Formal Dressing on a Budget

(Today, Karen shows us how she helped a client style an actual Red Carpet look on a budget. Amazing results!)

The Oscars are coming, and so are the beauties! How many of them do you think pulled it off for under $300?

This is my client, Jane, on her way to the 2012 Grammy Awards. I’ve styled daytime corporate events and weekends for Jane, as well as vacation wardrobes. This was our first formal event styling together. After struggling on her own at first to put a formal evening look together, she called me in take over. Jane’s complaint with her own attempt was that she didn’t know what looked good on her, and had a limited budget to spend on this one special evening.

With her lovely tall, slim and curvy frame, I knew I wanted something for her in a heavy jersey fabric. Jane asked for black, but I knew navy would show off her bright blue eyes to stunning effect. We agreed that she shouldn’t try to dress too young or glitzy, knowing she’d be veering off her style personality by a mile. So classic it was to be.

To find a budget gown we had a couple of options. I brought in the dress Jane is wearing in the photos on the first try, which almost never happens! It’s Adrianna Papell from Nordstrom, $150, and it fit perfectly. Jane was thrilled she could wear her favorite bra with the dress, completely undetectable due to the ruching. I was totally ready to run the usual gamut of shopping options; borrowing, thrifting at the studio wardrobe sales and consignment shops, or renting a gown. It was a joy to have avoided all that so we could get on with the fun!

Using the dress as our cornerstone, we began taking test shots with a camera, swapping out various accessories, possible hairstyles, shoes and evening bags. I highly recommend you take photos of yourself before going to an important event. I guarantee the nays and the yays will be as plain as day. The ornament on Jane’s dress directed our choice in accessories: nothing should compete with the “brooch” or take the emphasis off her face. That meant a simple shoe in black (Yes, navy and black!!!). The tassel earrings worked great with the dress and brooch, ala Natalie Portman at the Oscars. Remember?

Hair was definitely to be an updo, though Jane protested at first. I told her that as it was a huge Hollywood event, she MUST have it done professionally, and that a classic updo would show off her lovely neck and shoulders. Long and loose hair would have muddied up the whole effect above the bust, including burying the so carefully conceived tassel earrings. As the dress was reasonably priced, the cost of an updo wasn’t going to kill her budget. Jane did her own makeup that night, and did a wonderful, tasteful job at that. She was thrilled to get a heap of compliments from Bruce Springsteen’s hair and makeup stylist in the elevator at the Ritz Carlton Hotel!

I gave Jane a little pregame stance coaching for her red carpet shot below, but she looks a bit “deer in the headlights.” She has a great sense of humor, and doesn’t take herself too seriously in these kinds of situations, so it was alright. She wasn’t supposed to have a wrap in the photo on her arm (and wasn’t going to bring one as it was such a warm night), and her clutch could have been held a little closer in to her body. Okay, so the tally:

Gown: Adrianna Papell, Nordstrom, $150

Shoes: Anne Klein, DSW, $70

All jewelry: Stylist’s personal collection

Silver envelope clutch: Stylist’s personal collection

Hair updo: $40

Nails: Done by Jane

Makeup: Done by Jane


Below is a picture of Jane as her usual self, sporty on her way to tennis and then surely errands. Isn’t she the cutest?

Do you get to dress up often? How do you pull it all together? Do you have a go-to or uniform dress you can depend on? Do you set a budget for special event outfits or go hog wild and worry about it later?

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  1. Oh would I love having you style me for an event like the Oscar’s!! Jane looks gorgeous. I used to attend many more galas than I do now.

    Art by Karena

  2. Jane looks fantastic. Such a good call on the tassel earrings, the updo, and the navy color for her dress. I’m apt to spend whatever it takes to find something I like, for special events. However, living in California, working in high-tech, and not having made time to frequent society events, such occasions happen almost never.

  3. I’m much better at putting dressy looks together than casual looks. I want help with casual wear!
    This was wonderful and the navy does bring out her eye colour beautifully.

  4. The only formal events I’ve had to deal with in the last 5 years were my sons’ weddings. I agonized over what to wear, shoes, hair, etc. There is always such a fine line: not too “maman”, not too “young”, how to be comfortable and true to your style but “dressy” enough, etc. My results were ok, but not “great”. I wish I’d had a stylist!! Taking photos ahead of time is a wonderful idea.


    1. Oh Kathleen, it can indeed be such agony to pull a look together. Jane’s dress felt like a nightgown on her, so she got the comfort. The hair really makes it dressy. Photos are a must! The camera shows things objectively, things you would never catch with your own eye.

  5. Gorgeous. The navy and classic style are beautiful on her.

    The one time I “had” to have a gown (my wedding), I brought my tallest heels and a friend with a Polaroid. Those polaroid shots were critical!

    I have to say, being tiny (and buxom), even on the rare occasions (in my “old” life) when I could have dressed to the nines, long simply didn’t work. It’s a real problem when you’re little! (I’m not 5′)And especially if you’re little and not a stick!

    I tended to go the simplest shapes, typically quality separates (easier to find them that fit and are affordable), and one statement piece of jewelry. Period. And… naturellement… stunning shoes, typically from DSW.

    1. I think one reason she looks so tasteful is that she did her own face. She really wanted to look like “herself.” She’s also a photographer, so she knows how to do makeup for pictures.

  6. My life doesn’t suggest I’ll ever be at the Oscar’s, but I am sometimes in a position where I need to up my style game for events or trips.

    I prefer to have something in my closet ready, not to have to shop for the event. Wearing new clothes, and particularly shoes, to important events is risky!

    I think you’ve put together a very decent look and at a reasonable price. Fancy hair gives an otherwise simple dress an extra push.

  7. What a great look at such a great price! Very glamorous! I can’t wait for the Oscars; this would be perfect. I rarely dress up like this, like almost never.

  8. Jane looks beautiful! And Karen hit it out of the ball park again. I really enjoyed hearing the step-by-step process of evaluating the components of special occasion dressing. While I don’t think I’ll be going to a special event soon, I could see using the same formula for date night, corporate function, etc.

    Karen should send this little write up to Nordie’s so they can sell a million of these dresses – Jane looks stunning!

    And thanks, Pseu, for sharing!

  9. Jane looks really great. I would never be able to tell that the dress was so inexpensive. Other than my daughter’s wedding which will be on September 1st, I have no occasion to dress up for. It’s LA.
    I will however, wear my newer flannel pajamas to watch the Oscars in bed. No jewelry though – the print is very busy on the PJs.

  10. Jane looks gorgeous. The outfit looks so natural and well put together and then you start seeing how cleverly all the little details really work together: the tassel earrings and the updo, the asymmetric straps with the brooch and yes the black shoes with the navy dress!

    1. We went through dozens of jewelry options; the ornament on the dress made it a tad difficult to dress around. We just didn’t want to detract from it.

  11. Well done Karen!
    Jane mixes fine ( or even better ) than the rest, in the red carpet event.
    I have 2 dresses waiting for a call, which comes seldom.
    I don´t think that I would stress much about ” getting dressed up “, as long as I were not the center piece of the gala ; ).

  12. You did a wonderful job. $260!!! That is impressive. I’m not a blue person but the dress is simple, elegant, does indeed highlight her pretty blue eyes and it’s not breaking the bank. Congrats to her and you!

  13. I don’t dress up often and cannot recall the last time I wore a floor length gown for any event. You did beautifully with the styling–the drape of the gown, her long neck, accentuated by the hair and the earrings. Very well done.

  14. Karen, you did such a wonderful thing for Jane! I love how you managed to make her look glamorous while staying true to her personality and allowing her to be comfortable. Those events can be a grueling endurance test – being able to wear her favorite bra is a plus!

    I go to events with my husband a lot for his job, but since he is in the arts we can get away with a lot. Also, I am not ever the main attraction, so it doesn’t matter what I wear. I have a few black “dressy business” separates I can wear, or on some occasions I can wear a casual dress that can be fancied up with shoes and accessories.

    There are two times I did have to dress up – one I had help from a stylist friend, and was very grateful for it. She found me a black dress from Loehmans that had some subtle beading detail, and she helped me with my makeup. My hair is short short, so that was easy.

    Fabulous work, Karen!

  15. I got one of my best black-tie gowns on eBay for $60 — and it was 1960s Donald Brooks couture!

    I’m getting dressed to go out right now. Just finished hair and makeup 🙂

  16. The Adrianna Papell line has many gowns – like this one – worthy of the red carpet – the whole look you put together is very glam.