It's an age-old fashion dilemma: How does a busy hostess balance the practical demands of holiday entertaining with the desire to look fabulous?
The simplest solution? You could have your next holiday soiree catered, but alas, hiring a lot of help isn't very practical in these tough economic times. Or you could throw on a favorite pair of jeans, a sweat shirt and tennis shoes for serving dinner, cocktails and snacks to your nattily attired guests. Practical? Yes. Glamorous? Definitely not.
Don't despair. For hostesses who want to look great while having a few neighbors over for mulled wine or eggnog, or while entertaining a crowd at a New Year's Eve bash, fashion-forward options abound this holiday season.
Women's clothing styles have taken a decidedly casual turn that places an emphasis on both comfort and practicality -- but retain enough fashion flair for home entertainment. Will you forgo a little glitz for comfort this holiday season? Sure.
"At home, people want to be more comfortable," says Carolyn Moss, fashion director for Macy's in New York. "The style is a lot looser than what you wear going out -- after all, I can't imagine cooking in a strapless dress. So you have to wear something that looks glamorous but lets you entertain your guests."
An example: evening separates.
"Take a basic black bottom -- say, velvet trousers or either a long or short velvet skirt of your choice -- worn with an organza blouse in a burnished gold or teal blue," Ms. Moss suggests. "After the party, the pieces can be worn with anything."
Another fashion concept that works for casual yet elegant home entertaining is "big over little," says Jeanne Speice, market merchandiser for J. C. Penney in Springfield, Va. "For example, stirrup pants, which are a long, lean knit pant, worn with a tunic top or a long sweater. It's very comfortable, both for casual wear or entertaining."
Ms. Speice says of this season's fashions, "The look is long and lean, with longer hemlines."
To complete the big-over-little style, look for big sweaters embellished with beads in sherbet palettes such as orange ice, melon, soft purple and medium blue. Still popular this season are sweaters shot with strands of metallic lurex thread in gold or silver.
"Sweaters are longer this year because of stirrup pants," Ms. Speice says. "They drop lower to cover the tush -- it adds a more comfortable look to cover the leaner appearance of the pants."
Jackets, too, can add a flair that's perfect for home entertaining.
"Blazers are everywhere, in tweeds, solids, boucle and plaids," Ms. Speice says. "But the appearance isn't as severe as the menswear look for the fall. We see them worn with jeans, stirrup pants and over dresses. It's almost part of the uniform."
A stylish item that has been carried over from last spring is the wide-leg palazzo pantsuit in a soft fabric.
"It's the most fashion-forward home entertaining outfit," says Ms. Speice.
Pants generally have a looser fit this season.
"We see pants that are more flowy in the legs, in both velvet and chiffon," notes K. C. Gore, assistant manager at Nan Duskin in Baltimore. "It's more of a tuxedo look, usually worn with gold, silver or beaded camisoles."
In a fashion season that has a new emphasis on menswear for women, pants are a very stylish choice, but they're also very practical for home entertaining.
"You don't want the restrictions of clothes where you have to button everything up, and wear stockings and high heels," says Ruth Shaw, owner of Ruth Shaw Inc. in the Village of Cross Keys. "You can wear pants with an easy top, a cashmere sweater and a wonderful belt.
"After all, you may end up sitting on the floor before the night is over."
For women who don't like pants, the news in skirts is length. Long and full is a traditional and comfortable look, but the newest silhouette is lean and narrow, says Ms. Gore.
Top off your look this season with a sweater set, suggests Thomas Marotta, senior vice president at Nan Duskin.
"The perfect outfit for the holidays is an opulent twin sweater set in red worn with a wonderful satin, full skirt," Mr. Marotta says. "Or maybe a long tunic sweater with a long skirt with a slit. It's casual and it's easy -- a more classic approach to dressing."
The best choice in footwear will be determined by both comfort and the style of the clothes.
"Platforms are selling like crazy," says Ms. Moss of Macy's. "Not a '40s platform, but one with a quarter-inch platform to wear with longer silhouette. And a wing tip looks sexy with a menswear-influenced trouser."
Suede shoes are another option that complements today's softer, more elegant look.
"In lower heels, suede looks great with flannel," notes Jane Ann Simpson, assistant manager at Octavia in Cross Keys. "There's no shine and it sort of disappears and blends into what you're wearing."