Mirror, Mirror: Cascade of color

Lauren O'Dorisio of Philadelphia in a shimmery gown designed by Nicole Miller.
Lauren O'Dorisio of Philadelphia in a shimmery gown designed by Nicole Miller.

Bright, bold new gowns returned to the Academy of Music Concert and Ball after two toned-down years. Among a rainbow of rich shades, the hottest hue was red.

Posted: February 02, 2011

Paul Simon may have been the marquee act of Saturday's Academy of Music Concert and Ball. But the brand-spanking-new designer gowns were the evening's twinkling stars.

For two years we've watched the highest of society's fashionistas shop their closets for the Academy Ball, saying the economy had forced even them to penny-pinch. But it seems they've had enough.

Instead of wearing recycled gowns in dark shades, ball-goers this year donned frocks that were bright and bold, some glamorous enough for a Hollywood red carpet.

The hottest hue was red, and women walked into pre-party receptions at Tiffany & Co. and the Academy Ballroom, removing furs and revealing one-shouldered and floral-appliqued Badgley Mischkas, Versaces, Valentinos, and Monique Lhuilliers in the fiery shade. Some of the crimson gowns, including that of public relations executive Nicole Cashman (courtesy of Elkins Park couturier Irina Segal), featured asymmetrical necklines similar to the Alexander McQueen dress Michelle Obama wore recently to a state dinner for China's president.

Philadelphia's elite aren't the only ones spending more on formal wear these days. In fact, says Pam Danziger, president of Unity Marketing in Lancaster, average spending on women's formal wear jumped 37 percent, from $800 in 2009 to $1,100 by December, according to a poll of 1,200 luxury consumers. Couture gowns, such as the many worn at the Academy Ball, range in price from $3,000 to $10,000.

"After a couple of years of doing without, people are starting to indulge selectively," said Danziger.

But, she said, that does not mean the days of conspicuous consumption are back for everyday Janes.

"There isn't any proof yet that the story is the same lower down on the food chain."

What is true is that color is everywhere. It certainly was on Saturday night: emerald green Teri Jons, black BCBGs, magenta Oscar de la Rentas, and several vibrant pink frocks. The Pantone Color Institute may call its color of the year honeysuckle, but to Leslie Miller, "It's watermelon!"

Miller, whose husband, Richard Worley, is the Philadelphia Orchestra's board chairman, twirled around and lifted one of the panels on her ankle-length dress to show off the bold orange lining.

"I like to call it my Carmen Miranda dress," she said, beaming.

This year's event attracted a lot of young - and new - ball-goers. Mollie Elkman Gerson, 28, who was married at the Academy in November, decided to make her first foray at the high-society affair this year. She bought a shimmery gunmetal Nicole Miller, and the mermaid silhouette fit her like a glove.

"We wanted to be a part of the sense of tradition and everything that goes with it," Gerson said.

Other young ball-goers spared no expense. Sisters Alison, 25, and Rebecca Simon, 21, strolled into Tiffany & Co., Alison wearing a gold-and-black dotted swiss gown by Phoebe Couture, Rebecca in a navy blue, one-shoulder Tadashi Shoji.

Impressive, I'd say.

Veteran ball-goers took their ensembles seriously as well.

Academy president and chief executive officer Joanna McNeil Lewis - never seen at a ball without her long, white gloves - headed the receiving line in a sapphire-blue one-shoulder J. Mendel gown (the same designer she wore last year), standing tall in navy patent Gucci shoes. Brand new? Definitely, she said.

"The economy seems to have somewhat stabilized, so people were willing to splurge a little for one night of fantasy land," Lewis later said, also noting how women were wearing more color. "We had magenta and orange flowers in the hotel rooms and everyone matched them."

Had there been a contest for best use of glitter, two women would have tied:

Kelly Boyd, a public relations exec and member of the Academy's program book committee, was rather princesslike in a strapless, tulle-infused ball gown by Carolina Herrera. Very fairy godmother.

Then there was Lauren O'Dorisio, fiance of Philadelphia Style publisher John Colabelli, who was sleek and sexy in a shimmery Nicole Miller. This gown celebrated d├ęcolletage.

The best red gown of the night was worn by 26-year-old Chelsea Irvin, on the Academy Ball's young friends committee. Her one-shouldered cherry-red gown with a rippling ruffle was simply spectacular.

These days, no red-carpet event is complete without at least one fashionable baby bump.

On Saturday that was Kim Raby, wife of Ray Raby, group director for Tiffany & Co.'s Philadelphia market, who looked particularly demure in her strapless black gown from White House/Black Market. The mall label always holds its own in the endless sea of Marchesas and McQueens, and it's much better than the white Azarro gown that pregnant Natalie Portman wore to Sunday's Screen Actors Guild Awards - stark white in the winter just seems out of place, but maybe that's just me.

Contact fashion writer Elizabeth Wellington at 215-854-2704 or ewellington@phillynews.com. Follow her on Twitter at ewellingtonphl.

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