Evening Wear Basics

Juliet Prowse in "Mame"About twenty years ago on a Thursday afternoon around 4:30, my husband called me at work to say he’d just been handed box seat tickets to a touring performance of Mame, starring Juliet Prowse.  Would I be interested in going? The show was at 7:30 that night.

When the curtain rose three hours later, we were there, as was our hostess and her boyfriend. A third couple, however, couldn’t make it. Why? Given the extremely short notice (the tickets were given to our hostess by a friend late that afternoon), they had to decline because the woman had nothing to wear. Which was really too bad, because the show was terrific.

Now let me ask you: if you were handed tickets to a show (or dinner or gallery opening or ball) with just a few hours’ notice, would you be able to accept knowing you’d be properly dressed?

Most women would have to say “no.”

Because, like the gal who missed out on Mame, most women have gaping holes in their wardrobes that prevent them from going to certain places appropriately dressed. They funnel the majority of their clothing budgets into their primary activity, like work or taking care of kids, and are caught like a deer in the headlines when something out-of-the-ordinary comes along. They’re either forced to decline a last minute invitation, or go with what they have and spend the whole time feeling inappropriately dressed.

It’s all so unnecessary. Because with just a little bit of planning, they could be ready for ANYTHING – even a last minute invitation to a touring Broadway show. So let’s take a few minutes to discuss an appropriate eveningwear wardrobe.

Now if you think this subject really doesn’t apply to you because you rarely go to formal functions, keep reading anyway. You’ll soon discover that by having just a few of these pieces in your closet, you can easily transform almost any outfit into appropriate formal attire, whether you’re headed to an evening wedding, an association cocktail party, or even a New Year’s get-together with a few of your nearest and dearest.

So what are the 5 top evening wear pieces you should have?

Evening Wear Pieces

1. A Dark Dress

This can be a little black dress, if black looks good on you, or navy, brown, red, or even plum. For maximum durability, it should have simple lines and some sort of sleeve. That way, you can add a splash of jewelry and wear it to semi-formal functions like cocktail parties, nice dinners, and the theater, and to more solemn affairs like weddings, bar mitzvahs, and the like.

Evening Wear Cocktail DressMacys

2. An Evening Top 

This can be anything that smacks of evening, from a satin or sequined camisole to a diaphanous lace blouse. Pair it with a skirt or pants, wear it under a suit, or mix it with your other evening pieces for an elegant, classic look.

Evening Top

3. An Evening Skirt or Pair of Pants

A simple skirt or pair of pants in an evening material can take you to a variety of functions for years. Pair them with your evening top, a trendy blouse, a simple top with knockout jewelry – the possibilities are only limited by your imagination.

Evening Skirt

4. Evening Shoes

Sandals, pumps, or slingbacks in metallic, lace, or satin will upgrade almost anything else you’re wearing to a more formal status. Pair them with a suit, an evening gown, a simple sheath, or whatever, for a glamorous evening look.

Evening Attire Shoe

5. An Evening Bag 

An evening bag or minaudière, like evening shoes, instantly upgrades your attire to a more formal status. Since you can only carry your lipstick, a key, a credit card, or folded currency in one, it says that you’re there for the evening’s festivities with nothing more important to do.

Evening Bag

So should you have ALL of these pieces in your wardrobe? Ideally, yes, particularly if your lifestyle carries you through a wide variety of activities and you need versatile pieces to go the distance. If your life is pretty predictable with few surprises, consider just adding an evening top or handbag for spur-of-the moment things.

Evening Wear Availability

You’ll find the best selection of evening apparel right before the holidays in November and December, and when stores are clearing their remaining inventories in early January. If your budget’s tight, consider shopping consignment stores. You’ll also find a surprising array at places like Goodwill and the Salvation Army in the spring, when people do their spring cleaning and/or are disposing of their clothes at the end of the spring formal season.

Having a few evening wear pieces on hand is always a good idea, even if you don’t have a really busy social life. A lacy top or pretty evening bag can spice up just about any outfit enough to be worn to an evening function, allowing you more opportunities to enjoy life to the fullest. So don’t turn down that last-minute invitation because you don’t have anything to wear; be in your seat when the curtain rises and savor the evening’s memory for years to come.

Diana Pemberton SikesDiana Pemberton-Sikes is an image consultant and author of Wardrobe Magic.  Ready to learn how to dress well without a lot of fuss?  Wardrobe Magic can help.


  • MEL

    Reply Reply July 18, 2013

    DIana, I have a health condition that swells my ankles and feet. My formerly gorgeous ankles, legs and feet are horrible looking. I can no longer wear most of my shoes and have a terrible time finding attractive shoes that fit my ultra swollen feet. I no longer wear open shoes as I feel so ugly.
    On the other hand, I don’t want to be condemned to wearing athletic shoes and old lady shoes, either.
    There is no way in the world I could wear those cute strappy sandals and heels. And even many more closed in shoes are too tight around my very swollen in-step area.
    What do you suggest for me and other women with similar problems? I am 62 but aside from my swollen feet, I look much younger.I work in a somewhat casual government office in an area that is not open to the public. And I haven’t been invited to anything even vaguely formal since the 1980’s!

    • Diana

      Reply Reply July 19, 2013

      Hi Mel,

      I am so sorry you’re dealing with this issue! I had swollen feet when I was pregnant and hated it. I can’t imagine that sort of discomfort long term.

      There are not a lot of options out there for swollen feet, unfortunately. About the most attractive selection I found was at:


      Hope that helps. As for not attending formal functions in 30 years…go looking for them. The opera, the ballet, a big birthday splash – there are always lots of fun reasons to get dressed up! 😉

  • Ekaterin

    Reply Reply July 23, 2013

    Diana, I too have a health condition that gives me very ugly lower legs and swollen ankles. Is there an alternative to the little black dress that I can wear for those occasions? When do I choose a long skirt and when do go for a nice pair of pants? Or am I overlooking a possibility?

    • Diana

      Reply Reply August 22, 2013

      Hi Ekaterin,

      In lieu of a little black skirt, you can certainly wear a long, dark skirt or palazzo pants as cocktail attire. Just add an evening top and accessories and you should be “good to go.”



    Reply Reply July 23, 2013

    Hi Diana,
    I really appreciate your work and i must say you are a good teacher from the little i have evidenced via your emails and write up. which is why i look up to you as a mentor and would love that you mentor me, because i want to be like you and even better :-). i would like you know that i am addicted to your mails to me and every other write up…
    I had written to you at different times but not yet gotten any response as regards my questions and i would love to ask them again on this medium:
    * i would like to learn directly from you, unfortunately, i don’t live in the US. how do we go about that?
    * We lack professional Stylist/ Image consultants like you in my country and i would want you to come replicate what you are doing in country, here in my country. i would love to be your ambassador here in my country, so maybe we could do a lot in terms of business together in this line- trainings, consultations, to mention a few.
    * i want to start a blog on fashion and would love to use some of your articles once in a while if you do not mind? i also won’t mind if you featured on my blog too 🙂

    kindly respond to my questions via my email address provided.

    keep up the good work Diana, we are proud of you!!!

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