meet and try to find points of connection (oh, you are on the board of xx? I used to work with Jim who was the president of xx, how is he doing?) Check the event website to see if there are speakers or award winners and be sure to remember their names so you can say appropriate nice things if introduced. Prepping for these sort of events can be a lot like prepping for a job interview, actually -- have a 1 minute elevator speech prepared in your head about who you are and how you came to be there. Review the names and faces of people you might meet.

Try to relax. Don't have more than one glass of wine. Sometimes it's easy to feel like a bit of an imposter in rooms like this, but don't worry - often even the guest of honor feels that way. Do a little prep work and you'll be great!
posted by anastasiav at 11:57 AM on May 29, 2014 [3 favorites]

Knowing this crowd (I used to work for the non-profit years ago), I agree with juniperesque. Based on similar events I attended in years past, most people did just that.
posted by perhapses at 12:09 PM on May 29, 2014

I say one of your cocktail dresses with a wrap.
posted by brujita at 12:50 PM on May 29, 2014

I work in non-profit and attend these events. I agree with greta simone above. A nice black pencil skirt with a dressy blouse and stepped-up jewellery and you're there. As for what to say to people, ask them about their organizations and the work they do. Be prepared to talk about your organization and the work you do. Take business cards. Only have one drink. Enjoy yourself!
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 12:51 PM on May 29, 2014

Yes, this calls for a suit. A ladies-who-lunch-ish suit would be a nod to the event being social + work, but it's not necessary to go out and buy anything new for this. If you don't have a suit you like, skirt + blouse + blazer will be fine too. In my (non-profit) experience, people will be wearing all sorts of outfits at all levels of formality, depending on what they wore to work that day, but the majority will be in suits or suit-ish outfits. Also, comfy shoes - there's a lot of standing around at these sort of things, so make sure you won't be in pain from that.
posted by snaw at 12:51 PM on May 29, 2014

Your first step should be to call the organizer and ask what the dress code is. This is totally normal!! Once you know that you can decide what to wear.

Do not rely on other people's interpretation of the dress code btw. Call and ask. You will be the 100th person to do so probably.
posted by fshgrl at 12:55 PM on May 29, 2014 [4 favorites]

In my experience, calling and asking will get you the best results especially for something that's been happening for years. Most people will base their dress off what other people wore the previous year, so it can be hard to guess if you've never gone before.
posted by stoneweaver at 2:45 PM on May 29, 2014

Your first step should be to call the organizer and ask what the dress code is. This is totally normal!! Once you know that you can decide what to wear.

The dress code should be on the invite, so first I'd double-check your co-worker. Otherwise, yes, call and ask them specifically. It's totally not a big deal.

Do not rely on other people's interpretation of the dress code btw. Call and ask. You will be the 100th person to do so probably.

Repeated for emphasis! In a former life I organized dozens of fundraisers and what is appropriate at $5,000/plate dinner in Los Angeles may still be considered too casual for a $25/plate luncheon somewhere else.
posted by Room 641-A at 5:55 PM on May 29, 2014

My trick when I'm not sure of the formality of an event is to have a nice drapey scarf that goes well with my dress - if everyone's pretty casual, I'll wear it draped in the front and around my neck hipster-style, if they're a bit dressed up, I'll let it hang loose, possibly with one end hanging down the back. If it's really formal, I'll take it off altogether, and show off whatever sparkly necklace I have on underneath.

Also having a nice tailored black blazer is good, to keep on/take off if the mood is businessy vs. party.
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 6:17 PM on May 29, 2014

This is exactly what the Little Black Dress + Single Strand of Pearls is for - you literally cannot go wrong. Wear the dress to work with a jacket and change into snazzier heels and throw on the pearls at the end of the day. If you wore your hair up at work that day, wear it down. If you wore your hair down, wear it up! Or just clip something pretty in it and leave it the same. Put on a darker lip color. Tuck a poodle under your arm! Pull out a foot long cigarette holder! Opera length gloves!

(Please pay no attention after "lip color".)
posted by The Noble Goofy Elk at 9:32 PM on May 29, 2014 [2 favorites]

Oh my goodness, wear a suit. Please trust me on this.

I have been to a ton of variants of this event. A suit is never wrong. If you own pearls, wear them. (For context: my style has occasionally been described as goth. I am not a pearls person. To these events, I wear pearls.)

Here are some common pitfalls to avoid. 1) You do not want anyone to mistake you for your escort's life partner rather than his colleague. Dressing like a colleague will help. 2) You don't want to look like a little girl dressed up for her first party, so avoid anything pink or frilly. 3) You don't want to look like a girlfriend or partner of anyone present, so avoid anything sexy. 4) You don't want to look overexcited or out of your depth, so dress respectably (suit) but don't overdress (skin, glitter, floor-length, etc.).

Because you're doing professional networking, you want to emulate the most senior, experienced women present. The mayor, city counsellors, the ED of the advocacy group, prominent local businesswomen: they will be in suits. Or maybe Eileen Fisher :)

(This question is giving me terrible flashbacks. A woman who worked for me once won an award from a local professional association, and I went with her to the ceremony. All the other winners were male and in suits. I was also in a suit. She wore a spaghetti-strapped party frock with a gauzey sequinned wrap and high-heeled sandals. I loved her, and I cringed on her behalf all night.)
posted by Susan PG at 11:11 PM on May 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

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