What to Wear to Center Gala? Let’s Ask Oscar

Dear Oscar:

As this country’s preeminent designer of evening gowns, your advice is needed by the hundreds of women who plan to attend the Orange County Performing Arts Center’s 10th anniversary benefit gala.

What to wear? This Sept. 8 black-tie affair will have several phases, you see. There is an early evening champagne reception in the theater lobby followed by a classical concert in Segerstrom Hall. Afterward, guests will enjoy a formal dinner outdoors, where they will also have the opportunity to dance.

Women who dress for black-tie galas must first know the image they wish to project, New York designer Oscar de la Renta advised last week.


“Some women like to make an entrance and some want to be totally unnoticed,” he said during a visit to Neiman Marcus in Fashion Island Newport Beach. “Your clothes should always reflect who you are, what you want to say about yourself.”

Do consider long gowns, he suggested. “They have a sense of elegance, femininity. Short dresses, if one tries to make them dressy, often end up looking too elaborate.”

Dismiss pants. “I love them but I feel they are more for home entertaining.”

Don’t even think about billowy ball gowns for the 10th anniversary party. “A big skirt will make your [concert] neighbor extremely uncomfortable,” he warned.


Furs? Forget them. “They make sense only in climates where you need them.”

Instead, think sweaters or shawls for cover-ups. “What’s wonderful about today, is you can take a beautiful, $45,000 gown and drape a little cashmere cardigan over it. It is a youthful statement because you are wearing something elaborate, and yet, you cut it down by doing something casual with it.”

Shawls, such as those woven from the hair of wild, Himalayan goats, “are the very in thing today among women who have a great knowledge about things,” Oscar said. “They have no fringe and are extremely thin. To know if you have the real thing, the shawl should be able to go through a ring.”

Avoid dangling, fake ear-bobs. “The modern look is close to the ear and small,” he reminded.

Opt for pearls for the neck and ears. “They are mystical, magical, [and] come from something living.”

The ideal silhouette for the 10th anniversary gala is a long evening gown that is simple, elegant, wrinkle resistant, not so narrow that it rules out a samba, and comfortable, de la Renta said.

The designer’s late wife, Francoise--once an editor at French Vogue--was a woman of superb taste who preferred simple, long evening dresses for their formal nights on the town in New York and Europe.

“She hated calling attention to herself. She dressed simply because she wanted first to be discovered as an intelligent woman, then as someone who looked great,” he said.


When Oscar and his second wife, Annette, step out in society, you’ll likely find her making entrances alone.

“She never wants to walk with me into anyplace,” he said, smiling. “She likes to dress beautifully and simply and make her own entrance--especially if there are a lot of photographers.”


During a reception for 10th anniversary gala underwriters last week at the Four Seasons Hotel in Newport Beach, gala chairwoman Catherine Thyen said she had already chosen her frock, a black ball gown with a sequin bodice. “I think this is an occasion for a ball gown,” she said.

Anniversary committee member Dee Higby bought her gold and white floor-length silk gown two months ago and has already worn it, she said.

“But I wore it with a very different crowd. I’ll be confident wearing it again to a performing arts event.”

Fashion pacesetter Sheila Prell Sonenshine will wear either the gown she wore to the center’s opening gala 10 years ago or her 25th wedding anniversary gown, she said.

“I’m definitely not buying anything new. For me, the gown has to be special enough to match the specialness of the occasion. New doesn’t necessarily make something special.”


Ronnie Allumbaugh agreed. “I’ll wear a gown I’ve worn before. I like it a lot. And I think you should wear what you like.”

Guests at the underwriting party, hosted by J.P. Morgan bankers, included Carl St.Clair, music director of the Pacific Symphony Orchestra.

The orchestra will perform at the gala concert, which will star classical artists Emanuel Ax, Jennifer Larmore and Gino Quilico.

Besides selections from “Carmen,” and works by Chopin, Puccini, Rimsky-Korsakoff and Dvorak, the orchestra will play a piece commissioned expressly for the anniversary.

“We have located a hot, young composer, Robert Xavier Rodriguez, who didn’t want to do something too official sounding,” St.Clair told reception guests, who included Renee and Henry Segerstrom.

“So he took it and ran with it,” St.Clair said, “coming up with, ‘Hot Buttered Rumba.’ ”


Members of the performing arts crowd gathered at the North Tustin home of center President Mark Johnson and his wife, Barbara, last week for a performance by pianist Alain Lefevre and a sit-down dinner.

Nearly 200 guests enjoyed a cocktail reception followed by a concert in Johnson’s private amphitheater.

“This is not a Performing Arts Center event,” Johnson said, laughing. “We love you all and are glad you are here as our guests.”

After the concert, guests dined on poached salmon at tables shaped like mini-grand pianos.

Guests who left early missed a surprise visit by “Marilyn Monroe.” She sang “Happy Birthday” to Lefevre in the same style Monroe sang it to JFK.

“Suddenly, it was every guy’s birthday,” Barbara Johnson deadpanned a few days later.