Jane & Marilyn’s guide to grown up, glamorous dressing for special occasions

We once heard someone describe dressing for Royal Ascot as ‘dressing as if you are attending a smart wedding – but not as if you are the bride’. We think that’s sound advice and not just for Ascot but for any important, formal event really. This is not the time to experiment with the latest cutting edge trend or showcase your new ‘directional’ pieces. The key to dressing for special occasions is to keep it elegant and chic – but that doesn’t have to mean boring or, heaven forbid, frumpy! It’s still possible to turn heads it’s just a question of adapting the basic principles and adding a dash of glamour! Take your cue from those gorgeous but ladylike styles of the 50s for example, when women looked sophisticated and groomed but also very feminine. Hemlines may have been well below the knee, very little flesh was on display, hats were always worn and gloves usually too, but there was still plenty of va va voom and those curves were very visible.

To understand the rules of formal dressing look to the Queen, she is quite literally the queen of dressing for events. Most big formal occasions are linked to ‘society’ events so in effect it’s the Queen’s party and she knows better than any how to work it. Of course we’re not suggesting we all emulate her style but simply the key principles. Clearly her outfits are always planned to the finest detail and probably quite some time in advance too, but that’s no bad thing.

Trying too hard is not the same as trying and there’s nothing wrong with planning an outfit meticulously and preferably well ahead. It relieves stress and knowing you look pulled together and fabulous gives you confidence – who doesn’t want that? Also if you’re having something special made, a hat perhaps, you will need to allow several weeks, we would suggest 3 months to be safe, a good milliner will always be busy, particularly around the spring/summer seasons.

And we don’t see anything wrong with choosing a colour palette and sticking to it, ‘matchy matchy’ may be frowned on by some, but it worked for Grace Kelly (and of course the Queen) so we rest our case. On the subject of colour if you are attending a wedding pastels are best avoided (too bride like, see above) and while head to toe black is undoubtedly chic, it’s generally considered inappropriate and even impolite particularly for weddings – and anything with a royal association in fact. It is after all a mourning colour; the only time the Queen appears all in black is for sombre occasions, so give the fashionista’s favourite look a break. Black as an accent colour however, with white or cream for example is always very elegant.

Dressing glamorously for events doesn’t mean wearing everything including the kitchen sink; it’s about making a statement but in a way that says you know enough to know when to stop. So a full on dress is fine, with subtle accessories. A statement hat or jewellery contrasted with a simple dress is utterly sophisticated. Wearing a hat with a cocktail or party dress does not turn the dress into formal day wear. This also applies to – as we saw once at Royal Ascot – a full length beaded evening gown! The dress code for the Royal Enclosure at Royal Ascot actually provides some good guidance for most formal occasions, daytime ones at least: No mini skirts, no straps narrower than 1” and at least a ‘substantial fascinator’ or proper hat. Similarly, the Steward’s Enclosure at Henley Regatta stipulates that knees must be covered (and they have a point – very short skirts with hats just don’t look right).

Real glamour is not about showing it all, it’s more about what you don’t show. There is nothing wrong with showing your shape, but not acres of flesh. A little cleavage is fine, but not combined with a micro mini. If you must reveal, focus on one feature and keep it tasteful. Wearing a dress or jacket with a bit of a sleeve not only looks elegant, it’s more practical too given the vagaries of the British climate!

We love a pair of shiny lightly tanned pins in the right circumstances but formal daytime events aren’t the right circumstances. You won’t catch the Queen in a hat with bare legs and whilst we can all remember Princess Diana and other young royals (including these days Kate soon-to-be Windsor) doing the bare legs with hat combo, the fact is that if you’re wearing a hat for a special occasion it constitutes formal wear and bare legs don’t. Also unless you have perfect pins gleaming, flawless and smooth they will always look better with some cover. In any case if you’re going to be on your feet all day, you’re likely to get blisters if you have bare feet and hobbling around with your face contorted in pain because your feet hurt is not a good look! If you don’t like the feel of tights try hold ups, or one of our favourites – fishnets. Not only are they glamorous they also feel amazing and almost as if you’re not wearing anything on your legs at all and they’re really cool for summer wear. Or for real retro edge consider seamed stockings.

Hats. Yes please! We adore hats. Give us any excuse and we’ll be wearing one. For a formal event a hat is a must. More and more people are wearing them and that’s a trend we’re totally behind. Large or small depends on both what you’re wearing and the size of your head. A calf length full skirt can look wonderful with a big brimmed hat but it can also shorten you, so unless you are tall and slim, wear this kind of dress with a smaller, taller hat or a large saucer shape worn at a fierce angle on one side of the head to give you extra height. Slim tailored clothes give you more flexibility and can be worn with any size of hat.

Be careful of black or very dark hats with a wide brim as they can shade your face in a really unflattering way particularly if you are mature or have the odd wrinkle. If you must wear a black hat keep it small, or choose one of the saucer shapes worn on the side of the head or a very loose weave or net brim that the light can shine through. If your head is small don’t bury it in a large hat, if it’s large a small hat can look silly so try to balance the proportions of hat and head. Fascinators are passé now unless as the Royal Enclosure specifies, it’s a substantial one. Small hats and headpieces will give the 50s feel, are more comfortable to wear for long periods, easier for all the mwah, mwah-ing you may have to do and are more English weather friendly – less likely to be blown off and easier to work with an umbrella. All that said, we still love a simple dress combined with a huge statement hat. Eye veils are increasingly popular again and very glamorous, good for softening the odd wrinkle too! Never wear a hat straight on top pf your head or worse pushed to the back. Always angle your hat forward and to one side for dash. When wearing a hat, hold your head up high! Make sure your hair and hat work together. Northing is worse than a hat which looks like an afterthought plonked on as you’re leaving the house. If your hair is short it’s easier to style it around the hat. If it’s long at very least tuck it behind your ears or tie it back, or preferably wear in a chignon or French pleat. Long hair flowing around your face with a hat on top is not a good look – Kate soon-to-be-Windsor not withstanding, she can get away with anything as she’s young and beautiful and if you are too, lucky you; if you’re more mature tie it up, back, whatever, but do something. Catherine Zeta-Jones pulled off this looked beautifully when she went to the palace to collect her CBE in a wide brimmed hat with her hair in a low chignon pulled to one side. She looked the epitome of sophisticated glamour.

Shoes should be court or sling back, not strappy sandals and not clumpy platforms or wedges. Think elegant. Shoes should also be as comfortable as heels ever can be – you’re probably going to be wearing them for a long time. And avoid fabric shoes if your going anywhere near grass they’ll stain or pick up water marks.

The longer the skirt, the higher the heels! We all love a fabulous pair of ‘killers’ but they look so much more sophisticated with a longer skirt, if you keep your hemline low, your heels can go as high as you dare (or as high as you can walk in). If you are going to wear high heels and/or platforms make sure you can walk properly in them. No point looking fabulous in front of your mirror if as soon as you move you end up crouched and hobbling. Far better to wear a heel you can walk in gracefully (even if it is lower) with your head up and shoulders back, looking relaxed and confident, it’s far more attractive.

Jewellery should be kept to a minimum if you’re wearing a hat, just a pair of small earrings, nothing dangly. Necklaces usually look too much with a hat, as do bracelets and bangles. If your outfit is simple you may be able to get away with a broach or perhaps a cocktail ring if it’s not too large.

Your bag completes your look so while it’s tempting to take your favourite suitcase sized carry all, leave it at home and opt for something daintier and altogether more ladylike. We particularly like handbags that resemble small pieces of luggage – structured with proper feet and clasps and a handle rather than a shoulder strap. The Kelly bag style works really well for special occasions; even in a petite size it’s boxy enough to carry all your essentials.. A good structured clutch bag also works beautifully. Just a point on sunglasses, particularly if you’re wearing a hat steer away from the very large and/or very blingy.

Real glamour is not just about clothes, hair and make up; it’s also about how you carry yourself. A woman can wear a simple outfit, little or no makeup and still look amazing if she has poise and carries herself well. It’s about walking tall, looking confident and relaxed – and above all happy. A smile is your best accessory!

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