Kate Betts, the former editor-in-chief of Harper’s Bazaar, is the author of one of our favorite recent reads, My Paris Dream, a memoir about her young twenties in Paris. A fashion industry vet, she’s also one of the chicest women we know. In this most festive of seasons, we asked her to share a thought about party dresses. She came back with a perfectly elegant cautionary tale with a fun surprise ending.
The invitation landed on my desk at Vogue a few days before the party, a benefit for Breast Cancer Awareness in Washington, D.C. Princess Diana was the guest of honor, Ralph Lauren was hosting, and many fashion world luminaries would attend. It was a thrill to be invited, but what to wear? Black tie occasions weren’t routine and when they came around, most of my colleagues borrowed dresses from the fashion closet or called in favors from people at fashion houses.
A stylist friend urged me to call Ed, a mutual acquaintance who worked at a PR agency representing several European designers. I remembered seeing a Versace dress on the runway—a long black column with zigzag stripes of red and turquoise around the bust. It would be perfect: glamorous yet modern.
“As long as I get it back on Monday,” Ed said.
“Yeah,” I laughed, “like Cinderella at the ball.”
Filled with brio at the vision of my perfect dress, I made an appointment at a Georgetown hairdresser, bought a train ticket, and contemplated which accessories to wear. As backup, I grabbed a short black velvet cocktail dress hanging in my closet—nothing spectacular, a little too plain for a special occasion.
The phone was ringing before I could even open the door to my hotel room.
“Kate, it’s Ed.” He sounded frazzled. “Remember that Versace dress? We have a problem.”
I took a deep breath and put down my suitcase.
“The Princess might wear the same dress. Protocol, you know. I’m sorry.” He hung up.
Protocol. Yes, of course. The statuesque Princess would glide effortlessly into the party, head held high, her tiara twinkling in the glare of flashbulbs. This would be her first foray into the public eye since the announcement of her divorce from Prince Charles. She could work that dress like a supermodel.
I felt stupid for even borrowing the dress. And now it was too late to find an alternative. Deflated, I canceled my hair appointment. The black velvet cocktail dress would be fine, but it was no Versace.
Inside the tent hundreds of votive candles cast a soft, ethereal light. A plush red carpet beckoned guests up shallow steps to the entrance. We milled around the crowd, craning our necks at each camera flash—Calvin Klein, Colin Powell, Kay Graham, and Naomi Campbell. Then suddenly flashbulbs erupted like a burst of fireworks, and as I stretched up onto my tiptoes, I glimpsed the Princess ducking gracefully out of her limo, smiling radiantly and shyly bowing her head. Suddenly it didn’t matter who else was at the party. There was only one guest, one dress. And as she moved regally up the steps, the Princess’s long lace dress glowed like a crystal-encrusted beacon.
She was a vision in white, not black.
A whisper zipped through the crowd: she had chosen a gown by her good friend and fellow Brit, Catherine Walker.
Oh, that elusive Versace dress, still hanging in some forgotten fashion closet, never to be worn again—at least not by this Princess.
Lesson learned: always pack the dress you love.
Looking for the perfect party dress? Check out our party store here. For more Kate, find her at katebetts.com. Kate wears our Black Label Printed Faux-Suede Skirt, and our Jessi Statement Necklace. Makeup: Colleen McCorry for Trish McEvoy.