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By Julie Hackett Behr

NEW YORK, 23 FEBRUARY 2009 — Styling is always about confidence. When you put on a party dress, you state that you believe the world is fun, that life will go on, that there is enough money. The dress should tell everyone, "I'm having a good time. I'm not afraid." It is a courageous point of view.

Party clothes are always extravagant. They are for moments of celebration - especially for celebrating yourself. Sadly, many people have so few of those moments in their lives, they adopt a contrary, impoverished attitude about wearing party clothes. They look uncomfortable, as if in costume. They refuse to buy quality, and the clothes reflect an unwillingness to celebrate. They haven't embraced the moment.

For the woman who wants to look her best at the party, a brief styling session:

— The same way good manners should feel effortless, allure and excitement should come naturally from your clothes, but most of all from you.

— Very few individuals can go around in bad clothes and still look interesting.

— Whatever you wear, walk with attitude; the whole point is to be yourself but in a more beautiful way.

Many American women have one idea what evening clothes are: it's based loosely on what they wore to the prom. Go back and look at your prom pictures. Enough said.

— There is an X factor to great clothing: an extraordinary dress on the person who wasn't meant to wear it won't be extraordinary. Even fashionistas often have trouble explaining why something works, but is easy for nearly everyone to say why something doesn't.

— Wear nothing cheap. If finances impose a compromise choice, balance your inexpensive alternative with something of quality, something that you love or something that makes you happy. It will show on your face when you wear it.

— Wear nothing generic. It is chicer to wear a black T-shirt dress from Target with sensational Christian Louboutin pumps than to wear a dull, one-piece dress along with matching shoes and purse that, together, cost the same.

— Be careful about the shape of the dress. Unless you are a size 0 or 2, balance a narrow shape with something more loose-fitting. Play up your best feature. If it is your bust, wear a dress that displays cleavage or that has an unusual neckline. If it's your derrière-well, millions of people love J.Lo. If you have great legs, forget what the experts tell you about hemlines this year. Make it short and wear incredible shoes. It's not supposed to be practical. It's supposed to be extreme, and you should love it.

Clothes on men reflect the same principles. Cary Grant looked at home in his evening clothes. Many men these days look uncomfortable when dressing up; they feel as if they are in costume and let their clothes fit like costumes

Cary Grant wearing a Prince of Wales checked jacket. Tailor Kilgour, French, and Stanbury
Photo courtesy of Rizzoli

If you just don't feel comfortable unless you are wearing jeans, avoid cocktail parties - but you're missing the chance to expand yourself, to meet new people and to celebrate life in a new and, for you, adventuresome way

New York Fashion Week

Fashion Week has just ended in New York City, and we are all watching to see how fashion, which is about nothing if not optimism, will fare in a city ever more on edge about the one thing that people came here to find-money. The most coveted ticket is always Oscar de la Renta. Getting an invitation to Oscar (the one-word title is enough) brings season-long bragging rights. This year, with Oscar split into two shows, the opportunity doubled. (Some blind optimism for uncertain times.)

Oscar de la Renta worn by Lily Donaldson
Photo courtesy of Oscar de la Renta

In the fall Oscar de la Renta collection, a standout was a belted gown with a halter neck with a surprise bustle. The silhouette when viewed from the front is classic, and the solid color is amethyst, which is perhaps this year's favorite. On the woman who can wear it, the simple line can only read simple chic. But when the gown is seen from the back, the bustle tosses in that note of whimsy that lets the party girl come out.

Farther along on the fun scale is leopard-print wrap gown, for that pinch-wasted hourglass look, with spots.

The belt, worn high, appears to hold the look together.

Oscar de la Renta worn by Chrissy Haldis
Photo courtesy of Chrissy Haldis

Both dresses speak for the women who wear them, "I'm not afraid to party." Indeed, Oscar de la Renta personifies the notion that, somewhere in the world, someone is having a fabulous party and that you should rightfully be there. With these dresses, you might just be ushered in, even without an invitation.

Title photo: Oscar de la Renta worn by Ubah Hassan
Photo courtesy of Oscar de la Renta

Julie Hackett Behr is a style consultant at the New York flagship of a luxury department store. She last wrote Dress Up: Choosing the Perfectly Appropriate Party Dress and New York Fashion Week Parties: Serious Pleasures for

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