One recent crisp fall morning, en route to the office, I stepped into my sleepy neighborhood coffee shop to get a skim latte. Immediately palpable were the scanning eyes and upwardly inching brows of the grungy baristas, stay-at-home moms, and freelance writers who form the shop's native population. Quickly, I took stock of my look: a sequined silver dress, a stylishly savage fox-fur vest, five-inch patent-leather T-strap Yves Saint Laurent sandals, and a Chanel 2.55 tucked under my arm -- an ensemble that surely telegraphed "walk of shame." But in fact,
I was as fresh as a daisy, merely scaling the latest heights of chicdom by turning clothes traditionally pegged as cocktail fare into daywear. I'll bet a week's worth of lattes that I was the sole wearer of after-eight attire on my block that morning, but I'm certainly not alone in adopting this styling shift. "There is a blur between day and evening clothes now," says designer Jason Wu, who not only has outfitted Michelle Obama in her first-lady finery but also has a penchant for feathered confections and rosette detailing. "Every girl I know works. She doesn't have time to go home and change before going out. Nowadays it's more modern to have a convertible wardrobe. So many work-appropriate pieces can transition seamlessly into evening. It's how you wear them that makes the difference."
And so more and more women are venturing into broad daylight in everything from bugle-beaded chiffon to metallic brocades -- barista judgments be damned. Both the ladies who lunch and launch are now doing so in plumes and paillettes, without a hint of shame.
That a sequined anything has become work appropriate may boggle the mind, but in truth a spangled piece is a wardrobe must-have. On anything from a boxy tee or a racer-back tank to a tunic dress or a draped skirt, twinkling with embroidered shine is de rigueur. It's simply a matter of transposing the glitz factor up or down. Shrug on your utilitarian complement of choice -- a boyfriend blazer, a sporty anorak, a slouchy sweater, a classic cardigan, or a flat -- and that opulence takes on a whole new cast.
Style mavericks like Sarah Easley, co-owner of the hip New York boutique Kirna Zabête, take it one step further, cutting through all that glamour with downtown edge. "Go out on a limb with Proenza Schouler's tie-dyed T-shirt worn under a fitted Azzedine Alaïa black dress," suggests Easley. "Or try Alexander Wang's navy sequined tunic dress with a gray hooded zip-up sweatshirt and blue Lanvin high-tops."
The trick to mastering the look is a studied juxtaposition. If you are rocking a long Yves Saint Laurent gown for day, team it with slipperlike leather flats and stick to minimal makeup and undone hair. That's London-based creative consultant Yasmin Sewell's modus operandi. "I'll also wear slouchy velvet pants and an oversize tee and blazer but go over the top with shoes and jewelry," says Sewell. "This feels really modern to me."
But some women don't feel the need to walk the casual-cocktail tightrope. Stylist Mary Alice Stephenson thought nothing of sporting silver-sequined palazzo pants at Michael Kors's 10:00 A.M. Spring 2010 fashion show -- front row, no less. She espouses a finished sophistication, the more glam, the better. "Fashion now is not about rules; personal style is about breaking rules," she says. "People want to make an imprint and look their most fashionable at all times, and it's okay. Before, there were certain things that were appropriate to pull out only at certain times; now it's appropriate to be inappropriate."
You can easily trace the various signposts of this night-for-day migration. Over the past several seasons, designers like Dries Van Noten, Christophe Decarnin for Balmain, and Riccardo Tisci for Givenchy have been peppering their collections with everything from silver-encrusted bandleader jackets to toss on with jeans to marabou encircling the shoulders of a perfectly tailored wool pantsuit. The embracing of high glitz began in part with the advent of opulent necklaces (Lanvin) and over-the-top statement shoes (Louis Vuitton, Alexander McQueen, and Nicholas Kirkwood for Rodarte). That movement morphed into the current head-to-toe razzle-dazzle-'em trend.
To that end, no one adopted the look with more notoriety than the first lady. She's famously worn a delicately swirling Lanvin top while planting a tree in D.C., a glossy silk matelassé Michael Kors dress with a big bow to address the International Olympic Committee, and a sequined J. Crew sweater and mint skirt at 8:00 A.M. to meet the British PM's wife, Sarah Brown. "Michelle Obama did help change the way in which middle-American women look at fashion," says Stephenson. "She's become such a style icon to real women that when they see her breaking these rules and being her most fashionable and yet still being taken seriously, they know that they can do that too."
Indeed, a pinstripe suit, unless it's in the form of a sleek, strong-shouldered runway version courtesy of Dolce & Gabbana, is no longer the go-to boardroom mufti. "The '80s era of competing with men and trying to dress like one in a power suit is no longer necessary," says up-and-coming designer Prabal Gurung, who has dressed everyone from Demi Moore to Thandie Newton in big-bowed cocktail frocks. So bring on the lamé, the rhinestones, the tulle. Gurung adds, "Also, because of the recession and the gloominess, psychologically all this sparkle is uplifting."
Contemporary designers with significantly lower-priced collections and high-end designers with diffusion lines have rolled out a seemingly endless array of shimmer and shine that's perfect for shoppers seeking novelty items for a peppy pick-me-up. There's also a counterintuitive, thrifty subtext to this new party-all-the-time approach. "Why spend money on a daytime dress and an evening outfit when you can wear your sequined mini from day to night?" says Marchesa designer and style setter Georgina Chapman. "I think the lack of limitations shows a consumer consciousness that is at the same time very fashion forward." Indeed, when your evening pieces aren't relegated to celebratory events, their cost-per-wear ratio starts looking much more attractive.
Alas, all this sequin-on-sequin action isn't for everyone. Designer Michael Kors is quickly tiring of the look. "I'm ready to see someone in flannel," he says. According to him, the fashion set has been using the humble cardigan as a sort of crutch. "They think, 'Oh, if I just throw on a cardigan over this cocktail dress, I can wear it to work,'" he says. "But if a normal person who works in a bank wears something like this, her coworkers would just look at her blankly and ask, 'What time's the bar mitzvah?'"