Petronella Wyatt

The perils of dressing – and undressing – for parties

I recall a male friend telling me about an encounter he once had with Bindy Lambton, the eccentric estranged wife of the late Lord Lambton. They had been to the same party and it was snowing outside. ‘Would you mind coming home with me?’ she enquired. ‘I’m not propositioning you. I’m too old. It’s just that I need someone to undo the back of my dress’. On asking how she managed to undress when alone, Lambton answered breezily, ‘I go out on the street , hail a taxi and ask the driver to unzip me. But it’s too cold to do that tonight.’

Oh, the perils of dressing, and undressing for parties, particularly during what is called the festive season.  Within this daunting social ven diagram are intersecting circles of embarrassment involving both sexes. To tread around them involves such an intricate and easy knowledge of sartorial geometry that most of us never rise about a B + and receive an increasing number of Cs and even Fs. Today, the pitfalls involved in dressing for soirees require an Ovid or that arbiter elegantiarum, Petronius, to provide us with guidance.

First there is the ‘Dress Code’. Contemporary ‘dress codes’ are so indecipherable that even Bletchley would have given up the ghost. The worst of these, and one used with increasing frequency is ‘Dress to Impress’. I have attempted to decipher this thrice and still fail to crack it’s secret.  Whom is one supposed to impress? To impress the majority of men, to paraphrase Danny Kaye’s mad couturier, Anatole of Paris, would involve a display ‘causing six divorces, three runaway horses’ , while to impress half of the world’s women requires head to toe Chanel, and for the other half, a tag reading Oxfam Typhoon Appeal .

On one occasion, given that the invitation I had received was for a birthday dance, I telephoned my host, whose birthday it happened to be.

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