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The party dress code

Preparing for the season of celebration? Choose a style that suits both you and the occasion, says Carola Long

'Things go better with a little bit of razzamatazz," sang Jarvis Cocker back in the mid 1990s, and he might as well have been referring to the party season.

Dressing up is half, oh all right, at least three-quarters of the fun. However, pleasure and pain often go hand in hand, and while the right dress imparts confidence and joie de vivre, the wrong style can induce as much discomfort as a pair of size eight jeans after four helpings of Christmas dinner.

The first step in finding a good outfit is research into the dress code. Black Tie varies between short and long dresses, but if a sufficiently grand occasion arises to wear a long dress, make the most of it. Just check with the host and other guests how smart they are planning to go, tactfully demanding specifics, because you can't always guess from the invitation. Otherwise party dressing can be a bit like a game of poker where you have to guess the other guests' hands, or rather outfits, beforehand by deciphering vague declarations such as, "I'm not dressing up". Beyond the official dress code, there are the unwritten conventions of various events, for example the unspoken dictum that you don't flash too much cleavage at the office party or when having sherry with the in-laws, and the importance of looking not just smart, but charmingly hedonistic and cool at a friend's cocktail party.

The last balancing act, akin to walking through a crowded room in five-inch heels juggling four glasses of champagne, is pairing flattering with fashionable. The former is more important. Fortunately, this Christmas, the sack and the tunic have been given the heave- ho in favour of shapes worthy of a femme fatale. Balenciaga's sculpted black satin dresses have spawned numerous moulded satin pencil shapes on the high street, in jewel colours as well as black. Tiers and origami pleats, as seen on Lanvin's little navy dresses, and asymmetric shoulders are also party dress trends. In terms of full length dresses, take inspiration from the neoclassical silhouettes of the Golden Age of Hollywood, rather than going for dodgy cruise ship-style halternecks. Short strapless dresses, particularly in black, are another key look. A full, flirty skirt shape will prevent the risk of looking tarty, and exude the kind of ice-cube-wouldn't-melt innocence that will cover up enjoyably shameless behaviour.

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Mulberry bag for Gap RED

Not only is this red jersey version of Mulberry's Bayswater bag, at £95, less than a quarter of the price of the leather version, and much lighter, it's in a festive colour, it's quirky, it looks a bit like a squishy Claes Oldenburg, and it casts all guilt aside by being for charity. Half of the profits from the bag, which goes on sale on 6 December to mark World Aids Day, will go to the Aids charity RED.


Cheap red underwear

A word to last-minute male shoppers: only strippers favour garish scarlet lingerie. If you want to impress, stick to labels such as Fifi Chachnil, Rigby & Peller, Myla or Princesse Tam-Tam, bear in mind that sleepwear is more likely to fit than underwear, and don't even think about suspenders.