Putting the Fashion Detective to the Party Dress Test

Party season starts here; it’s official. And if you’re stressing about which party dress to purchase, you’re certainly not the only one. In this age of glitz, glamour and sequin overload, it’s tempting to buy a full-on party frock that will only ever look good on the dance floor. Last year I bought a beautiful, full length gold sequin maxi dress from River Island for £80 – I’ve worn it once. It’s not the kind of dress you can style up (or down) so I’ll have to patiently wait for another glittering occasion to come around before I can wheel it out again.

I’m not alone in making such schoolgirl fashion errors: research by vouchercodes.co.uk showed that young ladies are spending a sizeable £119 on a Christmas party season outfit*- but will they ever wear that standout dress again? Well, if you choose carefully, thinking about ways to style the dress when you buy it (rather than being bedazzled by its immediate “knock-em-dead” credentials), you can invest in an affordable high street piece that will wow at a party, but is versatile enough to be worn outside a club too.

To prove it can be done, Most Wanted (the lifestyle magazine from vouchercodes.co.uk) asked me to take part in its Christmas 2012 Party Dress Test project. I was fixed-up with an £80 budget to find the perfect, multi-purpose high street party dress, and challenged to style it three ways. And here are the fruits of my labour…

First things first, the dress. If you want a versatile party number, my first piece of advice is to look for a “two in one” style piece which immediately gives you scope to play around:

I chose the gorgeous navy blue chiffon “two for” dress at Warehouse, £80, which has a cute sequin skirt and a layered top with a loosefitting Grecian-style chiffon overlay

This is definitely a dress you can have fun in – and wearing it with Mary Jane-style shoes turns up the fun factor

An embellished Alice band will always add a finishing party touch (as will a Cosmopolitan) – mine was £2 from Primark

The plain, layered top half, with a cute sequin trim, gives you carte blanche to go a bit wild with accessories – mine are a mixture of vintage (bracelet), Topshop (cross hand chain) and Accessorize (ring)

I even got an early Christmas present…but the real gift is being able to wear the dress when you’re not sipping on a Cosmo

The first alternative look I decided to try was an everyday one. By toning the top half down, and popping on practical boots and tights, you can let the sequin skirt show-off your playful side at work, or at any formal occasion, without looking over the top:

I’d definitely wear this look to the office (if I had a real job!) – but it would also work well for a posh lunch, a first date, a cinema trip or a pre-Christmas work lunch

The real trick with this look is to wear a navy top, so it still looks perfectly matched and elegant – my cutwork lace top, with long chiffon sleeves, is also from Warehouse

Even at work, I like to add a touch of cheekiness, and the boho headband from Topshop does just that, I think

Grey vintage tights and matching, wearable boots from Ecco keep the look low-key with a retro twist

Hi ho, hi ho, it’s off to my fake job I go (carrying a lovely nude leather bag by Edina Ronay @ TK Maxx)

And finally, it wouldn’t be me without something bright and bonkers, right? For a casual, street-style effect, simply add a big, fat pop of colour. And a hat. Always a hat:

As you can (clearly) see, this look is bold, bright and tons of fun

Adding colour, and texture, takes the party dress bang into “street” territory

The blue wool trilby is only £12.99 from H&M, and it injects so much personality into an outfit

The dress is still the star, but everything about this look demands attention: the faux fur gilet is only £18 from Primark, the red tights and the reindeer print cardi are both Topshop and the shoes and owl pendant are vintage

Because I watched The September Issue on Friday with my fashion journalism students, we *had* to do a Vogue (pfffft) “jumping” pic, just for a larf…

*2012 survey of 18-24 year olds conducted by vouchercodes.co.uk

Post compiled in association with vouchercodes.co.uk who provided a styling budget for the post

With thanks to The Gardeners in Southfields. All photography by Matthew Swan.

Written by Johanna Payton