No matter what you paid for them, the evening clothes in your wardrobe are likely to be the most expensive things you own.
It's not the price tag that makes the difference, however. We're talking about something called Cost Per Wear.
The Cost-Per-Wear factor is what makes a $500 business suit a good investment because you can wear it once a week for several years. It's also what makes a $100 velvet cocktail dress a bad investment because you'll probably wear it only once or twice, period.
Nevertheless, there are ways to put together an evening wardrobe that is interesting and versatile, as well as reasonably priced. The trick is to use the same mix-and-match techniques that work so well for sportswear and casual clothes.
Building an evening wardrobe calls for investing in some good-quality basics and then adding other garments and accessories that can be used to make the basics look different.
The No. 1 basic on virtually everybody's list is a little black dress, a term so ingrained in fashion lingo that insiders commonly refer to it as an LBD. The dress should be knee-length or above and cut in a simple style, such as a chemise or a semi-fitted sheath.
Avoid extravagant beading, huge ruffles or any detail that makes the dress too memorable on its own. Instead, choose a dress with a plain neckline and vary the look of the dress by changing your accessories. Jewel necks and strapless styles work best with necklaces and earrings.
For maximum wearability, choose a year-round fabric such as silk, rayon faille or lightweight wool crepe. If you can afford two dresses, you might choose faille for summer and velvet or beads for winter.
Once you've chosen the perfect LBD (and if you've done it right, you'll be able to wear it to a wide variety of dressy occasions), it's time to branch out into separates.
A pair of slinky black trousers provides a good base. You can't go wrong with classically cut, full trousers in a soft silk or wool crepe. If you're the adventurous type or simply have a few extra bucks this season, you might add a pair of black lace jeans or black velvet leggings.
Another versatile choice is a dressy suit, either in black, winter white or a jewel tone. The skirt should be short and slim, and the jacket should be cut so that it will fit over other things.
For example, a boxy, waist-length jacket will work well with other skirts and trousers; a longer blazer style can be worn over a short, slim dress.
Then, begin to collect blouses, tops and sweaters that can turn these basic bottoms into a series of smashing looks. The possibilities include:
* A smashing white blouse, preferably of a sexy, feminine fabric, such as organza or lace.
* A long evening sweater or knit tunic. The choices range from a winter white crocheted pullover to a metallic cardigan to a tunic sweater trimmed with bright sequins.
* A sequined T-shirt or tank top. As a contrast to all that black, look for a bright, festive color. If you choose a mid-range shade such as turquoise or bright yellow, you'll be able to wear it next summer with white linen trousers.
* A bare top that can be worn on its own or slipped under a jacket. A metallic tank is a good choice if you're modest, a beaded bustier if you're not.
Accessories also play an important part in a versatile evening wardrobe.
Your first purchase should be a pair of simple, high-heeled pumps in black satin or faille. And your second, for more casual occasions, should be feminine flats in black velvet or suede.
Next, invest in a pretty evening bag. A black silk clutch trimmed with beads will take you to a wide range of dress-up events. To keep the bag in good condition, wrap it in tissue paper and put it in a plastic bag for storage.
And don't forget the jewelry. Pearls and diamonds are evening classics. If you can't afford the real thing, search out good-looking fakes. Glass beads and crystals, especially worn in multiple strands, are another luminous possibility.
One caveat, however. Shoulder-duster earrings are rapidly going out of style. If you're dying to have some, get the cheapest ones you can find, because it's unlikely you'll want to wear them next year.
Still, you needn't feel obligated to toe the straight and narrow where evening wear is concerned. Remember that holiday parties offer the chance to show off your own unique style. In light of that, don't confine your evening-wear shopping to the evening-wear department of your favorite clothing store. Be creative.
Vintage clothing stores, too, are a gold mine for one-of-a-kind evening garments and accessories. Take that fringed Victorian shawl, for instance. Wouldn't it be divine over your newest LBD?