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How to navigate even the most bizarre and confusing festive dress codes

Demi Moore arriving to the CFDA Fashion Awards in New York
Demi Moore arriving to the CFDA Fashion Awards in New York - Getty

Tis the season of festive celebrations, but if you thought you’d nailed your fail-safe velvet slip dress and kitten heels party combo, think again. Partying 2023-style appears to come with some tricky festive dress codes. In the last couple of weeks, The Telegraph Fashion desk and I have received invites with some pretty eclectic dress themes: “Furs and candlelight”, “La Dolce Vita”, “Refined comfort”. And then along came Beyoncé with the premiere party for her Renaissance concert film, specifying a strict dress code for her guests: “Cosy Opulence”.

beyonce
'Cosy Opulence': the dress code for the premiere party of Beyoncé's Renaissance concert film - beyonce.com

“Dress codes are everywhere now, even just for a dinner party in town. I like the idea of a dress code, and the crazier and more random these are, the more fun the research of the right attire will be,” says Gianluca Longo, the always impeccably attired style director of The World of Interiors. “In the past it was all Studio 54 and The Royal Tenenbaums, now anything goes.”

what to wear christmas party 2023
Gianluca Longo, left, attends the unveiling of the Christmas Tree at the Edition Hotel in London - Getty

But what does it all mean? Are we finally having that roaring Twenties moment that we once imagined pre-pandemic, when our social lives resemble the opening sequence of a Baz Luhrmann movie? And faced with a whimsical dress code, how does a normal mortal who doesn’t conjure up moodboards for a living actually navigate? How much sparkle is too much sparkle? Does “furs and candlelight” give permission to go all out Norse goddess in a fur snood and carry a lantern? (My nephew’s girlfriend, who is Gen Z, interjects here, to explain that I should in fact think of “furs and candlelight” as more of a social media hashtag mood; denoting a cosy hygge vibe; though this does not mean an encouragement to wear cashmere joggers.)

Are these new dress codes actually guidelines or puzzles to be cracked? Even the more formal industry events seem a tad confusing. Take Gwyneth Paltrow and Demi Moore photographed together at the Council of Fashion Designers of America awards a few weeks back. GP, you may remember, was outfitted in a strictly tailored, frankly fabulous cocktail skirt from her own G. Label by goop collection and a sweater (yes, very Aspen). Demi, however, was resplendent in mirrorball, shimmering silver sequined all-out bling, courtesy of Carolina Herrera.

Gwyneth Paltrow and Demi Moore
Gwyneth Paltrow and Demi Moore pose at the CFDA awards in November - Getty

The dress code for this event, dear readers, was American Black Tie. Though I have lived and worked in New York, this was a new one to my ears. And, should you be wondering, it does not feature on that oracle of American etiquette The Emily Post Institute website, among the various categories of Black Tie dress requirements, which include “Creative Black Tie” and “Black Tie Optional” (the latter being the dress code to choose should you want to foment maximum pre-event shopping rage and spousal friction amongst your entire guest list, in my opinion at least).

I was contemplating all of the above recently when I attended Greek designer Celia Kritharioti’s festive party celebrating her launch at Harrods. The invitation read: “Festive attire, blazers for the boys”, which I thought was unusually informative as these things go. The party turned out to be a flat-out fabulous affair, with sparkles as far as the eye could see and much boogying amid the velvet banquettes.

Greek designer Celia Kritharioti
Greek designer Celia Kritharioti and Deputy Editor of British Vogue Sarah Harris - Getty

Here I met Sukeena Rao, founder with Harriet Quick of the personal shopping service Luminaire, whose speciality is dressing clients for such elevated events. “Celia’s party is a good example of ‘cosy opulence’, the fires were on, the girls were in crystal gowns, but the atmosphere was cosy,” says Rao, when we talk over Zoom the next day. She says she has noticed a new mood in the air for party season 2023, that is reflected in the dress codes; something she puts down, in part, to the global context. “There’s a lot of difficult things going on in the world … People are still wanting to go out, to do that Christmas thing and see people, but at the same time the tone feels a bit warmer and cosier than usual.”

Maria Kastani
Maria Kastani attends the Claridge's Christmas Tree Party - Getty

Rao says she interprets a fanciful dress code like “cosy opulence” to mean “dress up, but dial it down a notch,” adding: “It’s about finding something amazing in your closet. It’s really not about wearing a full new runway look.”

In many ways, taste makers like Rao and the super stylists who dress the stars whose looks we scrutinise every day online are setting the new standards of how we adhere to sartorial rules and themes. I speak to celebrity stylist Holly White, who dresses new talents such as Bridgerton’s Charithra Chandon and Heartstopper’s Joe Locke, about how she interprets the new party dressing codes: “I tend to use dress codes as a guide to gauge the overall feel or energy of the event for clients but ultimately, we are looking to land on something that makes the client feel their best and most confident! I love seeing how people interpret ‘black tie’ – it is not as traditional as it once was, it’s become much more creative, people are curating their looks in new and interesting ways while still feeling elevated and ‘black tie’.”

what to wear christmas party 2023
The Glitter and the Gold: Bridgerton’s Charithra Chandon - Getty

So what do the traditional gatekeepers of event etiquette make of it all? I turn to Liz Wyse, Debrett’s etiquette expert.

“Dress codes are certainly getting more creative and fanciful, and it poses a problem for guests, who don’t really have much guidance about what level of adherence is required. While a code like ‘cosy opulence’ is really just an inventive way of saying ‘smart evening wear’ (with a nod towards the winter season), ‘furs and candlelight’ is much more esoteric. Short of carrying a lit candle, a guest would be better advised to look at the ‘furs’ part of the dress code. While of course there are people who love going the extra mile when it comes to creative dress codes, if you’re a more discreet and laid-back person you can just acknowledge it with accessories – a fur stole, fur-trimmed evening gloves and so on. This will show that you’ve noted the dress code and have made a gesture towards complying.”

Wyse acknowledges that the dress codes of our parents’ generation have loosened.

“Dress codes have certainly moved on from the very rigid traditional rules, which did not allow for any deviation, to a more loose and liberal interpretation. Generally, if these old-fashioned terms are used, adherence to the code is expected. It is increasingly common to use more generic terms such as ‘cocktail attire’, ‘smart frocks’ or ‘party dress’. These codes release guests, especially men, from rigid strictures. They can discard dinner jackets and bow ties if they choose and opt for smart lounge suits, velvet jackets, Nehru collars and so on. Women can choose whatever dress or trouser combination they feel will make them look chic and glamorous.”

what to wear christmas party 2023
Generic terms such as ‘cocktail attire’, ‘smart frocks’ or ‘party dress’ release guests, especially men, from rigid strictures (pictured: Adrien Brody) - Getty

So how do the folks who go out night after night advise navigating some of the festive sartorial dress codes currently on The Telegraph team’s mantel? Over to dapper gentleman about town, Gianluca Longo: “I always love a La Dolce Vita dress code: Think Anita Ekberg for ladies and The Talented Mr Ripley for men. Refined Comfort? Have a look at Ralph Lauren.” In general, he advises: “Google the dress code, look at the image tab and see what comes up, use your imagination to combine and mix.”

Fashion entrepreneur Maria Kastani, who is adhering to Tiffanie Darke’s “Rule of Five” and buying nothing new for the season, tells me that after the challenging year we have had, she wants to look and feel “luscious, beautiful and delicious” at parties, but she will be diving into her closet for her favourite wow outfits and letting her accessories speak to any particular party theme. The new party mood is “more about emotion, than appearances”, she says.

Sukeena Rao agrees with the more considered approach to buying this season and is advising her clients to invest in knockout accessories. “I think most women have something fabulous in their wardrobe that they can mix with a black leather glove from The Row, say, or an Alaia mesh boot, and just take it to a different level.”

And what words of advice to the more cautious dresser, from whom getting the courage to oomph up their outfit to sub-Beyoncé levels of “cosy opulence” is a bit nerve-wracking.

“Put on some fun, loud music when you are getting dressed and keep on adding more accessories than you are used to. They can come off soon after the arrival at the party … or not.”

Well, that’s one new party dressing rule I certainly intend to follow. Cue the music!

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