As we enter the thick of this year's gala season, it's clear that black-tie dressing is by no means limited to princess-style, strapless gowns with the obligatory corset bodice and full, floor-length skirt.
Metallic and jewel-toned evening suits, with fitted jackets paired with A-line skirts (or tailored pants), are a favorite this year, as are belted, knee-length cocktail dresses in black, navy or feather-gray, accented with embroidery and a dash of cleavage.
"People are a lot more free in their evening wear," said David Schwartz, co-owner of Sophy Curson, the Center City Philadelphia specialty dress shop.
"I'm seeing both full and slim, short and long. I've sold a lot of cocktail dresses this year for weekday black-tie affairs. Some of my dresses have slits," Schwartz said.
Long gowns are a must for white-tie affairs.
This season, however, floor-grazing frocks run the gamut from drapey, off-the-shoulder Grecian styles to striking empire-waist dresses with accordion-pleated bottoms in a rainbow of shades -- from blood red to mint green to lemon yellow to stark white (yes, even in winter).
In addition to the glitzy Dancing with the Stars costumes, we can thank actresses Katherine Heigl, America Ferrera and Vanessa Williams and their Emmy Awards wardrobe consultants for inspiring women to go for glamour, said Mary Helen Ranieri, owner of Suky in Ardmore, Pa., and Haddonfield, Pa.
"When people come in, they either want to look like one of the Desperate Housewives or Princess Grace," Ranieri said.
The general move toward a more polished look for day has challenged designers such as Marc Bouwer, Kevan Hall, and Paula Hian to create evening wear that stands out.
Plunging necklines, mod prints, sculpted backs and even feathers turn basic gowns into works of art.
"I bought this fabulous, shimmery silver gown with teeny, tiny straps and a low-cut front that was so beautiful," said Ann Frankel of Gladwyne, Pa., speaking of a Badgley Mischka gown she purchased at the Lafayette Hill, Pa., boutique Claire Dickson.
Frankel, president of the regional chapter of the Crohn's and Colitis Foundation, wore it to a ball last month.
"It was almost too beautiful to wear, and wasn't like anything I owned," she said.
It's no coincidence that formal affairs are on the rise. The green movement "isn't about just saving the Earth," says Marshal Cohen, fashion industry analyst for the NPD Group, a national sales-tracking firm. "It's about philanthropic endeavors, which requires more fund-raising."
Private industry, Cohen says, has become less inclined to dole out cash, so support for the arts, medical research and other nonprofit endeavors requires more grassroots fund-raising.
"And that means more formal affairs," he said.
Frankel, 59, and her husband, Richard, who owns the Audi dealership in Willow Grove, Pa., expect to attend more than a dozen events through March. For some, she says, she'll recycle dresses, but she plans to buy a few gowns. And, trends be damned, she still likes black.
"I bought some fabulous pants and some very dressy tops," Frankel said.
"I like bright colors, but I wear them as accessories. I just bought a silk taffeta, almost iridescent jacket I plan to wear for one of my events."
The Academy Ball is Philadelphia's most fashionable red-carpet function, for which women splurge on Oscar de la Renta, Vera Wang and Roberto Cavalli.
Last year, Hamilton, of Bryn Mawr, wore a flamingo-pink, silk taffeta strapless gown with matching stole by Canadian designer Catherine Regehr.
"You would just hate going to a party and seeing someone in your dress," she said.
In Philadelphia, prices for the fanciest dresses range from about $500 for a dinner suit to upward of $6,000 for a gown, said Debbie Dickson, of Claire Dickson.
Walks through Claire Dickson, Gabrielle in Bala Cynwyd, Pa., and Suky in Ardmore suggest that women here gravitate toward classic black, navy and deep purple.
Strapless red gowns, with their sexy verve, practically pop off the rack. This season, however, metallic silvers and coppers are probably the most in demand.
"The trend seems to be cream with black detail or all things metallic," noted Hian.
In January, Noele Wein, chair of the Academy Ball, wore a Marie Antoinette-inspired gown by Oscar de la Renta that hadn't yet hit the racks.
Wein, of Gladwyne, Pa., and Palm Beach, Fla., won't talk about the connections she used to pull that off, or what she'll wear next month, but she's thinking of buying a red gown to attend at least one of her many affairs.
Her fashion advice: "I'm one of those people that looks forward or looks back," Wein said. "If you stick to the present season, you risk seeing yourself walking through the ball."