Preparing for social season means keeping the fuss out of fashion

February 6, 2012
Crain's Business
Lisa Bertagnoli


It's still winter on the calendar, but the spring gala season is fast approaching. Around the city, seasoned party-goers aren't panicking about what to wear to the dressy fêtes they'll attend. For social-scene newbies, however, coordinating a wardrobe for a flurry of fundraisers can be daunting.

One worry-free woman is Susan Credle, chief creative officer at Leo Burnett in Chicago. Ms. Credle, 48, works 10-hour days and travels three or four times in any given month; each month, she also attends at least two society galas.

To make her evening life manageable, even possible, Ms. Credle has distilled gala dressing down to a punchy list of do's and don'ts. She has favorite pieces, including a vintage red handkerchief-hem dress and a complicated Givenchy gown “that takes 45 minutes to put on, but I feel like I'm wearing a work of art.”

The 5-foot-3 executive wears high heels, the better to make comfortable eye contact with fellow revelers. She avoids silk (“It makes me hot”) and places comfort at a premium. When dressing for an event, “if there's even a second where it's too tight or something doesn't fall the right way, I don't hesitate to take it off,” she says.

While men can get by with the same suit or tux party after party, women need a seemingly bottomless closet of evening clothes; only the most confident and wealthiest can get away with the cardinal sin of repeating a gown. These wardrobes need to be chic and reasonably professional; they need to be easy to put on and at least somewhat budget-friendly to pull off.

If that's not enough, the fashion industry throws women a few curve balls. One: floor-length gowns, especially strapless ones.

“It's really tough to think who looks great in strapless. . . . Older women do not,” says New York fashion designer and part-time Chicago resident Pamella Roland. The fit has to be perfect: “If you don't have it altered, you're always pulling it up,” she says.

Trains on long gowns are fetching, she adds, but irksome: “Someone's always stepping on them.”

Another gown groan: Over-designed dresses that pile sequins upon ruffles upon tulle. The look “goes to a very princessy place that's not at all the message women want to send,” says Julie Watson, owner of Juliewatsonstyle LLC, a Chicago-based wardrobe consultancy.

She advises clients new to the gala scene to carry their daytime style into evening. That strategy helps women avoid “style schizophrenia,” makes shopping easier and keeps evening looks professional. “There's a level of appropriateness that needs to go to the occasion,” she says.

Women who attend dozens of soirees a year swear by a well- edited selection of gowns, cocktail dresses and separates; plenty of accessories, and a devil-may-care attitude about wearing the same skirt or jacket twice.


Diane Primo relies on a basic wardrobe of cocktail suits and sheaths to take her to a dozen or so galas each year. The Lake Forest resident, who owns IntraLink Global LLC, a strategic marketing firm in Chicago, prefers a middle-of-the-road look—not too wow-y, not too tame—for evening.

To keep fuss to a minimum (“I dress in mere minutes”), Ms. Primo starts with a suit or sheath; at a party in January, she wore a gray cocktail suit with dressy silver pumps and a Rifat Ozbek mohair sweater (bought for $25 at a charity rummage sale at the Primo Center for Women and Children, a homeless shelter she and her husband started).

To save time, she carries her daytime bag, a silver leather Chanel she bought on sale a few years back, to evening events. “It holds everything and has a lot more style than a black bag,” Ms. Primo says.

McGhee Williams Osse constantly searches for appropriate evening wear to keep her wardrobe gala-ready. “If I see something, I buy it,” says Ms. Osse, co-CEO of Burrell Communications Group in Chicago, who attends a dozen or so parties a year. “It might sit in the closet for a year, but as long as it's my style and fits beautifully, I buy it so I have it.”

Stockpiling evening clothes—Ms. Osse owns about 20 floor-length gowns—saves her from the stress of running out and buying a gown at the last minute “and from making bad decisions,” she says.

Others use galas as a way to indulge their love of shopping, and clothes.

“I really should confess to you that I love clothes,” says Cheryl Mayberry McKissack, president and chief executive of Nia Enterprises LLC, a research and marketing consultancy in Chicago, and a board member at several area nonprofits, including the John G. Shedd Aquarium. Dressing for the 30 or so events she attends each year “is actually kind of fun,” she says.

Still, rather than buy an outfit for each event, Ms. McKissack builds on separates, including tuxedo pants and a velvet jacket, and spiffs up the look with shoes and accessories. She'll occasionally splurge on dramatic, wear-once pieces, such as a floral Gaultier gown that she wore to the Brookfield Zoo's Whirl Ball, but not since. “It was fun and I liked it and it probably won't get a lot of wear, but, you know, it doesn't matter,” she says.

Like other women, Ms. McKissack says budget is a concern—a new dress for 30 galas a year isn't a possibility. “You look for ways to minimize the cost,” she says. “You're not starting from scratch.”


Helyn Goldenberg, senior vice president and chairman of Sotheby's Midwest in Chicago, uses eveningwear to both contrast and complement her daytime style. “Most of us have a look—do you totally deviate from it? Not too often,” says Ms. Goldenberg, who attends 12 to 15 black-tie events a year. Her daytime style is tailored; at night, she might wear a sequined shirtwaist or beaded skirt “but not a big tulle skirt,” she says.

Because she mixes and matches separates and has a photographic memory of what she's worn to previous parties, Ms. Goldenberg doesn't worry about repeating.

Nor does she care if she bumps into a woman wearing the same outfit. When that happens, “you laugh; that's all,” she says. “That's one reason I like separates—someone might have the same skirt on, but not the same top.”

Does dress even matter? For some women, clothes make the party.

A chicly dressed crowd “creates a buzz,” says Melissa Babcock, 50, principal gifts officer at a private suburban school. “It doesn't make or break it,” she is quick to add, “but it adds to the element of the evening.”

The Kenilworth resident attends about 10 dressy evening events a year. She's likely to wear a favorite long black skirt paired with different tops, “some dark, some with more pops of color,” says Ms. Babcock, who is president of the Joffrey Ballet Women's Board and also a director at Kohl Children's Museum. Vintage finds and pulls from her mother's closet (“she was classic and elegant”) augment Ms. Babcock's evening wardrobe.


Chicago is not New York or Los Angeles; designers don't bombard high-profile women with free dresses, hoping they'll wear them to an event. Still, that happened to Ms. Babcock when David Meister, a Los Angeles designer featured at Joffrey's Couture and Cocktails fundraiser last fall, sent her several dresses to wear.

The one she chose, a leopard-print number with ruching and a jeweled plunging neckline, “was really fun,” Ms. Babcock says, but so out of her style comfort zone that she wouldn't have bought it. She didn't need to: The designer gave her the dress, which Ms. Babcock says is worth several hundred dollars.

Others downplay dress, saying that fundraising is far more important than frocks.

Appropriateness—and her role at the event—is what Susan Whiting is keeping in mind as she plans her attire for the 10 or so galas she will attend this year. Ms. Whiting, vice chairman and chief diversity officer in the Chicago office of Nielsen Co., a New York-based research firm, is co-chair of this spring's Butterfly Ball at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum in Chicago.

She plans to buy a new gown for the occasion: “You want it to be special, but it has to be comfortable,” she says, noting that as chair, she will be more visible at the event than other guests.

The dress, however beautiful, will take a back seat to the cause. “The event really matters,” Ms. Whiting says. “We're here to raise money.”