Style / Trends

WHAT TO WEAR WHEN THE PARTY IS AT HOME

By Samantha Critchell
Once a home-entertaining favorite of American women in the 1960s and ’70s, the hostess skirt may be just the thing for the more intimate holiday parties happening in front of the fireplace this year instead of out on the town.
 
The hostess skirt has taken different forms over the past decades. These days, it usually refers to a formal skirt that grazes the ankle, and is made of silk satin or taffeta or some other fabric you wouldn’t wear everyday.
 
 
The style pairs easily with just about any top in your closet–remember Sharon Stone at the Oscars, once in a long skirt and men’s-style white blouse, and once in a long skirt and Gap turtleneck?
 
And even though the skirt is longer and fuller than the sleek styles our modern eye may be used to, it comes with an enduring fashion-meets-function silhouette: The ladylike retro-cool style of "Mad Men"– can’t you imagine a perfectly coifed hostess greeting you at the door with a cocktail in hand?–but the freedom to move easily and wear flat shoes.
 
 
Talbots creative director Michael Smaldone included long skirts in the brand’s holiday collection after seeing old photos in the company archive. The skirt is the embodiment of a "gracious, thoughtful, giving and warm hostess," he says, although it’s perfectly fine for guests to wear them too.

They have a spare, clean look and seem more "real world" than a gilded gown or a slinky cocktail dress, which might seem out of place at an intimate party, Smaldone says. "This is a look you’d wear dripping with pearls, not diamonds."

The loose A-line shape of most modern skirts isn’t constricting and you’ll often find sportswear details, such as pockets.

Historically, hemlines of the cocktail skirt varied according to the prevailing taste of the day, such as knee-length in the 1960s and ankle- or floor-length in the ’70s, says Andrew Bolton, associate curator of The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute.

You can also see similarities in the flowing-but-not-pouffy skirts favored by wealthier women for social occasions during the Edwardian era at the turn of the 20th century.

 

"I see a lot of glamour in entertaining at home," says frequent hostess Maureen Mole, who wrote an at-home party guide years ago and hosted one of Talbots’ many in-store holiday shopping parties last month. She already has worn her black skirt – with a white button-down shirt and pearls – this season.

 

By dressing up, you signal to your guests that they are special, she says.

Adam Glassman, creative director at O, The Oprah Magazine and its fashion expert, says the hostess skirt is a good choice for a tough economic times.

"Dresses are easier, but skirts give you more bang for the buck," says Glassman.

A skirt, even one this distinctive, can be paired with a variety tops to create completely different outfits, he says.

That flexibility was a factor for Mole. "Before I purchase something, I feel I want to know something that’s going to last longer," she says.

She can imagine wearing her skirt to a black tie affair, perhaps with a black off-the-shoulder or beaded top, and then again with a gray or brown sweater – and a chunky brown and black necklace that she bought herself as an early holiday gift.

Smaldone’s tip is to allow the skirt to be the statement. Shirts with sleeves that are three-quarter length or shorter to show a little skin will give the outfit balance, he adds.

"It’s so elegant and chic, and it does have a nostalgia to it that women love – on top of the fact that it’s incredibly comfortable," Smaldone says.

If a hostess skirt seems too old school _ or too fashion-forward depending on how you look at it – you could also try black crepe full-leg pants paired with a cashmere cardigan with matte sequins on the front, suggests Glassman.

"Let your hair down," he says. "You can be more comfortable at home, whether you are the hostess or the guest. If you’re invited to someone’s home it means they really like you and you’re part of the inner circle."

Mole, of Mahwah, N.J., adds: "We used to wear the hostess skirts in the late ’60s and ’70s. They were fun, glamorous and romantic without seeming fussy. It’s not like a gown in any way but its length," Mole says. "It’s not too extravagant."

The classic hostess skirt often was a reversible wrap, and sometimes featured a whimsical pattern, says Bolton. "The pattern seemed to function as a talking point, a symbol of its hospitality."

Glassman says the fashion world should take this stylish cue from suburban housewives, who are often maligned by those who consider themselves trendsetters.

 
 
 "They (suburbanites) can be the chicest women around this time of year. It’s not a city-centric look, but it’s a quite good look–they’re very pulled together," he says.
 
Images courtesy of the Fashion Spot forums and Life Magazine archives.