I always find myself in the centre of a tug of love at this time of year because I love fashion, but I also really, really love Christmas. And fashion and the festive season have never really seen eye to eye. Fashion is navy cashmere, sleek tailoring and expensively distressed denim; Christmas is novelty snowflake knits and glittery antler deeley boppers, Will Ferrell in yellow elf leggings and Mariah Carey in an itsy bitsy Santa suit. Christmas is dirty carbs rather than clean eating, rosy cheeks instead of Kardashian contouring.
The conflict comes to a head when you have to figure out what to wear for a Christmas party. Do you look Christmassy – sparkly, jolly, fun, appropriate – or do you look nice and true to yourself? The conventional Christmas party dress (tight, dark, sparkly) feels a bit dull, for all its shine. As if it has sequins where its personality should be.
“The thing is, we don’t actually dress up all that much, here,” muses Caren Downie, co-founder and designer of high-taste-at-high-street-prices online brand Finery, when I ask her what she and her colleagues will be wearing for festive nights out. “We go to most parties straight from work. It just doesn’t feel modern to be putting your glittery dress on any more. And the idea of buying something that’s specifically for Christmas feels a bit old-fashioned, doesn’t it? Especially now, when people are much more careful with their budgets and would rather buy something multifunctional.” She plans to wear a dazzling skirt – the taffeta-lined black-and-white striped Somerford (£129) – over a body; the same skirt can be worn with a white shirt or a knit for statement daywear.
Having rung around well-dressed fashion insiders for their seasonal party-dressing tips, my topline report is the following: the party dress of today is not a party dress – it is a cocktail skirt, tuxedo trousers or a jumpsuit. Coco Chan, head of womenswear at online retailer Stylebop, says: “Party dressing isn’t about sparkly dresses any more. People want to make their own style statements these days, and it’s much easier to do that with separates. And no one goes home from work to get changed for the evening any more, so separates make way more sense.” Chan herself is – surprise surprise – “a separates person. This Christmas I’ll be in a pretty Roksanda blouse with a simple bottom half. I’m not the type to be floating about in a gown.”
The top half should be sculptural rather than embellished. Minimal decoration, no print, definitely no beads or crystals. Instead, you want an interesting neckline (off the shoulder, probably) or a tied, ribboned or shaped sleeve. (From Victoria Beckham to Marks & Spencer, one thing that everyone in British fashion agrees on right now is that their shopper absolutely loves a fluted sleeve.)
If the little black dress is in crisis, blame the party jumpsuit. The all-in-one is no longer an outre choice – and the latest versions, such as Galvan’s corsetted style, are sexy enough to put an end to the tired jokes about children’s TV presenters. “A tuxedo is very chic but, if you’re a woman going out with a man and he’s in trousers and a jacket, too, you don’t want to look too matching. A jumpsuit is sleek, comfortable, and you don’t have to show too much skin,” says Chan.
Even more up to the minute on fashion’s mood than the buyers and designers are the personal shoppers, who have the latest word from the changing room. At Selfridges, personal shopper Charlotte Bridgens has noticed that “no one wants to be overdressed at parties these days. It’s not cool.” Instead, her clients are “looking less for the dress they will wear to one party than for separates that will bring more to their wardrobe. Victoria Beckham is having a great season for dressed-down partywear – the look might be an incredible silver pleated skirt, worn with a sweater.” These days, the aesthetic is influenced as much by street style as by catwalk, which means quirky details and unusual combinations rather than sleek LBDs. “I’ve really noticed that bloggers come up in conversation again and again. Street style is definitely on a par with catwalk now.”
The feedback that Lupe Puerta, head of client relations at Net-a-Porter, is hearing is that people “love the idea of denim teamed with an all-over sequin sweatshirt.” The brilliantly named velvet “LOL If You Think I’m Walking” platform sandals from blogger Leandra Medine’s debut shoe collection are going down a storm with this look, as are metallic mini bags – the smaller the better, for that defiantly impractical after-dark vibe. “What we’ve really noticed is that it’s no longer just about the little black dress. Our customers are seeking new and alternative ways to style their partywear looks.” Sarah Haymes, personal shopping manager at Topshop, reports that jeans and a going-out top is back, as a night-time look. Denim with heels and an elegant blouse is a look that is going down well among shoppers, as is anything in velvet. The icons whose names come up in Topshop inter-shopper chat span a surprising time range, she says: from Irish model Stella Maxwell and French Insta-It girl Jeanne Damas to Brigitte Bardot and Jane Birkin, Christy Turlington and Amber Valetta.
Birkin was on the moodboard when Han Chong, founder and designer of Self-Portrait – partywear central for the modern good-time-girl – was creating the current collection. “We tried to think about what she would wear today, and designed pieces with that in mind.” Her feminine but unfussy vibe fed into “more options in the form of separates and jumpsuits”. Coco Chan, who has noticed the avant-garde left-bank chic of Charlotte Rampling and Catherine Deneuve being namechecked in party-dressing circles this season, thinks their images are in the ether because “they were louche, decadent and ahead of their time in terms of how women live and want to look. And that captures something about how women are today.”
A tight, sequinned dress says: “I’ve had the office party circled on the wall chart since July because I’m so excited about the free bar.” Which is fine, but not always the wavelength you want to broadcast on. While, on the other hand, nothing says “I am a liberated modern woman fully cognisant of street-style trends” like a pyjama suit. I wore one for a feature a while ago, and I have never felt more perfectly in sync with the martini glass in my hand than I did in those PJs. You need high heels and long earrings, just to make it crystal clear you are not a roving sleepwalker, but the frisson of daring that comes from wearing something that strays so far from the LBD script is liberating. Whistles’s dark-red silk pyjamas, in collaboration with Yolke, are the modern woman’s chic take on Macaulay Culkin in his red jammies, in Home Alone. The look is a Christmas classic. I’m calling that a happy ending.