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10 Outfit Ideas for Every Type of Holiday Gathering

What to wear to cocktail parties, family dinners and everything in between

Woman at Christmas dinner table
miniseries/Getty Images

“Is this too boring? Too casual? Too dressed up?” The I-have-nothing-to-wear syndrome is typical this time of year. Dress codes for parties and events have blurred into a vague one-look-suits-all outfit of jeans and a fancier-than-usual top. That’s not bad at all, but holiday events are a chance to really dress up … something many of us don’t do that often. Here are 10 ways to get “merry and bright” right: 

1. A neighborhood house party

(Left to right) Marc New York Draped Tunic in Eggplant; C. Wonder Women’s Holiday Smoking Flats in Black; Gap Satin Boyfriend Shirt in Green Pine
(Left to right) Marc New York Draped Tunic in Eggplant; C. Wonder Women’s Holiday Smoking Flats in Black; Gap Satin Boyfriend Shirt in Green Pine
Bloomingdale's; Walmart; Gap

When the e-vite says swing by for eggnog or come join a karaoke night, leave your sweats and sneakers home and try jeans with a silky blouse such as the Gap Satin Boyfriend Shirt in Green Pine ($70, gap.com) for a seasonal look (yes, that tried-and-true recipe works fine here, so use it!) or the Marc New York Draped Tunic in Eggplant ($64, bloomingdales.com) because not everyone loves to wear red or green. Just add the sparkly C. Wonder Women’s Holiday Smoking Flats in Black ($30, walmart.com), and you’re out the door in minutes.

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2. A big deal sit-down dinner

(Left to right) H&M Rib-Knit Dress in Yellow Ocher; Essie Handmade With Love 8-Free Vegan Nail Polish; Sally Hansen Color Foil Nail Polish in Steel a Kiss; Maybelline SuperStay Ink Crayon in Make Moves
(Left to right) H&M Rib-Knit Dress in Yellow Ocher; Essie Handmade With Love 8-Free Vegan Nail Polish; Sally Hansen Color Foil Nail Polish in Steel a Kiss; Maybelline SuperStay Ink Crayon in Make Moves
H&M; Target; Ulta Beauty (2)

Whether it’s Thanksgiving, Christmas or a restaurant meal, go classy but comfy in a soft stretchy sweater dress such as the H&M Rib-Knit Dress in Yellow Ocher ($65, www2.hm.com/en_us/) to allow for extra helpings and post-meal style. Emphasize your look waist up (that’s mostly how you’ll be seen) with a flawless manicure — in red Essie Handmade With Love 8-Free Vegan Nail Polish ($12, target.com) or on-trend metallic Sally Hansen Color Foil Nail Polish in Steel a Kiss ($9, ulta.com) — and makeup that includes defined eyes or lips. A smear-proof, long-wear lipstick such as Maybelline SuperStay Ink Crayon in Make Moves ($11, ulta.com) will see you through gravy and dessert.

3. A themed get-together

(Left to right) St. John’s Bay Women’s Crewneck Long Sleeve Pullover Sweater in Scarlet Cheers; Sugarfix by BaubleBar “That’s A Wrap” Statement Earrings in White; Loft Shimmer Bow Puff Sleeve Sweater in Black
(Left to right) St. John’s Bay Women’s Crewneck Long Sleeve Pullover Sweater in Scarlet Cheers; Sugarfix by BaubleBar “That’s A Wrap” Statement Earrings in White; Loft Shimmer Bow Puff Sleeve Sweater in Black
JCPenney; Target; LOFT

Holiday events with a specific dress code — Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Chinese New Year and “ugly sweater” parties where guests wear kitschy tops — can be fun. However, a Santa-embellished sweater loses its fizz fast post-holiday. Cover all your bases with a bow-themed sweater such as the Loft Shimmer Bow Puff Sleeve Sweater in Black ($70, loft.com) or sparkly Sugarfix by BaubleBar “That’s A Wrap” Statement Earrings in White ($13, target.com), or opt for a universal slogan on the St. John’s Bay Women’s Crewneck Long Sleeve Pullover Sweater in Scarlet Cheers ($25, jcpenney.com) that makes everyone smile.

4. When you’re the hostess

(Left to right) Knox Rose Women’s Long Sleeve A-Line Dress in Wine Red Floral; Kurt Geiger London Women’s Princely Embellished Pointed Toe Mules; Ellos V-Neck Sweater Tunic in Persian Red
(Left to right) Knox Rose Women’s Long Sleeve A-Line Dress in Wine Red Floral; Kurt Geiger London Women’s Princely Embellished Pointed Toe Mules; Ellos V-Neck Sweater Tunic in Persian Red
Target; Bloomingdale's; Catherines

Going from kitchen to guests and back for cleanup and seconds requires a look that’s elegant and easy to move in. A flowing midi dress with elasticized waist, flattering V-neckline and stain-hiding print such as the Knox Rose Women’s Long Sleeve A-Line Dress in Wine Red Floral ($40, target.com) makes multitasking a snap. For an alternative, try a loose cheer tunic such as the Ellos V-Neck Sweater Tunic in Persian Red ($67, catherines.com) with ankle pants and the glitzy Kurt Geiger London Women’s Princely Embellished Pointed Toe Mules ($150, bloomingdales.com).

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5. A work-related holiday celebration

(Left to right) Eileen Fisher Organic Cotton Scarf in Red; Mango Plus Straight Velvet Pants in Green; Jeffrey Campbell Velvet Heeled Loafers in Green
(Left to right) Eileen Fisher Organic Cotton Scarf in Red; Mango Plus Straight Velvet Pants in Green; Jeffrey Campbell Velvet Heeled Loafers in Green
Bloomingdale's; Mango; Anthropologie

Some parties are held at the office or workplace during the day; others are after 5 or even on a video call. Play it safe with quick switches that add color and texture to the basics. (Keep it professional, so no cleavage, cutouts, sheer fabrics or anything too casual.) The Mango Plus Straight Velvet Pants in Green ($60, mango.com/us) turn crisp blouses and black tops event-ready; so do the Jeffrey Campbell Velvet Heeled Loafers in Green ($175, anthropologie.com). For a last-minute add-on, keep a bright indoor scarf such as the Eileen Fisher Organic Cotton Scarf in Red ($118, bloomingdales.com) handy. It’s soft, flexible and wraps like a pro.

6. Cocktail parties

(Left to right) Me & Hz Colorful Layered Tassel Earrings in Red; Vince Camuto Metallic Knit Flutter Sleeve Top in Arresting Emerald; Yuutbiu Velvet Knot Wrist/Clutch in Green
(Left to right) Me & Hz Colorful Layered Tassel Earrings in Red; Vince Camuto Metallic Knit Flutter Sleeve Top in Arresting Emerald; Yuutbiu Velvet Knot Wrist/Clutch in Green
Amazon; Macy's; Amazon

Cocktail parties are always a great opportunity to catch up, renew acquaintances and make new friends, but hours of standing while juggling bag, food and drink between handshakes (or fist pumps), air kisses and hugs is a challenge. The best solution? Wear low heels or flats, an eye-catching color such as the Vince Camuto Metallic Knit Flutter Sleeve Top in Arresting Emerald ($40, macys.com) for an easy ID (“Angela’s the one in the green top”), carry a clutch with a wristband such as the Yuutbiu Velvet Knot Wrist/Clutch in Green ($16, amazon.com) and wear what I call “ice-breaker earrings” such as the Me & Hz Colorful Layered Tassel Earrings in Red or Green ($13, amazon.com) to start a conversation.

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7. Family time sitting around the fire or firepit

(Left to right) Old Navy Oversized Boyfriend Garment-Dyed Tunic Sweatshirt for Women in Robbie Red; Ugg Ultra Mini Classic Boot; Dokotoo Women’s Loose Oversized Casual Turtleneck Sweater in A Green
(Left to right) Old Navy Oversized Boyfriend Garment-Dyed Tunic Sweatshirt for Women in Robbie Red; Ugg Ultra Mini Classic Boot; Dokotoo Women’s Loose Oversized Casual Turtleneck Sweater in A Green
Old Navy; Nordstrom; Amazon

Whether tree trimming, opening presents or having a marathon night of movies and board games, you should make the effort to dress in something casual but fun. After all, you’ll be starring in plenty of selfies and photos that’ll end up on Facebook and Instagram or framed on someone’s side table forever. The simplest solution is the Dokotoo Women’s Loose Oversized Casual Turtleneck Sweater in A Green ($39, amazon.com) or the Old Navy Oversized Boyfriend Garment-Dyed Tunic Sweatshirt for Women in Robbie Red ($40, oldnavy.gap.com). Just add black leggings or joggers and shearling booties such as the Ugg Ultra Mini Classic Boot ($140, nordstrom.com).

8. A glam night on the town

(Left to right) Eloquii Mixed Sequin Column Midi Skirt in Silver/Gunmetal/Black; Lane Bryant Sequin Duster with Belt in Black; Aqua Sequined Blazer in Champagne; Mare Mare Plus Sequin Duster in Taupe
(Left to right) Eloquii Mixed Sequin Column Midi Skirt in Silver/Gunmetal/Black; Lane Bryant Sequin Duster with Belt in Black; Aqua Sequined Blazer in Champagne; Mare Mare Plus Sequin Duster in Taupe
Eloquii; Lane Bryant; Bloomingdale's; Anthropologie

New Year’s Eve isn’t the only fancy night of the season. Some people take advantage of the November-to-January period (and out-of-town family visitors) to book weddings and other big bashes. For a luminous look that can’t be beat, opt for sequins. The Eloquii Mixed Sequin Column Midi Skirt in Silver/Gunmetal/Black ($100, eloquii.com) elevates every black top you own, while the Lane Bryant Sequin Duster with Belt in Black ($130, lanebryant.com) does the same for black pants. Keep the look tonal for the most radiant effect — lighter sequins such as the Aqua Sequined Blazer in Champagne ($128, bloomingdales.com) or Mare Mare Plus Sequin Duster in Taupe ($148, anthropologie.com) with winter white, camel beige and brown. Cool silver and black sequins with black. You’ll shine.

9. A community event

(Left to right) Allegra K Women’s Velvet Pants Tie Waist in Black; Chico’s Colorblock Pullover Sweater in Black; Ann Taylor Sequin Shawl Collar Sweater in Silver Sparkle; Maeve Plus The Colette Faux Leather Pants in Black
(Left to right) Allegra K Women’s Velvet Pants Tie Waist in Black; Chico’s Colorblock Pullover Sweater in Black; Ann Taylor Sequin Shawl Collar Sweater in Silver Sparkle; Maeve Plus The Colette Faux Leather Pants in Black
Amazon; Chico's; Ann Taylor; Anthropologie

Let’s say you’re going to a traditional Christmas concert, hearing a tribute band do “oldies,” heading out to a neighborhood cookie bake-off contest or taking the grandkids to see The Nutcracker. The key is to look special but stay warm and comfy. Maeve Plus’ The Colette Faux Leather Pants in Black ($148, anthropologie.com) or pull-ons such as the Allegra K Women’s Velvet Pants Tie Waist in Black ($38, amazon.com) make the perfect base for relaxed tunics such as Chico’s Colorblock Pullover Sweater in Black ($99, chicos.com) or shimmery sweaters such as the Ann Taylor Sequin Shawl Collar Sweater in Silver Sparkle ($109, anntaylor.com). All you need to do is switch tops depending on the time and venue.

10. For outdoors celebrations

(Left to right) Talbot’s Tie-Waist Faux Fur Vest in Black; Athleta Cozy Sherpa Coat in Magnolia White; Wander Agio Women’s Blanket Scarf in Beige Gray 21
(Left to right) Talbot’s Tie-Waist Faux Fur Vest in Black; Athleta Cozy Sherpa Coat in Magnolia White; Wander Agio Women’s Blanket Scarf in Beige Gray 21
Talbots; Athleta; Amazon

Going caroling, ice skating with friends or to an outdoor holiday market? Checking out the dazzling light displays or having a family photo shoot in the snow? This is the time to layer first, then add a cozy jacket and polished accessories such as the Furtalk Women’s Knitted Bean with Faux Fur Pom Pom in 07 White or 02 Black ($11, amazon.com, not pictured) and Wander Agio Women’s Blanket Scarf in Beige Gray 21 ($11, amazon.com). Possible toppers include the Athleta Cozy Sherpa Coat in Magnolia White ($199, athleta.gap.com) and the Talbot’s Tie-Waist Faux Fur Vest in Black ($159, talbots.com). You’re ready for your closeup!