Beauty Q&A: Mystifying Dress Codes & The Great Bra Hunt

1. I have been invited to a charity party that I will be attending with coworkers, my boss, my boss’s boss, and my boss’s boss’s boss. It’s at a fancy restaurant with cocktails, a great DJ, the whole nine yards. BUT! The invitation says “Cocktail Chic” attire. What does this mean? I do own a couple of cocktail dresses, but now I worry that they are too short/not “chic”/hideous. Are there basic rules for length/color/cut that I just completely missed in the Working Girls’ Guide to Doing Things? How can I select a cocktail dress that is appropriate for the many levels of bosses to see, but that I still look fantastic and polished in? I work in cosmetics, meaning this event will be all women so it is less about looking hot for an office cutie and more about looking fantastic in front of my fabulous couture-wearing coworkers. Is it possible to do this on a budget (less than $75) or should I just cut some holes in a garbage bag and bring back the Derelicte look?

First of all, whoever came up with “cocktail chic” watched too much Sex and the City (as if there’s such a thing as “too much,” RIGHT, LADIES?). They’re not only requesting a level of formality, which could be described simply as “cocktail attire,” but also a level of style not everyone possesses or is interested in, and quite frankly I find it rude. Maybe you’re not a fashionista! That should be fine and they shouldn’t put a word on their invite that makes you feel excluded, or wrong for not caring what’s on the runway right now. Not that you don’t, for all I know you’re the most fashionable one in the office. Ugh, I kind of hate them. Sorry, that’s too strong. I’m sure they’re lovely. [Shut up, Jane!] Anyway, you’re on the right track with a cocktail dress that isn’t too sexy or short-short. Here’s where it pays to have a perfect little black dress in your closet — almost knee length, 3/4 length sleeves, not too much cleave — and some fun accessories to distract from how boring your outfit is to them. Go find one at Banana or something? Red is also hot right now. And then pick up a cheapo necklace at Forever 21 and enjoy those cocktails. Orrr…

Put a spell on them by wearing something unexpected! “Cocktail chic” should green light any of the following: a jumpsuit, palazzo pants, a wacky muu muu like you’re an art gallery owner, this outfit Leatitia Casta wore in Arbitrage that is TO DIE FOR (it’s a tank with this skirt and a belt — don’t forget the pair of matching gold cuffs), a whole mess of lace, vintage anything, something borrowed from mom. In other words, sure, Derelicte works. Go nuts. Mostly, just have fun and know that probably no one is even looking at you because they’re all more concerned with their own chicness.

2. I have medium brown hair that I REALLY want to change to an ashy blonde, but I don’t know anything about dyeing or bleaching or how to go about finding a good colorist. I usually go for the $15 cuts at the Aveda training salon, but I’m not sure that I trust students to attempt something this… risky.

So, my questions fall along two lines:

Is this a terrible idea, and is brown-to-blonde just too complicated? (For the record, I don’t really want to do highlights. I feel like if I’m going to do this I want to go for a big, dramatic change.) And how do I find a good salon and colorist? I’ve asked friends and women in my office but still don’t have any good leads. I’m in Chicago (Wicker Park), in case you have any personal recommendations! Once I find a colorist, what should I be doing or saying to make sure I am doing a good job of communicating what I’m looking for with my new color?

Brown-to-blonde, or any-color-to-blonde, is the service keeping 99% of hair salons in business, so you shouldn’t have a problem finding someone skilled to do this. A few things to note: though you say you don’t want highlights, the process may look and feel the same, so don’t be startled when they start talking about foils or bleach. You’ll end up unnaturally blonde if they just smear a bunch of monochromotic dye all over your head, and I doubt a skilled colorist will suggest that. Instead, they’ll probably do something like this:

Since you’re in a big city, check out Allure magazine’s lists of the Best Colorists or Best Salons in major U.S. cities. If you’re not in a metro area and/or don’t have a lot of cash to blow, I don’t see why this isn’t something you could ask either of Yelp (type in “colorist” and your zip code) or the trusty students at the training salon. The cool thing about trainees is that they are being judged by not only you, but by their teachers. Sometimes these are the most careful, thoughtful hairdressers. Just be sure to “SCREAM AT THE TOP OF YOUR LUNGS IF THINGS BEGIN TO GO AWRY!!!” That’s always a possibility when trying to save money with beauty stuff. Don’t be ashamed to walk out halfway into an appointment if something doesn’t feel quite right. You tried! You tried to get a deal and now you’re gonna have to pay the big bucks to fix it. Life.

3. My skin has gotten drier over the years, but I’m still very acne-prone and use Retin-A Micro. My face is generally fine unless I’m breaking out, and then it’s all red zits and flakes. How the hell do you go about covering up acne effectively when your skin is flaky and no amount of exfoliation or moisturization gets rid of it? I’ll use my knockoff Clarisonic followed by coconut oil followed by a layer or two of a daily moisturizer and I still look like hell.

The horror! What are you doing!? You cannot, I repeat, YOU CANNOT use Retin-A and exfoliate manually like crazy with something like a Clarisonic. (You, specifically cannot. I’m sure there’s someone out there who does without any ill effects. “Congratulations, how wonderful!,” we say to them.) First of all, those knockoff Clarisonics are, for the most part, pieces of shit that ruin or do nothing at all for your skin. They are brushes that go around in a circle. You might as well use your toothbrush — BUT DON’T! Your skin needs a break and time to heal itself. Retin-A is drying, as are the topical zit medicines you didn’t mention but are most likely using, and when you try to deal with their effects by removing the skin that’s trying to heal itself, your face freaks out in more ways than one.

So, when you’re experiencing troubling dryness, please stop with the face brush, cut your Retin-A down to every-other-day or every-third-day, and get some heavy-duty night cream. For some reason, we acne prone folks were told as youngsters that moisturizers and creams add to our zit problems, but this isn’t necessarily true. If I were you, I’d stop putting straight-up oil on my face and look for a nice soothing, sensitive night cream like this one. You should also grab a highly moisturizing daily tinted moisturizer with SPF like this one. Even incidental sun exposure can wreak havoc on Retin A-treated skin. Treat your face like the delicate flower it is for a little while and see if you can get it to calm down. That means no astringents, no harsh face wash (try this one), pat it dry gently, only spot-treat a zit if you must with something like this, wash your pillowcases every few nights, and no more scrubbing the hell out of your skin.

And step away from the mirror. I want you to deal with breakouts not by obsessing over them and piling on products and hurting yoursellf, but by going back to the doctor who gave you the Retin-A and explaining this problem. They’ll likely recommend pills that you can swap out for the Retin-A when you begin to breakout. It’s what I do and it works.

One last directive: drink a ton more water. And then write me back and we’ll actually talk about how to wear foundation and concealer, if you even still need it.

4. I have pretty large boobs. I’m a size 36 F. I recently attended a bra party (like Mary Kay, but less makeup and more flashing) and was measured. I tried on a bunch of bras and found “The One.” I spent close to $80 on The One and I’m trying to find some more moderately priced alternatives so The One doesn’t become The Only One. Also, while it feels amazing, this company makes fairly simple, smooth cup, plain bras. They’re kind of boring. I want prettier bras, you know? Not under everything, but now and then.

I’ve been rotating in my older bras, but they really don’t compare. I look and feel so much better when I’m wearing the right size.

After I throw a few brands at you, we’re gonna crowdsource this in the comments and before you know it, you will have an entire drawer full of 36F beauties to choose from each morning. I can personally vouch for two brands that make pretty bras in larger cup sizes: Parfait by Affinitas — they’ll run you about $30–60 a pop — and Freya, which are in the $50-$80 range, but frequently go on sale if you scour the web.

I know you want $15 bras like you used to buy at Target, but you have million dollars boobs now. It’s time to rethink that aim: if you take care of these higher quality bras and get enough of them that you’re not forced to wear the same one for two weeks straight — which kills the bra — these will last you for years. Years! Give your bras at least a few days to rest between sweaty, heavy load-bearing, and wash them by hand — NEVER IN THE WASHING MACHINE — every month or so. A year of doing that and seeing that you still have all your pretty bras might allow you to feel more comfortable splurging on The Other One. And The Other One.

Previously: Hair Products 101.

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