Inaugural balls and parties: How to get in and what to wear

Two weeks from now, some 400,000 people will roll into Washington to join in the quadrennial celebration of democracy known as Inaugural Week.

But the central event, President Bush’s taking the oath of office for a second term Jan. 20, may take second billing to the nine fancy balls, live bands and late-night private parties with tequila-shot bars that will accompany it.

In many cases, the parties and private affairs will be more exclusive than the elegant balls, which call for tuxes and long, sequined, crushed-velvet or satin gowns. This year, they require a woman to bring out her very best non-black dress and accessories: minks, beaded purses, long earrings, diamonds and pearls. A man should rent a simple black tux or at least fit comfortably into the one he owns.

The hard part: scoring tickets and invitations to these coveted social functions.

For a select group of high-powered aides, that won’t be a problem, and they can drown in the heady sensation that they are as important as they think. Less-connected aides, however, should prepare to do some creative maneuvering or else have their egos bruised as they discover how few people they know and what little power they have.

A question to ask yourself, remarks Jeff Kimbell, a healthcare lobbyist who will host a late-night bash at the 9:30 Club during Inauguration Week: “Who do you work for, and do you have line authority on a budget?”

Speaking of the powerful, lawmakers receive an allotted number of complimentary ball tickets from the inaugural committee, so staffers may be able to wheedle invitations out of their bosses. Another way to purchase tickets: Call the committee’s ticketing hotline at (202) 314-2600 and be prepared to shell out $150 per ticket.

Kimbell, who runs Magnum Entertainment, stresses that getting into a late-night party like his is “somewhat dependent on what issues you handle on the Hill. There’s obviously going to be some parallel between the issues you handle and the companies they are helping.”

Rob Jennings, a Republican fundraiser who runs American Entertainment, agrees.
He and Brandon Winfrey, who heads Front Row Strategies, will throw five parties during Inauguration Week — all of which require major connections to get into.

“These parties are geared toward people from out of town,” says Jennings, advising staffers to look to state societies for party access. “If you’re a staffer, you want to find a party you have a connection to. There are corporate sponsors around, but you have to be careful because you have to act within the rules of the House and Senate.”

The five Jennings and Winfrey parties range from a Mississippi-delegation event at Dream nightclub with B.B. King to the Wyoming State Society party at Constitution Hall honoring Vice President Dick Cheney and wife Lynne. An afterparty at the Hard Rock Caf� will feature John Popper, lead singer of Blues Traveler.

Kimbell’s Magnum Entertainment party at the 9:30 Club will feature the bands Super Diamond and Boogie Nights. Tickets are not for sale, so begging may be necessary.

The corporate sponsors are not yet known. A hint: Magnum Entertainment threw two parties in Manhattan during the GOP convention. Some of the sponsors: Southern Co., the National Rifle Association, Novartis, The Federalist Group and Microsoft.

Kimbell and his associates John Green and Bob Tompkins will have some tickets at their disposal. Kimbell suspects he’ll have about 200, some of which will go to clients of his lobbying firm and members of the Capital Club, a bipartisan men’s social club he belongs to.

But the hottest ticket in town, according to one GOP staffer, is to the Texas State Society’s Black Tie and Boots Ball. The aide, who belongs to the society and calls the Jan. 19 ball a “twice-in-a-lifetime event,” paid the group $125 for his tickets. Only about 10,000 are available, with some available on eBay for as much as $1,000 each.

Kimbell says staffers who go to the Texas ball will want to come to his afterparty.

“The idea there was to focus on younger staff members who would like to roll out a little later than just the state inaugural balls,” Kimbell says. “We pride ourselves in the casual nature of our events. My guess is you’ll get a mix of jeans and monkey suits. We welcome all shapes and sizes, as long as they have a sense of humor and an interest in a few beverages.”

Kimbell has already been hounded by Republican friends around the country who he says are desperate to score tickets to the 9:30 Club’s Wednesday-night party. His standard response: “Let me talk to my people,” he says, laughing.

As Washington has always exuded elitism, where with whom you are downing bourbons or playing squash after work is as vital as passing a law, securing tickets and invitations for the upcoming inaugural parties requires a certain finesse.

But it’s not always so easy.

“These balls are rich in D.C. history and can be quite difficult at times to score tickets to,” says one GOP aide who has yet to find one. “For politics geeks, you can liken these balls to a major concert or championship game. Of course, what do I know? I’ve never been to one, which is probably why I’m particularly interested in going.”

Jennings’s advice to frustrated aides who can’t gain access: “If no one is going to invite you to their parties, create your own.”

Jennings says he won’t attend the balls if the price isn’t right: “If it’s something ridiculous, we’ll have cheese and crackers at the Jennings estate, which is a one-bedroom apartment on Capitol Hill.”

Be creative: Black is out, softer hues are in

After you have found a ticket to one of the many parties, what to wear is the next thing to worry about.

Fashion experts say this is the year for women to stand out. Males should ignore this advice and choose the plain black tuxedo, which will run anywhere from $495 to $1,800; a rental ranges from $65 (a cheap-feeling polyester blend) to $100 (a better, wool variation).

Will Mena, a personal shopper for Nordstrom, recommends the $645, 100-percent-wool black model. “We have a white dinner jacket, but I don’t recommend it for the inaugural ball,” he says. “Black is the safest way to go. Simplicity is elegant.”

Women, however, must dress by different rules. Liberty Jones, who owns Alex, an upscale D.C. vintage boutique, says the trick is to avoid black, accessorize and adorn yourself in fur. Her exquisite ball gowns range from $390 to more than $1,000. Her collection includes a 1940s gray flapper, a sheer pink Zak Posen gown and a long red-velvet Parisian dress by Mark Khodara.

“For something like this, you need to stand out,” she says. “You get points for being creative.”

But there are limits. Jones pulls out a $328 wild leopard-print dress that falls above the knee and suggests it’s not ball material. “Inaugural is a classy event,” she says. “It’s not something you necessarily want a fun party dress for.”

For last-minute shoppers ...

Many department stores have ball gowns in stock. For last-minute buyers, Neiman Marcus will have dresses on sale in various hotel lobbies all week long. Saks Fifth Avenue will stake out the local Ritz-Carlton hotels with dresses for sale Inauguration Day and evening. Saks’s designer gowns range from $2,000 to $5,000; its less expensive collection, which features color over the basic black cocktail dress, ranges from $300 to $800.

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