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Dressing for dinner

Debutantes at a 1953 ball

The nights draw in and the Christmas party invitations materialise on the mantelpiece, rarely with any instruction about what to wear. I start to wonder: when even “smart casual” is old hat, is there still such a thing as “evening wear”? Dressing for dinner now means choosing a shirt in which you can eat spaghetti without fear, and the shock waves caused by Sharon Stone’s white Gap men’s shirt at the 1998 Oscars are a distant memory. Surely the term has lost all power to command and seduce?

Once upon a time, when etiquette was king, evening dress was easy as long as you had the money for a valet or ladies’ maid and an extensive wardrobe. The Gilded Age of the late nineteenth century was the heyday of formal dressing in the west, when vast wealth accrued to oil barons, cotton kings and railway pioneers and there was a great deal of jockeying for social position.

Giovanni Boldini’s “Portrait of Elizabeth Wharton Drexel” epitomises the glamour and elegance of the Gilded Age

There were rules to follow for access to high society. For men, a black tailcoat, white dress shirt, white tie with wing collar, and all the medals you were entitled to sport. For ladies, a floor-sweeping gown with evening gloves, tiara optional but distinctly preferred. The seams of gentlemen’s trousers had to be concealed by a galon or satin stripe, and ladies’ décolletages could not plunge too low.

As the nineteenth century gave way to the twentieth, eighteen-year-old debutantes filed into coming-out balls across the industrialised world. Here, the daughters of the aristocracy – and of successful businessmen eager to rub shoulders with them – would be presented to the monarch. Where there was no monarch – namely America – they effectively presented themselves to each other, but the dress code still applied. With luck, they selected a life partner from their dance card.
Half a dozen frocks might be commissioned for such an occasion because a great deal, from reputation to marriage prospects, hung on a woman’s choice of evening gown – especially if literature is anything to go by. In Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence the divorced Countess Olenska appears at the opera in a blue velvet gown whose unusual style sends more ripples round the gilded boxes than her marital state, and who is to say if Anna Karenina would have ended up under a train if she’d decided against black velvet and diamonds at a certain fateful soirée?

A maxi dress from Halston’s 1979 autumn collection

So, in the first 30 years of the twentieth century at least, dressing for dinner was an imperative in the great houses of the western world. Here a woman of society might change four or five times in a day, with a peignoir succeeded by a day dress, swapped in turn for stalking tweeds, and culminating in a full-length gown for a five-course evening meal. Picture Maggie Smith in starched bib, Edwardian bustle and pearls, being helped to quail in aspic by an assiduous footman. The tradition began to wobble in the late ’20s as the Depression set off waves of economic instability across the western world, and the death knell for dressing for dinner sounded with the exigencies of World War II. Women took to trousers and army serge and all sort of sartorial certainties evaporated in the face of more pressing issues. In 1958 the tradition of presenting debutantes at the British court was abandoned for good.

Would Anna Karenina have ended up under a train if she’d decided against black velvet and diamonds at a certain fateful soirée?

What is in some ways stranger than the decline of evening dress, under the circumstances, is its weird persistence. Because it has survived, in strange vestigial forms, and the more it is detached from its original use, the more debased it has become. Through the ’70s and ’80s, despite all the social upheaval that preceded those decades, evening dress was still de rigueur for the ordeals that were the accountants’ dinner dance or the upper-middle-class 21st birthday party. Who can’t picture those years without a Margo Leadbetter “muumuu” dress or a sequinned sheath topped off with a Shirley Bassey-bouffant materialising in their imagination? A floor-length gown was still specified with iron certainty for formal occasions such as balls and Oscar ceremonies.

Supermodel Jane Dickinson in a 1980s Versace ad

Yet even here the boat was rocked, of course, by Sharon Stone in her shirtsleeves and Daniel Craig in a fuchsia velvet tuxedo, not to mention the arrest in 2017 of Oscars favourite Harvey Weinstein, whose then-wife Georgina Chapman had her own evening-wear brand, Marchesa.

But just when you think it might capsize once and for all in a froth of tulle, from across the Atlantic comes the unstoppable American high-school prom. This ridiculous, outdated, inauthentic but completely irrepressible phenomenon has been seized on with astonishing enthusiasm by teenage girls everywhere. Stripping off their low-slung jeans, the class of 2024 will corset itself into strapless duchesse satin and sequins as if to the manner born. So, makers of fishtail gowns everywhere can breathe again: it looks as if the death of evening dress has been much exaggerated.

Christobel Kent is a Gold Dagger-nominated author. Her latest novel “In Deep Water” is out now

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Arts & Culture, December 23 / January 24, Style Maven

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