April 8, 2011 10:02 pm

The guests’ dress-code challenge

Parsing royal wedding attire is complicated

The other day a woman I know who shall remain nameless (she signed a non-disclosure agreement) called. “I am going to the wedding!” she cried.

“What wedding?” I said. Stupid, granted, but I had been very far away on a beach for a week. “The royal wedding,” she hissed. “What should I wear?”

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Vanessa Friedman

It’s a difficult question: much harder, for example, than what to wear to the Costume Institute Gala (aka the party of the year), being held a mere three days later at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Parsing royal wedding attire is more complicated, I grant you, than figuring out what the highly irritating “dress festive” or “dress to sparkle” means on those holiday party invitations. It pretends to be simple – the official wedding invite instructions, apparently, were: “Wear elegant afternoon dresses with or without a coat, or an elegant matching ensemble with a hat.” (This is for women, natch; men get to wear their uniform, morning suits or just a nice formal suit.) But the reality is anything but simple.

Indeed, this may be, it occurs to me, the single most challenging dress code question around, requiring as it does a negotiation between the ghost of historical precedent and the reality of contemporary retail. The end result of which is usually a default compromise that works to no one’s benefit – except, maybe, the bride’s, as she tends to look notably better than everyone else.

After all, though she may be dressed like a fairy tale, at least she isn’t wearing strange sartorial symbols that are neither here (21st century) nor there (19th century). To be specific: fascinators, court shoes and coats. Is there no way to be an elegant royal wedding guest without adopting any of these unfortunate traditions?

Now, I know it’s easy to be negative and, generally, I try not to fall into that trap. But let’s take these accessories one by one. First, the fascinators. Even having spent 12 years in the UK, I fail to see the point of those feather-and-lace concoctions. To me, they are the millinery equivalent of chihuahuas: they represent the idea of a hat without being willing to actually make the commitment to a hat, just as those little dogs that fit in a handbag are dogs for the person unwilling to actually commit to a dog. (OK, chihuahua lovers, send the hate mail now.) Ninety per cent of the time, they make the wearer look as if some weird space alien has landed on her head. Consider, after all, Kate Middleton at Laura Parker Bowles’s wedding, with that Alf-like fluff of feathers pinned over her right eye, and ask yourself: why?

. . .

As far as I know, a hat serves three purposes: it covers your head in acknowledgement of humility before God; it keeps you warm; and it shields your eyes and face from the sun. Fascinators do none of the above. After months of wracking my brains, all I can come up with is: they pretend to cover the head and yet don’t muss the hairdo. But I can’t see that a blow-dry is worth the hypocrisy symbolised by the fake hat. Woman-up: embrace the brim.

On to the shoes. Like fascinators, courts are, to my mind, all about compromise: neither too high nor too flat, neither too chunky nor too thin. Pick a side! Make a commitment! Isn’t that what weddings are about, after all? And shoes are the one area of dress where a wedding guest can flirt with a bit of raciness and pizzazz.

Get thee to Yves Saint Laurent and get thee some Tribute shoes, the most comfortable stiletto platforms ever invented. Or try a pair of glamazon Azzedine Alaïa stack heels. Even with a banal knee-length hem, these have attitude. Plus, they are comfortable (even after my Achilles tendon rupture, I can spend an entire day in both of the above), and with all that sitting and standing, comfort matters.

And finally, the coat. Or not the coat – the cover-up: you know, that thing you button over a strapless or spaghetti-strap top because you need to shield your flesh in church. Again, why not just cut to the chase: why spend money on two different garments, when one perfect dress will do? Sleeves are not antithetical to elegance; rather, they’re the friend of all problem arms. Personally, I’d investigate Erdem (previously, and successfully, worn for other nuptials by maid of honour Pippa Middleton), Burberry and Christoper Kane. But that’s just me.

And I know I may now seem like a whiny colonial who doesn’t appreciate the importance of historical reference. But as far as I can tell, what has happened to those traditions is what happens to most traditions: they become more and more diluted over time until they are effectively abstractions of themselves: acknowledgments of how things used to be. Think, for example, of legal language, with the absurd uses of “aforementioned” and “heretofore noted”.

So the fascinator is a facsimile of a proper hat, as is the coat (proper robes), as are the shoes (there’s a reason they are known as “court shoes”). In a way, like the royal family itself, they are more symbolic than relevant – which would suggest they are, in fact, royal wedding-appropriate, except that this particular royal couple keeps being held up as modern and new look and so on: the royals who will actually make reforms. They could embrace the idea head-first.

vanessa.friedman@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/friedman

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