Ode to a Party Dress

By Rowena Ritchie.

In her Ode to a Party dress, fashion writer Rowena Ritchie celebrates the sartorial decisions we make and asks us to contemplate why finding something to wear that’s truly meaningful may be the best way to celebrate the season.

Telling people not to shop at Christmas is never going to be a popular message, but on one point alone I profess a smug immunity from the clarion call of holiday consumerism. No matter how many ads claim to have found me the perfect party dress this year, or endless stories on making holiday dressing easier trend, I know what I’ll be wearing to the party is the one to-do on my seasonal shortlist already crossed off.


My party dress started as another dress altogether. As a teen, I bought a champagne-colored silk brocade 1950s shirt-waister with a full skirt from a stall at Covent Garden. I treasured that dress and would mooch around our living room pretending to be Grace Kelly. Six years ago (and two decades and a few pounds later), I took it into a La Rosa Vintage on Haight Street and swapped it for a 1930s cocktail dress in black crepe de chine with diamante deco-designed sleeves.

Despite its high-neck, wide sleeves and mid-calf hem, the dress is pure fabric Viagra. I come alive when I wear it. Just like how a corset affects your posture and movement, a good bias cut can do wonders for your ability to slither and slink around a cheese board. In the great tradition of seduction, its allure is not in what is revealed, but in what is concealed.

Of course, in all our favorite clothes, the genius is in the fabric content and cut. Vintage crepe with a silk warp and hard-spun worsted weft plus an inch of seam allowance will always be your friend. You know when people ask, “Where has all the elegance gone?” Or wonder when they see a vintage movie or old photograph, “Why we don’t look like that anymore?” The culprit is elastane. The fact is we’ve gotten too comfortable. As Vivienne Westwood recounts, “I was on the bus on Saturday going down to Whitehall. I just looked at everybody and there wasn’t one person who had a silhouette or stood out. They all looked like babies who had come out from a big washing machine – all easy-care jerseys and tights.”  If ever there is a time to get out of our beloved leggings and into something smart and tailored, it’s the holidays.

Beyond form, it’s the feeling of intimacy and connection with the past I have with the dress I love. Were those deep seams built with an expectation of better thanksgiving dinners than the one the original wearer had in 1929? My curiosity for the bodies, and the lives those bodies lived add up to a gown with a rich inner life of its own. Perhaps its former owners hoped to channel a favorite screen siren from the time, Jean Harlow, Rita Haworth or Carole Lombard. Who knows but every time I wear it, I lay down a pebble at the altar of a lineage of golden glamour–and that’s enough style aspiration for me.

Emily Spivack, the author of Worn Stories http://wornstories.com, a collection of tales about the role clothing plays in our personal histories writes in the introduction, “We all have a memoir in miniature living in a garment we’ve worn.”  Even non-vintage items can have this quality.  Well-loved clothes are meaningful, they’re a record of the life we lived and loved in.  Most deep loves are like that, a composition of mixed up memories and there’s something nostalgic in our longing for them. Some memories are yours, but are some alive in the fabric?

What would Japanese scientist Dr. Masaru Emoto http://www.masaru-emoto.net/english/water-crystal.html whose fascinating studies on the energetic effects of positive emotions on water, find if he photographed my dress, I wonder? Would all this gown-love result in alive, brilliant, complex, and colorful snowflake patterns? In contrast, would the fast-fashion version of my dress show incompelete, assymetrical dull colors? Can clothes have soul and does it add up to a more stylish look?

One thing is clear, my party dress is the beating heart of my closet, a touchstone to keep me honest when the frequent lust for a whole new look strikes. It happens more frequently than I prefer to admit, and on these occasions I remind myself of my favorite piece of clothing and remember its many good qualities. If that also sounds like a recipe for a long-term relationship, it’s because it’s a formula for lasting love that works.

The idea that an item of clothing can still be relevant and beautiful more than eighty years after it was made certainly speaks to a deeper truth about true style. Never before have we needed clothes designed to be treasured and timeless and to foster an emotional connection with its wearer and, hopefully, multiple wearers.

Ironically this dress that is so connected to the past speaks to me  loudly in the present moment. It says, “Dress to please yourself. Listen to your inner muse and take a chance. Wear something that says, Here I am today.” And when shopping for everyone on your list begins to take its toll, its nice to think true style costs nothing at all.



Rowena Ritchie is a Bay Area-based copywriter who believes copy is the poetry of business. She can be found on Twitter as @rowenaritchie.
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