WASHINGTON — So you’re attending an inaugural ball saluting the historic election of Barack Obama in the worst economic climate in three generations. Can you get away with glitzing it up and still be appropriate, not to mention comfortable and financially viable?
As the man of the hour might say: Yes, you can. Veteran ball-goers say you should. And fashionistas insist that you must.
“This is a time to celebrate. This is a great moment. Do not dress down. Do not wear the Washington uniform,” said Tim Gunn, a native Washingtonian and chief creative officer at Liz Claiborne, Inc.
“Just because the economy is in a downturn, it doesn’t mean that style is going to be in a downturn,” agreed Ken Downing, fashion director for Neiman Marcus.
And if anyone raises an eyebrow at those sequins, remind them that optimism is good for times like these.
“Just say you’re doing it to help the economy,” chuckled good manners guru Letitia Baldridge.
Now, like Greenspan, we must caution against irrational exuberance. The amount of money spent on an inaugural gown, however fabulous, does not by itself guarantee the night of your life. And no gown looks good on someone shivering from cold or cringing in pain.
On inauguration night, comfort and survival are as important as aesthetics, as any veteran ball-goer knows. This year, so are economics.
Stylists say to pick a Washington fashion role model and find those looks at retail or consignment stores within your budget. Think Michele Obama and her sleek silhouettes in rich hues, or House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her understated, never dowdy style.
Atlanta’s Dee Wood, a human resources consultant, picked up one of her inaugural outfits — a black balloon skirt and sequined top — at Fashion Exchange, a high-end consignment shop in McLean, Va., for about $150. Shop owner Ann Condit says business for formalwear is up this year by about 50 percent.
“It just made no sense to go try to buy a brand new gown and try to pay $1,000 or $2,000 for it,” Wood said over the weekend. But she didn’t want to compromise on style, because the historic nature of Obama’s presidency calls for celebration.
“People are going to be dressed up,” she said. “This is very important in their lifetimes, particularly for black people who have struggled so long, so hard and have lived long enough to see an African American in the White House.”
To be sure, presidential swearings-in are fancy occasions. In the lead-up to Tuesday, there was great speculation over what ensemble Michelle Obama would choose.
“Just keep it simple. It’s about the body, it’s about clean lines. No more ballgowns,” Saks Fifth Avenue vice president Michael Fink advised.
But this is a series of soirees inside the security perimeter of Inaugural Washington, so there’s more to consider than aesthetics. Outside of the first family and a few select guests, most ball-goers will spend the night on their feet.
Their method of transport: Metro, taxi or bus, plus an extended walk or trot through wintry Washington. Then, it’s in the door of the party venue, through metal detectors and into a crowd of thousands of one’s closest friends.
Ball-goers were advised to plan on carrying their coats rather than waiting in a supersized coat-check line, and warned to be ready to be stepped on, as well as prepared to cope with a drink spilled upon that special dress.
Even so, said those well-versed in occasion dressing, go for the glitz.
Put on that brooch and add some embellishment. Dress well from the waist up, just in case a camera lens sweeps the crowd and one’s college friends are watching. Wear something sparkly. And for those wearing garments long and dark: consider shoe-booties or high dress boots underneath for extra height as well as warmth.
And be prepared for the outside chance that Cinderella never makes it to the ball.
Baldridge, chief of staff to Jacqueline Kennedy, spent the evening of the 1961 inaugural stranded in a car that had become stuck in a snow drift, with two “assistant secretaries of something or other, two halfway important people.”
Luckily, they were stuck in front of a liquor store whose owner sold them a few bottles.
“We spent five hours marooned in that car having a great time,” Baldridge recalled.