Reader mail: On holiday parties

2017 Update: We still stand by this advice on holiday parties, but you may also want to check out all of our posts on holiday business etiquette.

Reader L writes in today with a question on holiday parties…

We’ve been invited to a Holiday Party, being hosted by the VP at my husband’s company. This is the first time that I’ll be meeting anyone that he works with (he just started at this location in July), and I’m very anxious to make a good impression (the VP is the highest-ranked person in the building). The party is at their home, and I have no idea what to wear – the invitation didn’t say! Do you have any advice for an outfit that would be appropriate for this occasion?

First:  Happy Holidays! Second, we really feel for you, because this situation could be extremely awkward.  The dress code could be anywhere from “festive sweater with jeans” to “festive jacket with work attire” to “LBD” to (if the company is very large, the VP is very swanky, and only executives are invited) something even more than LBD.  First, if your husband has any female friends in his company (either colleagues, or the significant other of a colleague), bug him until he asks one of them (unless you are also friends with them, in which case, ask yourself).  Another option might be to call the VP’s secretary directly (do not call the VP).  Express your excitement for the invitation, and ask about the dress code for women.  If you really feel awkward about asking the secretary, ask a question about directions or something innocuous like that and then slide the question in near the end.  A “safe” bet might be to wear a black shift dress, black hose and pumps, and a festive red or orange jacket or structured sweater — think velvet, silk shantung, etc. (We would suggest avoiding embroidered sequins — you can always tuck a sparkly brooch or necklace in your pocket, and “trade up” or down as necessary once you’ve arrived and assessed the situation.)  (Update: see our more recent roundup of festive blazers here.) 

In general, here are our rules of thumb for holiday parties.

1)  Is it a weeknight? Odds are, straight-from-work attire is fine (and expected).

2) Is support staff invited? In our experience, executives prefer to stay executive-like around their assistants (and their colleagues’ assistants) — i.e., women prefer to remain in non-party dresses, men prefer to keep their suit and tie on, no one gets too drunk, etc.

3) Are spouses invited? This is a general clue that the executives are willing to loosen up a bit, and a more festive attire might be appropriate.

4) Are kids invited? If so, back away from anything too dressy, and prepare for the likelihood that a clown or something might be in attendance.

5) Avoid looking like somebody’s date unless you actually are one. This is just our own experience: but if you’re in a sparkly/strapless/lacy/sexy dress, and your date is a man in a suit, everyone is going to think the man works for the company and you are his date.  This is all fine if, in fact, he does, and you are just his date/wife/spouse/guest for the evening.  If you keep your attire out of the realm of “sexy” and firmly in the realm of “classy,” you reduce the odds of this happening.

6) When in doubt, ask someone who has gone before — preferably, someone who has been the same level as you. If in doubt, befriend the assistant to someone senior — such as in our reader’s question, the VP’s secretary — because he or she will have a better sense of decorum.  (No one wants a gaggle of new female hires showing up to an office-attire party in cocktail-party attire — it ends up looking like a group of girls going stag to their 8th grade prom and just ends up being embarrassing for everyone.)

Readers, what are your rules of thumb for holiday parties? Are your companies/firms having big ones this year?



  1. Re: “trading up” at the party – My favorite holiday party outfit is a pair of winter white dress pants that I wear with strapless satin top. I also have a small shrug to wear with the strapless top. I can then walk into the party, survey how the other women are dressed, and determine, as I remove my overcoat, whether to leave the shrug on, or remove it at the same time I remove my coat. Obviously, leaving it on will be a more covered, casual and conservative look, while removing it will allow me to blend in if I see that lots of the women are wearing more bare-style dresses or tops. Anyway – it gives you great flexibility up until the last second, and a nonchalant way to remove the extra garment, if needed.

    • Silly question…what makes winter white different from normal white?

      • it’s usually a little creamier, and usually in the form of heavier slacks or a sweater. or a coat, if you’re brave/very neat. bright white (like, buildings in santorini white) is more summery.

  2. All those LBD’s that Corporette always links to for office wear would be better choices for holiday parties, IMO.
    I think a sweater with beading / detailing at the top (nice, not chintzy) with a black pencil skirt or really nice black pants and heels could work as well.

  3. I know that this is just a personal opinion, but velvet is not my friend.

  4. Unless a party is formal (unlikely), a little black dress is never inappropriate.

  5. You’re going as the wife? Heck, no one is going to even notice you…That’s the thing about attending as a spouse. Mostly you are just a prop. Sorry to be brutal, but that’s how it works, in my experience. So pick a category – are you going to be dowdy wife, modern wife, career wife, artsy wife? Then don’t show too much skin. Beyond that no one will pay attention. Except exceptionally nice people, and they won’t care.

    • LOL, this is harsh but totally true. Sadly, the reality is unless the spouse is very good looking, no one will really notice one way or the other.

    • In response to the comment that, as the spouse, no one will notice you – they WILL notice you if you look bad. Best advice, whatever you wear, just keep it classy.

    • I have to agree with this. Having been to multiple office functions with my husband, you’re basically just there to round out the numbers. However, if you DO manage to be the one woman at the party showing too much boob or thigh, you’ll definitely give all your husband’s coworkers something to talk about. So you want to watch out for that. You really can’t go wrong with conservative – I have a dark burgundy wool sheath dress and matching coat that’s worked well, or I’ve gone with a sedate pencil skirt and a sweater or sweater set. Parties in a VP’s home are kind of like weddings – don’t wear anything that may upstage the hostess. Anything bright-colored, shiny satin, too low-cut, backless, or ridiculously expensive (including big jewelry) will draw unwanted attention to you. So basically: conservative in every sense of the word, for everything you have on, from your bra to your overcoat and shoes. This is not the time to dress at all sexy, and in some circles, even an LBD will be considered too sexy. Some may find this extreme, but if his company is pretty conservative, I would honestly think slightly less-somber funeral attire (the suggestion of the sparkly pin you can pull out of your bag if need be is a good one) just to play it totally safe. The last thing you want is your husband getting ribbed in the breakroom about the sexy dress his wife wore to the company party. Or some old geezer your husband reports to grabbing your ass. Your husband is new at the company; don’t set up a situation that’s going to lead for awkwardness for him this early on. People don’t know him well and therefore even small things may get blown up into character or lifestyle flaws. Just my $.02. :)

      • Amy, very nicely put. I might add that it’s good also to avoid being TOO dowdy. The wife should look like she would be a good accessory to an executive. Elegant, but humble. In that situation you aren’t really a person per se, you are a symbol. These parties are style anthropology goldmines. Then, maybe, you can find one or two people to have an actual conversation with. But reveal nothing about personal struggles. Oh the horror. Startups, of course, and companies full of tech guys, are different. In those places go dressed as Princess Leia:).

        • @LPC: I really resent that last sentence. I get that its meant to be funny, and i got a laugh. However, the underlying assumption is reinforcing a bad stereotype.

          Its bad enough that the tech ladies have to deal with the ‘Yahoo Hack Girls’ ( )

          As women in other traditionally male environments, I would hope that you have our backs. :-)

          • A. My apologies – I think I was not clear. I did not mean to imply that women in tech are likely to dress in Star Trek great. I meant that many of the uber-geeks I know and love, of the male variety, seem to focus more on their tecchie mythic passions than on stimuli before their eyes. I totally have your backs. When I can find you. I was in product management, eventually a VP leading a group of product managers. I hired women. I rarely met them amongst my engineering counterparts.

          • I meant Star Trek gear:). And I thought the Ruby on Rails porn star slides were evil. It’s always terrible when our discomfort with the public usage of women’s sexual aspect is used to make us seem like whiners. Or asexual clones.

          • @LPC thank you for the gracious apology.

            We exist in engineering, I promise! Though our numbers are low, they’ve been climbing over the past decade.

    • But what if the wife is a successful corp. exec. in her own right? Does she still need to play the role of the”good little woman”?

      • I sure as hell hope not. I don’t think you need to act any differently than you would at your own office party – don’t get drunk, don’t expose too much skin, etc. No need to pretend to be something you’re not.

      • I hate to say this, but unless the wife is the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, no one will care. It’s not sexism so much as people at a company party for their own company are more concerned about their people than anyone else – myopia, basically.

        I don’t see it as acting like the “good little woman” when I accompany my husband to a company function dressed appropriately and on my best behavior. He is my spouse and I have a responsibility to support him and his endeavors, as he has a responsibility to support mine. I would never be so egotistical as to put my whims ahead of his need to be respected in front of his peers – and I know he would afford me the same consideration. If I feel the need to put on a slinky dress or a low-cut top and strut my stuff, I’ll plan a night out with my girlfriends and break out the Wonderbra at that time. There’s a time and place for everything, and when I’m accompanying my husband to HIS work function with HIS coworkers, I can best support him by dressing and acting conservatively.

        • Exactly. It’s not about being the good little woman. You can and should be what you are – within appropriate boundaries. It’s about realizing that *in this moment* what you are is secondary to the role you are playing. In this situation, it’s just the same for support husbands at their executive wives’ holiday parties. As I said above, this applies primarily to larger companies, where the ceremonial aspect prevails over the personal.

  6. I had the exact same situation a few years ago — it was a holiday party at a VP’s home, and I ended up wearing nice black pants, a silky, long sleeved blouse, and a beautiful necklace. I looked dressed up but not over the top. It was along the lines of something I would wear to a nice restaurant. Other women wore knee length dresses and some came totally frumpy in a holiday sweater, which I would not recommend!

  7. I always go little black dress but instead of cocktail style it has one inch straps that you can wear a regular bra underneath. I have a shawl I take off or leave on based on how cold I am.

  8. LBD /similar OR dressy black pants + silk top. Add a really nice cardi/shrug (perhaps with some embellishment/beading) that you would take off or leave on, depending on how you assess the “dressiness” of the other female guests.

    I’d also wear some classy jewellery – perhaps earrings & a bracelet/bangle.

  9. I would wear a nice dress (wrap, jersey, LBD etc.) with a sweater or jacket you can wear or take off depending on what others are wearing.

  10. I feel you. These work parties can be so difficult to dress for. Just don’t wear anything too low-cut or tight.

  11. operaghost :

    I always wear a black suit. I figure, it’s a safe bet.

  12. I love grey dresses for this type of occasion… They are chic, classy, and almost always fit right in with everyone else. If everyone is in black, a grey dress works. If everyone is dressed down, grey works there, too. For example:


    Or this one:

    • Love the suggestions. A good way to subtly stand out in what is sure to be a sea of LBDs.

  13. I heartily second Amy and those who reinforce you’re there as a support. There’s no real upside in such business situations for the wife, but the downside is huge and you simply need to project “classy”. Look at Brooks Brothers’ catalog/website for inspiration.

  14. How about this little grey dress:

    I like it because it is versatile – you could really change its style depending on whether/what you wear by way of sweater/jacket/scarf and jewelry/hose/shoes. Plus, it has pockets.

    • I like that one a lot too… Love that it has pockets. So rare for women’s clothes.

  15. “Rule of Thumb”? For shame, Corporette… don’t you know the history of that phrase? It comes from a time when the rule was a man could beat his wife with a stick no thicker than his thumb; naughty Corporette… 20 lashes with a wet noodle for you!

    • Seriously? Who has time to know this stuff?

      • Seriously. Who DOESN’T have time to know all kinds of stuff? Isn’t that part of being a well-educated, well-formed person?

    • That’s an urban legend; google it. The phrase comes from the fact that the thumb was generally used a loose unit of measurement, but there’s no evidence that that wifebeating law ever existed.

      • Thanks for the clarification, and now I know why I’ve been under that mis-impression for a long time now… much appreciated. The modern genesis of this “rule of thumb” misunderstanding seems to be mostly based on a 1982 US Commission on Civil Rights Report entitled “Under the Rule of Thumb”, and is less a hoax or an urban legend so much as a misinterpretation. The Civil Rights Commission report can be found at

      • yeah, that’s what i always thought.

    • Urban legend, R. Sorry!

  16. When I’ve been in similarly ambiguous situations I went with dressier winter white pants, a brightly colored (but otherwise plain) sweater, and a rhinestone brooch. I think the outfit strikes a nice balance in that it wouldn’t look out of place in a casual or dressier situation.

  17. SummerAssociate :

    What about an office party where my husband is the “prop”? The setting is an upscale hotel ballroom. I did the sneaky call and ask thing and the HR woman I spoke to said “Cocktail Attire” AND “people will be coming straight from work on Friday” AND “Some men will wear ties, some won’t.” These three statements all lead me down different wardrobe paths for myself and for MDH. I’m planning on a wool (suiting) dress that has a little sheen to it, with a shrug and coordinating jacket as my ensemble. My “prop” will be directed to wear a suit and tie. Is this good? Should I shoot for more “festive”? The only people I’ve met at the firm are those who interviewed me. All my interviews were on Friday – the men were in dockers, the women in slacks+twin sets.

    • I think your choices are excellent. When I’m given conflicting dress codes like that, I always choose the dressiest and then go as simple and classy as possible in that category. If you choose wrong, people will notice you. I figure it’s better to be noticed for being a little overdressed, yet classy, than for being underdressed.

      I really like the idea of bringing some alternate jewelry to discretely put on if blinging it up is appropriate.

      As for “festive,” I would avoid holiday themed ties for your husband unless the pattern is really subtle. Everything said above about the spouse really not being noticed is true. When men wear something that stands out, it tends to be either horribly tacky or very affected. Menswear is so uniform and at this sort of event, he should probably stick to the tried and true.

    • Anonymous :

      I say that a man can never go wrong with a nice suit. He can always take off the jacket, and a shirt and tie will never be “inappropriate,” even if some of the men aren’t wearing ties.

      • Anonymous :

        39 here again – I will add that where I work, men do not wear Dockers to the office (however hte women do wear slacks and twin sets), in case that changes things. However, when I hear “ballroom,” I’d really hesitate to have a guy show up in khakis.

  18. The fashion advice here is sound, but I guess the underlying question is: is it appropriate/necessary to use a spouse as a “prop” for one’s career? I wouldn’t expect my spouse to attend my work functions, nor would I attend theirs. We’re in different fields; would it be different if there were networking possibilities available?

    • SummerAssociate :

      Significant Others were explicity invited, and I suppose my thought was that it would seem hostile not to bring him when he was invited, and people I’ve spoken with have already indicated a desire to meet him. He’s a law student too, and I’ve attended the Christmas party at his firm already. Is it “done” to tell your spouse to stay home, when he’s been invited and welcomed by the hosts?

      • I think it completely depends on the culture of the particular office. Some offices think that the significant other must also be a “team player” supporting the office. Personally, I’ve yet to go to a work event where the conversation didn’t devolve into “shop talk” within 10 minutes and the significant others sit around bored out of their mind. I’d just as rather spare my spouse that! But if you have people at work you want your SO to meet, go for it!

  19. I’m with corporette. The safest thing you could wear is a black shift dress, black hose/shoes, and pearls. Classy, safe, elegant. If the dress is sleeveless, I might consider a nice cardigan that had a bit of sheen to it. (Or, if the cardigan has no sheen, a broach).

  20. i like simple black shifts as well. splurge and buy a great one that’ll last for a while and you can always funk up with some cool accessories.
    Here are some of our favorites: