Do you go for a floor-length evening gown or a cocktail number? Splurge on a designer dress? Stick with classic black or opt for bold red instead?
Image consultant Eve Roth Lindsay, of Savvy Style, says you should do your homework before you hit the stores. "Plan ahead by doing research in magazines or on the internet," she says. "Collect pictures of the styles you like most and do your editing before you go to the stores." Lindsay suggests bringing along your shoes, jewellery and handbag so you can see your entire look before buying.
Finding the right frock isn't simply a matter of following trends. Lane Crawford fashion director Sarah Rutson Pang says the key is knowing how to combine the trends of the moment with your own touch. If you have one or two big events to attend, she suggests splurging on a designer piece. Check out labels such as Miu Miu, Yves Saint Laurent and Anna Sui, which all offer opulent gilded dresses reminiscent of imperial Russia and the Baroque era - perfect drama at any party.
"Dresses from Hervé Léger's 1980s collection of bandage mini-dresses as well as prom-styled dress from the 1950s and the 1980s are flying off the racks," says vintage fashion collector and boutique owner Cameron Silver. If you're going short, he suggests looking to the 1950s and 80s for inspiration.
If you want something full-length, there's plenty to choose from. The catwalks have been awash with dramatic gowns with a body-conscious silhouette reminiscent of the work of Azzedine Alaia, with Dolce & Gabbana fielding bejewelled gowns with higher defined waistlines, and Gucci and Versace going for high glamour with slinky satin, lamb and silk jersey dresses in colours such as gold, magenta and teal with low cowl necklines or high slits.
When it comes to colours, Lindsay says red, jewel tones and metallics are timeless and will get you noticed. But although teal, burgundy and purple have been popular on the catwalks, blacks, greys and blues still rule. If you opt for a dress in a more sombre colour, the trick is to choose a style with plenty of details. Black is anything but boring when contrasting textures and fabrics are used.
"I'm rediscovering black," says socialite Wendy Puyat Hotung. She advises choosing styles with "little tricks, like the way the fabric is tucked, draped or sewn together".
Kerry Lui, a stylist at Lane Crawford, says labels such as "Givenchy and YSL are good at creating pieces in black that are edgy in cut and choice of fabric".
In terms of shape, Chloe, Balenciaga and Lanvin have focused on cocoon-shaped or trapeze cocktail dresses that are forgiving of most physiques. If you go for volume, make sure you choose a style that's either very short or long. "If you're small, find cocoon dresses with a higher waistline and a fitted bodice, and avoid dresses overloaded with trimmings," says stylist Denise Ho.
Empire waists are a good option for pear-shaped girls because they define curves while hiding lumps and bumps. If you're conscious of your upper body, long-sleeved gowns are elegant. Shrugs, fur stoles and cashmere cardigans look classy and can hide a multitude of sins. An hourglass, curvy shape looks best in softer fabrics, while a slightly A-line shape will flatter wider hips. Shift styles look good on most figures, with a long, lean line to make you look taller and thinner.
Also bear in mind that black-tie events are no longer as formal as they once were. Cocktail dresses, mini-dresses and decadent shirt-dresses are challenging the classic gown. Dress down a glitzy cocktail dress with a pair of opaque tights or a casual cashmere cardigan. Or take cues from Chanel and throw a fitted tuxedo jacket over a flowing black satin gown. Embellishments should be simple or reserved for accessories.
The right bag and shoes will make the look completely yours. With shimmery fabrics, avoid too much bling. Floor-length dresses should have bare necklines. And keep bag and shoes simple - ideally, monochromatic.
"Parties are for eating so when you try your dress on, sit in it," says Lindsay. "The puff dresses that are trendy now can look great standing, but if it's too puffy you might feel uncomfortable sitting in it. A very tight dress may ride up and you'll spend the evening pulling it down. Necklines should fit without gaping. You want to be able to eat, drink and dance without having to worry about your dress."
Department stores such as Lane Crawford (IFC Mall, Central, tel: 2118 3388), Joyce (Queen's Road Central, tel: 2810 1120) and Harvey Nichols (the Landmark, tel: 3695 3388) carry a host of designer brands such as Chloe, Vera Wang and local designer Barney Cheng. For something edgier, try the designers at D-Mop (11 On Lan Street, Central, tel: 2840 0822) such as Emma Cook, Preen and Matthew Williamson. Standouts include an Emma Cook black satin empire waist dress with mirror work at the waist (HK$9,690) and a silver heavy silk trench-dress with a detailed collar by Mihara Yasuhiro (HK$6,950). At Sonjia (Sun Street, Wan Chai, tel: 2529 6223) you'll find one-of-a-kind gowns, including a reworked vintage kimono dress with leather ties (HK$17,160) and a fishtail gown in pink leather (HK$9,360).
For those on a budget, Zara (shop 121, Pacific Place, Admiralty, tel: 2918 1099) and Mango (Pacific Place, Admiralty, tel: 2341 0884) offer evening dresses for under HK$1,000. With its own interpretation of the season's biggest trends, Zara has a beautiful retro gold and black brocade dress for HK$579. Club Monaco (IFC Mall, Central, tel: 3586 3045/6) has a black sequinned sleeveless mini-dress with a sexy low scoop back (HK$2,190) and simple spaghetti-strap dress with tiers of black silk chiffon (HK$1,390). BCBG (shop B49, the Landmark, Central, tel: 2868 9873) has 1980s prom-style dresses, including a taffeta knee-length puff number with a wide sash (HK$3,990).
Sparkles (6/F Pedder Building, Central, tel: 2524 2992) has a full-length gown with diamantes and a plunging neckline from J.S. Collection (HK$5,650). Evelyn B. (8/F Grand Progress Building, 15-16 Lan Kwai Fong, tel: 2523 4396) offers sizes from US 0 to 16. Standouts include a long spaghetti-strap sheath from Tadashi in beige with a black lace overlay (HK$4,999). Diane Von Furstenberg (Level 3, the Landmark, tel: 2522 8782) has a full-length retro halter gown in cream with a black floral print in its trademark soft jersey (HK$5,600).
Custom-made gowns are also an option. Central Weddings (shop B31A, the Landmark, Central, tel: 2869 8666) - which has its own line, Couture Intl - can recreate styles from high-end designers. Margaret Court (Flat G, 8/F, block A, Winner Building, 27 D'Aguilar Street, Central, tel: 2525 5596) can have a dress completed in two to three weeks. Siriporn (B1 & 1/F, Merlin Building, 30-34 Cochrane Street Central, tel: 2866 6668) specialises in fabrics such as Thai silk.
Accessory to Couture
Jewellery Go for geometric shapes and objects made from unusual materials such as acrylic and hammered gold. Match monochromatic dresses with one or two bold pieces of statement jewellery. If your dress is embellished, wear no more than stud earrings, fine bracelets or rings. Metals must match, and less is definitely more.
Evening bags Look for soft metallic leather bags in exotic skins, such as python and alligator, or sturdy minaudiere clutches. The size of your bag shouldn't overpower your dress, and remember to match the colour of the metal trim to your jewellery. Add punch to a dark outfit with a bold red clutch.
Shoes It's all about the pump. Labels such as Christian Louboutin, YSL and Bruno Frisoni offer dramatic pumps that are more appropriate for evening. Choose a colour close to your dress to create a leaner look. Platform pumps are a good option for added height. Patent leather adds a touch of glitz.
Gloves Designers such as Chanel and Alexander McQueen featured fitted leather driving gloves in their collections to add a rock'n'roll edge. Elbow-length gloves can add glamour but the material must be stiff and tight enough to stop from rolling down. Only wear long gloves if you have toned arms.
Belts Forgo jewellery and accessorise your dress with a statement belt. Choose a bold woven belt or a leather one with a bejewelled clasp. Designers such as Miu Miu contrast their brocade dresses with slim belts of brightly coloured patent leather. Don't wear a belt with dresses that have an empire waistline or built-in waistbands.