Washington, DC is considered a pretty proper place. From the wide range of historic events that have taken place here to the decisions made daily within the government, the District has the reputation of being a politically focused city.
Yet come late fall, local game-changers face the spotlight as residents come together to celebrate and honor them through a series of galas, balls and other evening affairs. And, of course, with any good party comes the need to dress the part too.
“In a city that can seem so heavily focused on government and politics, gala season is our time to celebrate the arts and give back to important causes,” says Baille Gelwicks, director of Fashion Group International of Greater Washington DC. “I love to go big and bold. This is my time to experiment with statement pieces and unique designs that you can’t otherwise wear to cocktail events.”
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According to Gelwicks, gala season typically begins at the start of November and continues through June, leading people throughout the region to pull out all the stops when it comes to fashion.
As some of the season’s biggest events are approaching, we chatted with Gelwicks and two local stylists—Naina Singla and Lindsey Evans—about how to master the dress code, stay comfortable throughout the night and push the creative boundaries of style during the region’s social season.
What kind of outfits and ensembles do you typically see during gala season?
LE: Typically during gala season, a lot of women turn to Rent the Runway. Most women in DC play it quite safe and I’d love to see people turn it up a notch and make statements at these events.
NS: When we think of galas, they are typically formal occasions that mark a special event or fundraiser for a charitable cause. We see a variety of ensembles depending on what the dress code is for the event. For example, it could be black tie, black tie optional or creative, or semi-formal.
BG: I usually see plenty of sparkle and classic silhouettes.
What advice do you give to your clients when dressing for these types of events?
LE: My advice is totally dependent on each client’s aesthetic, body type and the particular event they’re attending. When a client hires me, I study photos online from the previous year’s event, the color palette on the invitation and schedule a client consultation to get a sense for what kinds of things my client feels best in or is in the mood to try. From there, I can make recommendations about what options, stores and designers will be best to achieve the look we’re going for. If there’s one blanket piece of advice I can give, it’s to give yourself enough time for proper tailoring. Nothing looks worse than an ill-fitting garment. Also break in your heels prior to the night of!
NS: I tell clients to stay true to their style and personality. You also want to feel comfortable, since you will be at the event for several hours. If you look your best you will feel your best! Consider the splurge for hair and makeup, if you can. You want to consider the entire look and that means dress, accessories, hair and makeup.
Tips: With black tie, Singla suggests using jewel tones—think navy, black or dark floral patterns—and completing a look with sparkly jewelry, a statement piece or even a clutch, as glamour is key. For black tie optional or creative, there is more leeway, giving you the chance to choose brighter colors or textures like sequins and ruffles. If the attire is semi-formal, Singla recommends a nice cocktail dress or suit for men. Bur remember: You’re still in DC, so go beyond work attire and add a fun clutch or statement piece for women.
Is there one essential item that can make or break a look?
LE: All the finishing touches—the shoes, clutch and jewelry—can make or break a look. It’s where taste and thoughtfulness is really communicated in the details. I’d say if you can’t find the right clutch, go without. Also, I always advise my clients invest in a vintage fur coat. Furs add a classic elegance to formal occasions. Finally, getting the proper glam is essential to hitting the mark. If the hair and makeup don’t fit, the whole thing can go awry. I refer all my clients to Tracey Garcia who’s worked in the area for over 20 years. Her work is beautiful!
NS: Statement accessories can always make your look unique and show off your personal style. You can take the same black dress and change it up with different jewelry, shoes and clutches. If you’re on a budget, you want to be able to repurpose dresses.
What is your personal, go-to look for local galas?
LE: I try to mix it up for each event. I look at each gala as an opportunity to do something different. I pull hair and makeup reference photos and get my gown in order well in advance. I always have an inspiration in mind, someone I’m channeling in my head. It’s more fun to me that way! It’s like playing dress up.
NS: Honestly, I don’t attend a ton of gala events. I spend more of my time helping others get ready for their events. But I usually go for a dress that is slightly edgy and simple. I tend to prefer solids but I always love a gorgeous red dress—it makes such a bold and fun statement. I find that whatever I end up wearing, I like to stand out in some way. It could be a pair of fabulous heels, statement jewelry or just a really cool and unique dress.
Is there one specific event you’re looking forward to the most?
LE: I always look forward to the JDRF Hope Gala. It’s a cause near and dear to my heart, as my 8-year-old nieces have Type 1 diabetes.
NS: In the past, I have attended DC’s Dancing Stars Gala and that was so much fun. The Meridian Ball is usually a great one to attend too. The National Portrait Gallery Gala in November looks like it’s going to be amazing and I think in general all the art- and fashion-focused galas are interesting because you can have a little more fun, take more risks and get creative with your look.
Want to experience it for yourself? Here are nine of the most well-known galas taking place in the District through December.
Friday, Oct. 25, 7 p.m.-12:30 a.m.
Over 50 years later since its inception, the Meridian Ball is still flourishing as a gathering for members of the public and private sector, including government officials, prominent media figures and foreign ambassadors who make a difference in the nation’s future. Guests can choose from two intimate dinners this year, followed by an evening of dancing, dessert and conversation at the Meridian House. // Meridian House: 1630 Crescent Place NW, Washington, DC; $5,000-$100,000
National Children’s Museum Opening Gala & After Party
Friday, Nov. 1, 6 p.m.-midnight
The National Children’s Museum is opening its doors after the completion of the long-awaited renovation at its new location in the District. The event will consist of an exhibit reveal, a sit-down dinner, lots of dancing and so much more in the new family-friendly space. // 1300 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, Washington, DC; $750-$7,500
19th Annual JDRF DC Hope Gala
Saturday, Nov. 2, 6-9 p.m.
This black-tie event has raised more than $27 million for Type 1 diabetes research since its inception 18 years ago. Throughout the evening, guests can enjoy silent and live auctions, world-class entertainment, a seated dinner and speeches from prominent individuals who are paving the way in research surrounding diabetes. // National Building Museum: 401 F St. NW, Washington, DC; $500-$125,000
Blue Hope Bash
Saturday, Nov. 2, 6-10 p.m.
The Colon Cancer Alliance will host its ninth annual Blue Hope Bash to raise awareness and funding for those affected by the illness. The evening affair will include a silent auction, speeches by notable celebrities and a sit-down dinner paired with live music. // Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium: 1301 Constitution Ave. NW, Washington, DC; $750-$1,500
Knock Out Abuse 26th Annual Gala
Thursday, Nov. 7, 6-10:30 p.m.
This annual affair brings the local community together in an effort to raise awareness, as well as funding for organizations that offer necessary resources to individuals and families affected by domestic violence. This year’s gala will be hosted by former WUSA 9 news anchor and DC-based Andrea Roane. // The Ritz-Carlton: 1150 22nd St. NW, Washington, DC; $750-$50,000
DC’s Dancing Stars Gala
Saturday, Nov. 9, 7-10 p.m.
Hit TV show Dancing with the Stars gets a local twist this year, thanks to this annual gala. As you enjoy a sit-down dinner, cocktails and a silent auction, watch local celebrities participate in a dancing competition for the grand prize of $10,000 benefiting the charity of their choice. // DC DanceSport Academy: 8315 Lee Highway, Fairfax; $375-$50,000
American Portrait Gala
Sunday, Nov. 17, time TBA
As a biennial gala in the nation’s capital, the American Portrait Gala celebrates high achievements of prominent figures in a variety of fields, including business, fashion, media, performing arts and science. This year’s lineup includes presentations by former first lady Michelle Obama, James Corgen and Preston Bezos, as well as honorees such as Frances Arnold and Jeff Bezos. // National Portrait Gallery: Eighth and F Streets NW, Washington, DC; to inquire about pricing, call 202-633-8309
March of Dimes
Tuesday, Nov. 19, 6 p.m.
Each year, residents of Northern Virginia and Washington, DC come together to recognize and honor professional women in the region who take time to benefit the community in their various industries. There are 25 honorees this year, including women in the media, tech industry and public health field. // The Ritz Carlton: 1700 Tysons Blvd., McLean; $300-$35,000
The Kennedy Center Honors
Sunday, Dec. 8, times TBA
For the 42nd year, come out to recognize icons who have had an impact on the arts, ranging from musicians to actors. This year’s honorees include rock band Earth Wind & Fire, award-winning actress Sally Field, the co-founders of Sesame Street and more. // The Kennedy Center: 2700 F St. NW, Washington, DC; pricing TBA
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