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. ‘Long or short?’ ‘Long’, he insisted. Alas, he failed to specify the long or the short of it. I poured myself into an evening dress that reached my ankles. On my arrival I found that the other guests had also opted for the ‘long’ option: they were dressed in long leggings and long jeans. If you have ever wondered what it feels like to be the prudish consort of a Babylonian monarch who has just wandered into the room to find the orgy in full swing, wonder no more.
Overdressed, one soon becomes the cynosure of derisive smiles, necessitating a fast exit through the kitchen, after which we encounter pitfall number two of contemporary festive dressing. This is the draconian dictate, first issued by Hollywood ‘stylists’, that to wear a coat over an evening dress is utterly démodé, unless that ‘coat’ is in fact a wrap of exorbitant coasting gauze whose only function is to act as a windmill.. This rule is now followed by sad women like myself, who fear being cast into a backwater of inelegance, despite the risk of viral pneumonia or unconrollable laughter from men standing outside pubs.
Every February I am lucky enough to be invited to a pre BAFTA dinner given by WilliamVintage and the Mayfair jewellers’s Adler. The other guests are actresses such as Jennifer Lawrence and Gillian Anderson. The paparazzi stand outside the London hotel where it takes place, waiting. Then these women pose, coatless, as it rains or sleets. They are not to be sneezed at, for they do no sneeze. I asked Ms Anderson how she did it? It appeared to be a form of self-hypnosis, by which she imagined herself to be in a tropical microclimate and can only be mastered by decades of hard concentration.
Deciding what to wear is only the beginning of our travails, however, particularly for the woman who lives alone. The most useful job any man can perform in this world, since he was booted from the boardroom, is that of an old-fashioned ladies maid. For it is far harder to dress than it is to undress. First, when you dress for a party, you are generally sober, and would not have the courage to ask a cabbie to attend to your zips or buttons. I faced this dilemma a few weeks ago when I found myself staying at a country hotel, before a friend’s wedding anniversary dinner.
For an hour I struggled with four hooks on the back of my frock, without which the dress would slew off like an old snake skin. I eventually called down to a member of staff to receive the dyspeptic reply: ‘We don’t provide room service, Moddam. This is not the Ritz.’ With regard to hotels, I have only once succeeded in eliciting help due to my inhibitions having been dulled by drugs. I was in Amsterdam, having been sent there by a national newspaper to sample the ‘coffee shops’ after MPs at Westminster made one of their periodic noises about legalizing cannabis.
The only thing I can recall was how cannabis would solve the problems of sartoria. After a day spent smoking twelve varieties, I returned to my hotel to change. I suppose I could have telephoned the concierge or pressed the maid service button. But in my state of extreme relaxation, I wandered out of my room to the lift and decided to try pot luck. When the lift arrived, I could see there was a man in it. ‘Can you help me change?’ It was only after he had obliged that I realised it was Stephen Fry, whom to this day has treated my request as if it were both natural and commonplace.
Of course the universal solution to the misery involved in dressing for parties would be to dispense with zips, buttons and every other type of fastening. A friend of mine directed me to a website called S Dress Fashion, which sells expandable outfits, the parts of which are fused together by lasers. You simply pull the garments on and the pull them off. Moreover, the ‘German–patented fabric’, maintains a constant temperature. They do not yet make evening wear, but this could be the greatest step forward for women since the Pill. Though it would, sadly, deprive us of an excuse to approach men in elevators.Tags: Baftas, Christmas, Fashion, Stephen Fry