Getting the outfit right for the film festival

Choosing the right outfit for an evening among the stars can be daunting, but imagination with a dash of common sense should see you through.

Guests arrive for the screening of Outrage presented in competition at the 63rd Cannes Film Festival.
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Who's the director? Who's the star? Who cares? When there's an invitation to an Abu Dhabi Film Festival gala screening sitting on your mantelpiece, there is surely only one question that really matters: what are you going to wear?

It's not as simple as just throwing on your favourite glittery frock or your nattiest tux. If you're going to be sharing a red carpet with the likes of Uma Thurman, Adrien Brody, Julianne Moore, Clive Owen and Freida Pinto, the stakes are pretty high. Go va-va-voom and you might look like you're trying too hard - and really, any attempt to compete with Pinto or Moore is only going to end in tears. But dress down and you could get mistaken for someone important's personal assistant. And then there's the you-don't-have-to-be-mad-to-be-a-celebrity-but-it-helps statement frock. If you're Grace Jones or Beth Ditto, go ahead: you can wear what you want. If, however, you live in the Mangroves and are slightly surprised even to have been invited, best not to go sporting an elaborate lace headpiece and a Lycra bodysuit.

The secret is knowing your film festivals. The high-glamour dress code at Cannes, for example, is a far cry from the cosy and comfy wrap-ups of Sundance or Telluride, where a preponderance of Moncler jackets proves that when in peril of frostbite even Hollywood actresses are willing to forgo their body-con cocktail frocks.

And Tribeca Doha is an entirely different proposition from Tribeca New York, the former being all about the Bollywood and Middle Eastern bling, the latter requiring more in the way of ultra-fashionable daywear - think Jessica Biel in a floral Thakoon number with a crop-sleeved blazer on top. For men, those not wearing national dress at Tribeca Doha are likely to be in sharply tailored designer suits in fine, glossy fabrics, whereas New York is a bit less formal: open-necked shirts under a blazer or day suits with retro ties, or even streetwear for the cool kids.

You can, then, take a cue from the country in which the festival is held. For the BFI London Film Festival, you're looking at typically quirky British style: weird shoes, edgy frocks and heavy fringes for the girls, super-slim-fit Savile Row suits in unconventional fabrics with slender ties for the guys. Venice means classically glamorous, sultry eveningwear, as befits an Italian festival. Cannes takes the Palme d'Or for highest-octane dressing: it's the one everyone watches, and the stars dress accordingly, with the help of designers who'll go to any lengths to get their frothy tulle confections seen on the famous steps of the Palais des Festivals.

So where does Abu Dhabi's film festival fit in? Well, obviously there's already been a certain amount of Middle Eastern glitz: it's a truism that you can't overdress in the UAE. And while last year saw Diane Kruger turn up in a not-too-hot, knee-length cocktail dress, and Demi Moore wearing a beautiful black lace number, the show-stealer was Eva Mendes in a fabulous long white J Mendel gown pepped up with Cartier jewels. No ruffles, crinolines or flowing chiffon trains here; it was the perfect combination of simplicity and glamour.

At the opening night on Thursday, it was the men who stole the show, with Clive Owen's immaculately tailored tux jacket, narrow on the shoulders and tight in the waist, worn the hip way: with a thin black tie. Adrien Brody, too, went for a slender fit and added a raffish grey trilby, and the requisite Toby thobe was worn by the Showtime host Wonho Chung.

Simplicity is, in fact, the answer for both men and women. A flattering, well-fitting silhouette, high quality fabrics and a colour that suits achieve so much more than a gimmicky high-fashion shape or a million Swarovski crystals.

And the more complicated your outfit the more likely you are to suffer a "wardrobe malfunction". Remember that before they step out in front of the public and the paps, celebrities are subject to layers of Spanx, inches of make-up, toupée tape to hold errant necklines in place and a phalanx of stylists making sure everything is safe and secure. And still diamond earrings fall out (Kate Beckinsale), US$100,000 (Dh367,000) Lana Marks bags are lost and found (Charlize Theron) and strapless dresses slither floorwards (Paris Hilton).

It's not only dresses that will be sliding off. With the temperature well over 30°C and the humidity still high, mascara, eyeliner and foundation are all at risk, and once you start to perspire (which you will), merely brushing your hand across your face can be a disaster if you're wearing strong colours.

Just before the opening night gala on Thursday, L'Oréal Paris's lead make-up artist Sarah Baldy and her team were preparing to do battle with the elements in the VIP make-up room in the Emirates Palace, as they created the red-carpet looks for the night. But no one seemed too worried - they have their techniques for dealing with hot, humid weather. "Always, make-up needs to be applied in a layered way," says Baldy. "You apply a little and make sure you blend it on to the skin. Then you add more and blend it on. As you're layering and blending, that keeps it directly to your skin. If you were just going to apply an eyeshadow and hope it would last the day, no: it's by adding a little bit, blend it, add a little bit, blend it. We also have products like the waterproof mascaras, and you can put powder over eye pencils to absorb oil and moisture."

As for the gala look, Baldy says there is a certain look that translates across the world's film festivals. "It's lots of sheen and shimmer, a very clean look, but very elegant. Everywhere in the world where you have the red carpet you always expect the elegant look: beautifully sculpted, sheer, the bone structure coming out, a hint of colour - like a tease. It's not stage make-up."

In other words, don't overdo it - especially if you're planning on getting your picture in the social pages. "When the camera flash goes off it picks the lightest part, the bit that's glittering, as white in the photograph, so you have to be careful not to overuse. But if you use it very sheer you get a beautiful glow as the cameras flash."

Wearing too-tight clothing, especially in block colours and in silk, is even riskier: sweat patches under the bust, on the stomach and down the back are not a good look, and the flash of a camera will just emphasise the colour contrast. Compound that with goose bumps from sitting in an icily air-conditioned screening room, and you can see why it's a balancing act almost as precarious as dancing on five-inch Louboutin heels at the after-party.

And so it is that we arrive at the perfect look for the Abu Dhabi Film Festival gala: a simple, long, draped dress preferably black, white or patterned (an Erdem maxidress, a classic Temperley or Toujouri's modern take on a jalabiya) or the calf-length Mad Men-inspired Louis Vuitton-style cocktail frocks in a stiff, textured fabric that stands away from the body. Add relaxed, natural hair and make-up that won't look too distressed in the heat (no helmet up-dos required), a pair of mid-height heels or not-too-steep platforms (very this-season, in any case) and a couple of pieces of statement jewellery (what a shame the Art Deco parures in the Christie's sale won't be available until after October 27). Mendes got it right first time around.