What makes a summer garden party? I have a theory that it is actually the people who make it. Inviting a lively, attractive crowd will do more for an event than all the chicken wings, Rioja and Space-age Bachelor Pad music in the world. For one thing, the soul of a good garden party or barbecue is the conversation between those attending. How sophisticated or enjoyable this conversation is will depend largely on what tone is set; too jocund, and the event can be abandoned as too raucous, and equally, too staid and dull and people will be thumbing the tops of their wine glasses, pondering the possible entertainment value of a nearby wake. This halfway point between ferocious fun and utter boredom is exactly the point to be remembered when choosing clothing for such an event.
In my rule book, a city garden party is likely to be a grander event. Anyone in the centre of a city like London or New York, in possession of a garden large enough to accommodate such a gathering is likely to be, or believe they are, quite important. In which case, a ‘café au lait’ two button linen suit would look very appropriate. Linen is a wonderful material for the summer in terms of its weight, but also in terms of its look. In addition to the suit, wear a soft white single cuff shirt, and a stiff white linen folded pocket square, and a pair of Tod’s driving shoes in a dark tan or a chocolate brown for that ideal ‘Portofino gent’ look. The look is playful, and yet without a Hawaiian shirt or flip-flops in sight, is unlikely to attract consternation for fears of inappropriate revelry.
For those attending a more modest country house event, a less formal approach is needed. However, trainers and flip-flops are definitely not to be worn. Branded sportswear, unless subtly done, is also distasteful. When someone is receiving you into their home and garden, one should not appear as if fresh from the gym, training field or the beach.
If it is simply too hot for trousers, wear a modest pair of shorts and take a pair of trousers with you for when it gets cooler. Coloured shirts are a gentler way of expressing personality. Pinks, light greens and blues show up a tan very well and look cool and Mediterranean without hinting at eurotrash. Rolling up the sleeves when it is really warm is perfectly acceptable which makes the long sleeved shirt more versatile than a polo shirt. Flat fronted chinos are great for such events. Wearing darker colours will flatter the brighter shirt colours more and will make you look slimmer. Wearing white trousers is acceptable, but be warned how quickly they can look dirty from sauce, grass and even mere finger-grease. Another tip is to wear your trousers on your waist, not on your hips. This is a sleeker look, and as the legs of the trousers will be worn higher, more naked ankle is visible, which in summer looks chic and sexy. If your trousers are a little long for this, roll them up a bit. Uncovered ankle looks youthful.
Shoe choice is important too. If the ground is still damp from recent rain, wear dark driving shoes or penny loafers. Light tan shoes or white espadrilles look dashing, but the damp grass and soil will ruin them in a matter of minutes.
For that finishing touch, and to guard against the cold when the sun goes down, take a cardigan or a light seersucker jacket with you. Again, the risk is appearing a little stiff for such a friendly, informal event – wearing a striped seersucker jacket avoids this awkward state as the washed-look material is unassuming. Similarly, a cardigan provides a youthful but not juvenile finish to the outfit. For those with a little dandy in them, wearing a neckerchief in a contrasting or matching colour to one’s shirt or cardigan can set one apart from the crowd and add a little period glamour to the event.
And finally, try to avoid wearing sunglasses. They create a barrier between you and others, even if this is unintentional. If you really want protection from the sun and do not wish to appear in photographs squinting, wear a hat. Panama hats are still the best addition to summer outfits, and are obviously much more refined than baseball caps.