When you have functions to attend, it pays to have a uniform
When reading The Englishwoman's wardrobe recently, I laughed once again at one interviewee's assertion that she had no clothes for 'sudden lunch with a colonel'. She was, she said, 'no good at clothes for the halfway thing' as she owned only scruff clothes and ballgowns.
I kind of know what she means. We normally lead a pretty quiet life but this Christmas was one of the busiest in years, and being faced with an unexpected invite can leave you realising the gaps you have in your wardrobe. In my case, I could hike, go fishing or chop wood until the cows come home, but a country Christmas party is another matter.
When we attended functions in London there was a mixture of events: occasional visits to the opera, theatre or classical music concerts; cocktail parties run by PR companies; office parties; dinner with friends at their houses; dinner out at various kinds of restaurant. They all entailed their uniform, from long gowns to cocktail dresses to whatever you happened to be wearing at work that day plus a bit of extra lippy.
Here in the countryside, though, when you get a party invite, practicality is the first thing you have to think about. Something like a strappy cocktail dress would leave you freezing your ass off (not to mention shoeless, having trudged up a muddy lane in your stilettos). Combining warmth with beauty is rather tricky and I am starting to feel the need for a good tuxedo.
Also, nearly all our events entail sitting down and - usually - eating, which is also limiting. You need first and foremost to be comfortable - no point in boning yourself in so much that you can't enjoy your meal, and also no-one really notices your bottom half when you're sitting round a table: you need to keep the interest on your top half.
Our first invite, on Christmas Eve, was to a formal dinner at a friend's who is a cordon bleu cook. I chose a long black velvet skirt (from Asda, of all places), with suedette boots (the kind of pull-on black jobbies beloved of Trinny and Susannah), and a zap-pow scarlet embroidered silk Chinese jacket.
This is a vintage piece I picked up many years ago and it often gets trotted out at Christmas, partly due to its cheery colour, but little did I know that I'd end up wearing the skirt for every single function. This is a new acquisition - picked up at a clothes swap - and it has proved fantastically useful provided I wear it backwards to put the long split at the back rather than the front.
With most of our houses heated by wood here in the boonies, and no real way to know how warm you're going to be, a long skirt gives you a degree of flexibility. Under it, as I did, you can wear thermals, woolly socks and boots to be on the safe side.
Such underpinnings obviously add a bit of bulk, however, so I also fell back on my Spanx high-rise smoother. This may be the ugliest thing known to man, but it really does take about 10 pounds off you, and also helps support your back through the course of a long evening. I got mine from Figleaves.co.uk, and though I don't wear it all that often, when you need it, nothing else will do - if you want real control, Spanx is the brand to choose.
For Boxing Day (another gourmet meal), I ended up wearing the same skirt with a 1950s cream sequinned jacket lined in green shantung (very beautiful but also very warm).
For our black and white party on the 28th I fancied a change and chose my 1950s wool and satin cocktail dress, which is a fabulous item, but it's for standing around in, not for bending and stretching and riffling in cupboards, as you must do as hostess. After walking about in it a bit, I realised it wouldn't work. So out came the Asda skirt again, this time with a 1950s sequinned cardigan in black, pewter and silver.
For our last big party on New Year's Eve (four parties in eight days...), I once again wore the skirt, teaming it with a 1960s sequinned cardigan in dark, iridescent peacock colours.
Never has one skirt done so much mileage in so short a time, which just goes to show what a fab bargain a supermarket item can be. I doubt this skirt cost more than a tenner even when it was new, but the stretch, the deep blackness and lustre of the velvet and the perfect length mean that it might do me good service for a decade.
It also made me realise that the six evening 'bottoms' that I wear the most are all black: a long, crushed, A-line black velvet skirt, a black suedette flirty skirt with beaded hem, a black wool flirty skirt with an embroidered hem (all of them with clean lines and long enough to wear with boots). In addition I wear black lambswool knit trousers from Pringle and black poly jersey fluid trousers, though these require a slightly longer top, as I like to cover my backside.
I am feeling the need now, though, for a proper 'smoking' tuxedo suit. Preferably with both trousers and a skirt, the jacket should be a feminine tuxedo with a pinched waist, satin shawl collar, welted pockets and long enough to cover my bottom, in a fine wool, rayon or even a subdued lurex etc. The hunt is on...