Pulse: Social Diary: “It’s Casual!”

Not long ago, John and I were invited over for dinner by two well-connected Gladwyne tastemakers. It was a Thursday night, so it wouldn’t be too dressy, I thought, but I put on my only pair of Gucci sandals and a skirt anyway. We arrived to find our hosts wearing tank tops and jogging shorts.

Darn! They really were casual, which is generally not what you find at your average, $26-a-pound-veal-chops Main Line party.

“Casual is completely confusing to me,” says a former New York fashion editor who now lives in Yardley. “There’s nothing worse than being underdressed,” she adds, “because then the guests think you have nothing better in your closet, or that you’re clueless and never get out.” That being said, the most recent dinner she went to was a sea of boot-cut jeans and heels.

“I’ve been underdressed before,” Gladwyne socialite Dasha Alexander agrees of the jeans trend. “It is so frustrating; I end up feeling very out of place.”

“I once went to a James Beard event that was supposed to be casual,” relates restaurateur Audrey Claire Taichman. “I wore a jean skirt and t-shirt, and everyone else was in cocktail attire. I tried to tell myself that everyone must think I’m cool for being so casual — but I’m a girl, and I was mortified.” Taichman adds gleefully that anyone who says her party is casual but opens the door decked out in a little Chloé dress is “just rude!”

Once upon a time on the Main Line, everyone got decked out for parties — I remember my grandmother circa 1975 hosting summer cocktails for 50, radiant in a Pucci caftan, ropes of beads, and the highest of heels. These days, it’s a mystery.

My confusion was only reinforced on a gorgeous June Saturday night when John and I showed up at a party, and I immediately realized that my outfit was totally, horribly wrong — I’d had a closet crisis and grabbed something to wear that looked like I should be eating burgers at the beach. The beautiful hostess and her friends were wearing Marc Jacobs-style halter dresses, and one had on a TRB by Tory Burch tunic. Happily, John carried the fashion flag that night, looking perfect in khakis and a sport coat.

In New York or the Hamptons, you would expect such fabulousness, but what to do in Philly?

“A lot of it has to do with whether it’s a day or an evening party, and the time of year,” says superstar Neiman Marcus salesman Steve Shuster. Shuster says a Saturday night dinner party that’s deemed casual means no tie for guys, but a sport coat over a striped or a knit shirt. For women, he says, Armani and Theory make the right pants and blouses. “But I can’t tell you how many Main Line parties I’ve been to where people are in jeans,” says Schuster. “For women, you pair a $4,500 Chanel jacket with jeans and fabulous Manolos — you’ve got a kick-ass outfit!”

Well, that doesn’t fit our budget, but hopefully people respond to you, not your Theory cashmere. In fact, for the first family bat mitzvah I went to with John, I was so underdressed that I wanted to run out during the haftorah portion. But everyone was very polite, and ever since I have dressed up more, and remembered the advice of a friend’s mother: “When in doubt, shut up and wear beige.”