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?