fancy ball-- what do?
December 23, 2017 6:06 PM   Subscribe

I'm a working class hero that got invited to a black tie event-- what do I wear? How do I act?

As a campaign staffer, I got an invitation to Northam's inaugural ball. I am fairly certain that my usual combo of floofy dress + combat boots will not work here. I have a pretty tight budget, and I'm spending my Christmas/birthday money on this thing. Assume about $200 all told on dress + shoes. I would very much like to roll up on this thing in full Alexander McQueen regalia, but I realize that's not possible. What can I do to attend this event in the fashion befitting a towering badass such as myself? I've looked at rent the runway but I'm largely ambivalent about it.

I am also largely unsure at how to conduct myself at such an event-- most campaign staffers are young middle class polisci grads. I'm a working class service industry person that got to my position by sheer force of will and an ungodly measure of luck, and there is a bit of a language barrier with these sorts of things.

I'm a seriously curvy size 10-12, if that helps.

Please hope me, metafilter!
posted by dogheart to Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion (30 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I would consider something like this. It's not Super Fancy Black Tie like the rich people with be wearing, but it's unusual enough that I think it would be seen as appropriate while still being very affordable.
posted by metasarah at 6:22 PM on December 23, 2017 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I would 100% use Rent the Runway for this -- formal black tie gowns, in size 10-12, can be had for as little as $30. You'll be on your own for shoes, but a proper gown will mostly conceal them, so you really only need comfortable, nondescript heels.
posted by telegraph at 6:30 PM on December 23, 2017 [43 favorites]

Best answer: I would use Rent the Runway. Look for reviews with photos by people with your body type. They have lots of fancy dresses and I really like renting since I don't have many occasions for fancy dresses. If you're interested, I can send you a referral that gets both of us $30 off.
posted by carolr at 6:32 PM on December 23, 2017 [5 favorites]

Best answer: If you decide not to rent a dress, but go the other route (and honestly, not a bad decision) there are definitely options. I’ve found some treasures on Poshmark, just create an account and know your measurements and you can find amazing event dresses for under $100. eBay works too!
(Also, not sure this is black tie appropriate, but I found this Alexander McQueen for Target dress in your size for $80 and it’s awesome!)
posted by Champagne Supernova at 6:34 PM on December 23, 2017 [2 favorites]

Best answer: sheer force of will and an ungodly measure of luck

Be willing to say that and own it whenever you want, otherwise act on the assumption that important people want/need you to be there, because that’s how it seems from the outside.
posted by SaltySalticid at 6:35 PM on December 23, 2017 [11 favorites]

A simple dark dress in fancier materials with a little glitz and nice shoes/accessories will go a long way in most situations. Do your hair and makeup special. Wear great earrings or jewelry.

Fake confidence if you have to; act like you belong there and most people will believe you do.
posted by emjaybee at 6:42 PM on December 23, 2017 [4 favorites]

Nthing Rent the Runway. You will stand out (and not in a good way) in a $36 dress from Amazon as linked above. As far as behavior, limit yourself to two glasses of wine, not on an empty stomach, and be the towering badass that got herself here in the first place! PS break in your shoes beforehand, nonnegotiable.
posted by tatiana wishbone at 6:43 PM on December 23, 2017 [21 favorites]

Best answer: One of the long and simpler BLDN bridesmaid dresses (Capulet, Angie, Diana) is a good bet. Or the ones at Nordstrom's--which has a great "ship a bunch to you and take them all back at no return shipping" policy. One Two Three Four

You want to stick with something simple, in a flattering color, and floor length. It's on par with what Some People I Know Have Worn to inaugural balls in DC over the years. Borrow or beg a shiny bracelet or necklace.

As for how to behave, you'll do fine! Try to relax and remember you're there because you belong there. You worked are and you really were a big part of the win. If you're really worried about saying the wrong thing, smile, and say Hm or Well before you start talking to give yourself a moment to be sure you're saying what you want to say and it's okay to end your turn to speak a sentence early. Ask people questions--folks in these kinds of crowds like to talk about what they're doing next.

But you'll be fine! It's exciting and everyone is happy and you'll have all your ground experiences stories to talk about.
posted by crush at 7:08 PM on December 23, 2017 [12 favorites]

Best answer: I (literally) grew up in politics. The short answer is to act like a grownup (or how you believe a grownup acts) and you'll be fine.

Regarding wardrobe, the key is to NOT call attention to yourself in big ways. Avoid sparkles and spangles and let your dress be black or a deep color that that goes well with your coloring (garnet? green?), but carefully apply your makeup and wear pretty jewelry that you love. I don't wear earrings, ever, but wear a nice necklace and ring, maybe a bracelet. Avoid "chunky" and go toward delicate. Flattering fit is important. You are far better off wearing a dress that fits you impeccably but is a bit "boring" rather than something snazzy that pulls across your chest or rides up in the back.

Wear shoes that aren't scuffed -- basic, simple pumps are fine and as long as they are in good condition, they can be inexpensive. (If they are new, practice walking in them on the sidewalk so you can scuff up the bottoms and will be less likely to slip. They don't have to be crazy-high.) Men probably won't notice your shoes; women probably will. Carry a smallish purse, preferably black. It needs to fit your phone, lipstick, ID, maybe one credit/debit card, and some cash. If you have business cards, bring a small stash of them if someone asks for your contact info. If you can fit a small hand mirror and tissues, all the better. Do not carry your daytime purse; if you don't have an evening bag, you can get one at Target or Kohl's for very little. A little sparkle, like at the clasp, is fine. An evening bag with a delicate shoulder strap or a wristlet will make it easier to keep track of your bag if you dance or need to juggle your beverage and your hors d'ouvre plate. Do not leave your bag unguarded. Or your drink. (But I bet you knew that.)

Try RtR if you've got the time, but with curves, you never know how something will fit until it arrives, especially at the bust and under the arms. I encourage you to go to a consignment store. As a professional organizer, I've had clients take never-worn and only-worn-once items to consignment and the pricing is often quite reasonable.

As for how to act, bear in mind that unless you do something outrageous (stick your hand into the serving dishm, shouting across the room, getting drunk), your actual behavior is likely to go unnoticed except for delightful interactions you have one-on-one, which will be remembered because of your (naturally) charming demeanor.

It helps to keep your head (limit your alcohol intake to no more than one drink -- never on an empty stomach no matter how nervous you are -- every few hours, unless you have some serious tolerance, and even then), focus on half-smiling benignly until you make someone's acquaintance and then give a full, "delighted to meet you" smile while making eye contact. A social handshake is not quite as firm as a business handshake, but no limp fishies, OK? Chance are, if you stand still and serenely and look pleased to be there, people like me (totally at ease at these kinds of things but preferring to meet new people) will engage you in conversation. Be upbeat, polite, and feel free to let extroverts guide the conversation until you feel comfy.

Class is a social construct that falls apart. Most service industry employees comport themselves with more subdued composure than many spoiled college kids. I've seen middle-aged, incredibly wealthy people behave dreadfully and young men and women of limited means comport themselves with the dignity of royalty. You've probably seen enough old black & white movies to know what dressed-up people are supposed to act like. Let those movie people be your spirit animals. And remember to let yourself enjoy meeting people -- you could make great professional and/or personal contacts and eat some yummy hors d'oeuvres. Have fun!
posted by The Wrong Kind of Cheese at 7:17 PM on December 23, 2017 [80 favorites]

Fake confidence if you have to; act like you belong there and most people will believe you do.

Absolutely! They are busy feeling awkward themselves. Trust me.

You are there because you are part of the team. Period.

Pro tip: Wear comfortable shoes!!!

(The people who are feeling awkward are likely not wearing comfortable shoes.)
posted by jgirl at 7:30 PM on December 23, 2017 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Ask around, because somewhere in your town is a vintage shop or consignment shop run by a genius. That person will pull 10 dresses off the rack (or from the basement!) that will look great on you and be well in budget. Find out when this genius is working and go in during a slow time. You will have a great dress and a fashion advisor for life.
posted by littlewater at 8:37 PM on December 23, 2017 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Congrats on your success! I'd say one of the dresses that Crush linked to in a dark color (blue or black) is what you want. Simple jewelry (maybe only a necklace), simple shoes and a small purse (you can go cheap on this). Avoid flashy, be conventional.

Generally I avoid drinking at all at these types of events - a soda water with lime works great! Shmooze, walk around, introduce yourself to people and give yourself a break every 20-30 minutes.
posted by Toddles at 9:03 PM on December 23, 2017 [2 favorites]

I'd start with Goodwill or Value Village if you have them. Look for either a long dress or a long skirt and a blouse. Nth the suggestion that you wear a dark color, as well as something simple that flatters your figure. Also, places like TJ Maxx and Marshalls often have nice formal wear at this time of year, as does Nordstrom Rack or Ross Dress for Less. Or, yes, a good consignment shop, if you know of one.

Simple dress, a nice pair of pumps, a nice pair of earrings, a small clutch, and you're all set. You don't mention makeup, but I'd go simple, light, and natural, if you wear it at all.

As far as how to conduct yourself goes - I agree that avoiding the alcohol is a great idea. If push comes to shove, just talk about how great Northam is and how wonderful the last election was for Virginia. Ask people about themselves, and what they do and how they see this transforming Virginia. Or ask them about their holiday season. People love to talk about themselves.

Congratulations and hope you have a wonderful time!
posted by dancing_angel at 9:51 PM on December 23, 2017 [1 favorite]

Right on. You made it.

I’ve been to a hundred of these kind of events — punk as fuck and able to fit in and make people not only talk to me, but also take my anti-establishment attitude home with them. None of these people you’re going to interact with want to feel like a Square, so the first, most important thing is to. BE YOUSELF. If BE YOURSELF means jeans and a t-.shirt, then think about what that means in context. I’ve had meetings where I, punk as fuck, wore slacks, button down shirts but also a weird ass tie, boots, and a leather jacket. I’m confident that if you look at “formal clothes” you’ll find things that reflect an antiestablishment aesthetic but also are socially acceptable.

In my world, now as a middle aged anti-establishment professional, portraying myself as I actually am, a non conformist who knows how to shave and wear a suit, has absolutely advanced my career.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 10:02 PM on December 23, 2017 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Do not go anti-establishment to a Southern governor's inaugural ball. (a) The party is celebrating someone else's major achievement, not for general funzies and (b) it's a formal affair in one of the stodgiest of contexts.

Also, the more you think about how you don't belong, the more uncomfortable you're going to be, and the harder a time you're going to have. It's a party, you were invited out of gratitude for your contributions, you belong there unless you make a point of not doing so.

Given that you're feeling uncomfortable, I'd aim for the sweet spot of your outfit's simply not being noticed. Given that the context is stodgy (honestly, it would be a little weird if you did come in a typical McQueen), people aren't going to focus on your clothes unless you give them a reason to. You want a simple floor-length black or jewel-toned dress without excessive skin showing (though a bit of cleavage is okay). While they may be out of your budget, many of the dresses on the first page here would fit the bill, to give you an idea. If you're wearing a floor-length dress, your shoes won't be the focus, so simple heels in a height you're comfortable with. You can get away with costume jewelry as long as it's simple. Your bag can be a little more playful/glittery; you can often find evening bags that would fit the bill at used-clothing shops.
posted by praemunire at 10:28 PM on December 23, 2017 [9 favorites]

Realistically, how often do you need a formal dress? Think of the cost per wearing. And do you want to scour thrift shops/Marshall's/bridal shops hoping there is something attractive in a flattering color in your size? Save yourself the stress and use Rent the Runway. They also rent jewelry and handbags so check that out as well. What about a shawl/evening wrap?
posted by TWinbrook8 at 10:56 PM on December 23, 2017 [1 favorite]

Nthing Rent the Runway. Perfect use case. I've used them twice and been super happy. You get 2 sizes to try, free extra dress rental when you set up your account, return after the fact was super easy. So my first usage I picked 3 dresses, got 2 sizes of each to try (so 6 total dresses), wore the best one, and returned them all in a FedEx dropbox the next day. SO EASY!
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 6:18 AM on December 24, 2017 [1 favorite]

For Rent the Runway, can you get to their DC brick-and-mortar store? That way you can try some extra sizes, styles, etc. (Designer wear isn’t immune to the general WTFery of women’s clothing sizing.) They don’t have the full selection in-store, but you can have dresses sent there in advance.
posted by scyllary at 6:26 AM on December 24, 2017 [4 favorites]

To paraphrase Wrong Cheese, underdressing is better than overdressing.
posted by SemiSalt at 7:15 AM on December 24, 2017 [1 favorite]

Here is your dress for the event, in black.
All cotton, with pockets. It will fit you. I'm bigger than you, and I wear the XL with ease.
This dress has plenty of ease around the middle, and a fair amount of swish, hem-wise. It begs to have glittery accessories piled on.
And the best thing (revenge, if you will): you can wear it everywhere afterwards. Hell, you can wear it to bed as a nightie, if you want.
posted by BostonTerrier at 7:26 AM on December 24, 2017 [1 favorite]

Hey - I want to support the Rent the Runway idea. A few tips:

1) if you can, go in person to the DC store and try on dresses. (If you can do this ASAP, I'd try to do it Dec. 26, so that dresses haven't all been sent out for New Years events.)

2) Even if they don't have the exact dress you're looking for in stock, try on other dresses that are by the same designer.

3) If it fits within your budget, you can get two dresses (with a backup for each) so you've got a ton of great choices.
posted by mercredi at 8:47 AM on December 24, 2017

Best answer: I'm about your size and definitely curvy (like, my waist is a full pants size smaller than my hips level curvy). I'm also a working class kid who often finds herself at fancy-people events of the political variety. I've had decent luck finding fancy party dresses at places that sell designer overstock and clearance clothes, like Marshalls and Burlington. It's a bit of a gamble to go to those places, of course, because you never know what will be on the rack when you get there, but the good news is that you can try a very wide variety of things on. I honestly get most of my accessories (party purses, scarves, etc.) at Target (although I NEVER buy jewelry or shoes at Target because Target jewelry and shoes always look cheap and fall apart quickly). I recently went to my state Democratic party's super swank fundraising dinner in a $30 dress from Burlington, (comfortable) formal leather boots I got on sale from Famous Footwear (that I'd had for a while but polished the heck out of before the party so they would look new) and a $20 gauzy sparkly pashmina-style wrap from Target, and let me tell you, I got nothing but compliments all night about that $20 wrap. And when people would compliment me on the wrap, I would say, archly, "Thank you, it's from Target," and wink, and that quip SOLD, because look: Democrats are SUPPOSED to be a working class party. Not that there won't be a bunch of rich judgemental types there who have literally never set foot in a box store-- there of course will be-- but even they are required to at least pretend that they are cool with union steelworkers showing up to the party in Carhartts and a Costco sports jacket. I promise: it's in the fine print on the Democrat card.

The most important thing to wear to these events is self-confidence accessorized with a sense of humor. (As others mentioned, comfortable shoes are also key.)
posted by BlueJae at 9:01 AM on December 24, 2017 [9 favorites]

Almost all the dresses above would 100% work with a good, plain pair of black pumps with a two- or three-inch heel and a simple black clutch or small purse.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 10:47 AM on December 24, 2017 [1 favorite]

Oh, and the first time I went to a rich folks' party I was nervous about eating, but I just watched everybody else and made sure I was doing it the same way they were.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 10:55 AM on December 24, 2017 [1 favorite]

Best answer: ======
How do I act?

God, this sounds so cheesy, but sometimes cheesy is what you need.

Posture. It's all about the posture. Long straight spine, elongated neck, shoulders relaxed and tucked back, head held high and gaze confidently level, whatever your height. That's what (mostly unconsciously) signifies class to people, which means this is how to look right in those clothes. Slump a little, convey some chillness, and you'll look like a dressed-up moppet (at best).

You don't need to act frosty, you can be yourself. Just attend to your posture. It's all about the posture.

As a bonus, you'll feel better. There's a cause/effect loop between depressive posture (sunken chest, rounded-forward shoulders, moping head angle) and depression. Many people are depressed because they carry themselves that way, rather than (the more intuitive) reverse. Sounds unlikely, I know, but try it! :)
posted by Quisp Lover at 6:47 PM on December 24, 2017

Best answer: I'm with everyone else who said to dress conservatively, and regard this ball as an opportunity for networking as well as celebrating. If you're not someone who pays a lot of attention to her hands and fingernails, this is the occasion to spring for a professional manicure.
posted by Iris Gambol at 8:32 PM on December 24, 2017 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I suggest eating before you go. Sometimes the food at fancy events comes late. And in small portions. Plus, it's hard to juggle a drink and eat hors d'oeuvres gracefully.
posted by leslievictoria at 9:27 PM on December 24, 2017 [2 favorites]

Best answer: If you're not someone who pays a lot of attention to her hands and fingernails, this is the occasion to spring for a professional manicure

Yes!!! Even if, like me, you keep your nails short, I find it amazing how much better my hands look and feel, when the cuticles and dead skin are all trimmed away, and the nails are all even, smooth, and buffed. If you're not into colored polish, a French manicure or clear polish is just fine. (I usually go with the clear.)
posted by The Underpants Monster at 8:20 AM on December 25, 2017 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thank you all very much! I've got a couple dress options scoped out, and I'm feeling A Lot more confident about going to this thing. I'll let you all know how it goes!
posted by dogheart at 2:59 PM on December 26, 2017 [4 favorites]

I've been in your shoes, and my strategy has been to wear something appropriate that feels "me" that fits really well. I would get something for $30 at a thrift store, then pay $100 at a seamstress or tailor just so I'm not worried about falling out of the dress or looking frumpy. Folks are right about nondescript heels. I recommend ballroom dance shoes, which are wicked comfortable, but not so good for outside.
posted by frecklefaerie at 7:42 AM on December 27, 2017

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