Zoe Heller in America: Dress for success? It must work for some people

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The Independent Culture
ONE COMMON misconception about the Americans is that they are great champions of informal dress. My own delusions on this score were fostered early on in life by reading Babar Goes to America, a story in which all Babar's Stateside friends are pictured bouncing about in baseball caps and Babar himself is understood to have gone native only when he submits to the indignity of plaid bermudas.

The truth is that the Americans are always getting dressed up and have a far keener sense than the British of the sartorial nuances that each shade of social occasion demands. The invitation I received this May to a Conde Nast 'dinner' specified informal dress. This I translated, not so perversely, as permission to dress informally. So imagine my distress when I arrived at the address in the Bowery, wearing my trusty jeans and T-shirt ensemble - expecting a cosy linguini in clam sauce for,

say, 30 - to discover swarms of police cars and paparazzi, a long entrance tunnel constructed out of some diaphanous white material and a vast room of people, all dolled up like fairies on the top of the Christmas tree. Within 10 minutes of my arrival, three rich and famous people had come up to me to ask where the rest-rooms were and if I could take their coats.

If dressing for success in Manhattan were simply a question of being sufficiently smart, that, as they say, would be one thing. The real challenge, however, is being smart in 90 degree heat and 75 per cent humidity. The solution, according to the magazines, is this season's floaty little vest-dress. But I have tried this garment out, and it's really not what it's cracked up to be. First of all, it crumples like hell the minute you sit down in it. Its other big disadvantage was pointed out to me the other night, as I was happily tripping out of my front door on my way to dinner. 'There seems to be some, ahem, obstruction at the back of your dress,' my date for the evening said. Peering over my shoulder, I gathered that I was suffering from what at school we used to call 'VPL', or Visible Panty Line.

In fact, this season's floaty vest-dress was making me look as if I had industrial-strength diapers on. At my companion's suggestion, I took my knickers off and stuffed them in my mail box. This seemed a happy-go-lucky, fun thing to do at the time, but I went on to spend the entire evening in a paroxysm of fear lest a too-vigorous breeze should cause my dress to fly up and reveal a great slab of marble-white bum to the world. (I was also pretty concerned about what my postman would think if I forgot to retrieve my knickers before the next post.)

When I was invited to lunch at the 21 Club - one of New York's most venerable restaurants - it was clear that the vest-dress, with or without underwear, was not going to cut it. Ever since I was little, 'lunch at 21' has been a mythic phrase, epitomising the glamour of old-fashioned Manhattan. I was determined to do this thing right. Rather to my chagrin, the man who asked me to lunch seemed eager to direct me on the matter of attire. No jeans, he said. A skirt and blouse, he said. Clean hair and fingernails, he said. All right, all right, I said. The day of the date was (as every bloody day is) very hot, and when I tottered into the restaurant in a pair of suede sling-backs and a frock, I was feeling like Tootsie and sweating like the late Richard Nixon. 21, it turns out, is rather like a Berni Inn, only the food is not so good. The clientele are all about a million years old and the waiters act as if they were doing you some major favour by taking your order. Still, I was appropriately dressed, and therefore I was happy.

Until, that is, I needed to go to the loo. While eating, I had slipped off my uncomfortable sling-backs, and now, when I came to put them back on, I discovered that my feet had chosen to celebrate their liberation by expanding several sizes. I tried stuffing them back into the shoes but to no avail. Meanwhile, I was busting for a pee. There was nothing for it but to go barefoot.

Halfway across the crowded restaurant, I realised that I was in a real-life Bateman cartoon. The restaurant chatter had died down, and everyone - ancient gents, skinny matrons in Geoffrey Beene floral frocks - was staring, aghast, at my feet. In the loos, the gorgon-lady who guards the basins and makes sure people don't go wild with the complimentary hairspray took one look at me and shrieked, 'You haven't got your shoes on]' We both stared down at my shiny red toenails. (Puffiness aside, my feet were looking rather good that day - having been beautified by Olga, my Russian pedicurist, only that morning.) 'Yes, I left my shoes at the table. They were rather uncomfortable,' I said in a sturdily amiable way. 'You came to the bathroom without shoes,' she said, still shrieking. Obviously this woman wasn't the sharpest tool in the shed. I was beginning to find her rather tiresome. 'Yes,' I said haughtily. 'Your lavatory floors are clean, I trust?' And then I flounced into one of the lavatories.

On returning to my table, I found my lunch companion in a state of apoplexy. For once, the phrase about 'dying with embarrassment' was appropriate. He really did look as if he was going to expire. While I was in the bathroom, the maitre d' had come over and asked him if he was aware that his lunch guest had gone to the bathroom without her shoes on. Yes, he said, he did know that. 'Well,' the maitre d' replied, 'we would appreciate it, sir, if you wouldn't let it happen again. We don't like that sort of thing at 21.'

I am now forced to admit that my brief foray into Manhattan high life has been an abject failure. My friend has hardly spoken to me since the feet episode. Every day, my vest-dress looks less like a dress and more like a limp rag. This summer, I suspect, I shall be dining mostly chez moi. Yet another reason to be thankful for Harry's Burrito home delivery service and the manifold delights of Court TV.-