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Upscale/Downscale and More: The Modern Party is an Exercise in Contrasts
We’ve all been to the Ugly Sweater Party (though I never participate because my sweaters, of course, represent the very apex of style) and the Silly Wig Party (which I adore because my wigs represent the very nadir of elegance). It seems like every year welcomes a new type of minimalist costume party. Yet an ugly sweater party or a wig party is not just a costume party, but rather a combination of ideas. It’s the notion that responsible adults can do the usual things adults do at parties—socialize, entertain, schmooze with higher-ups, and so on—without dressing like adults. It seems at times like we have rejected the idea of the elegant, adults-only gathering in favor of something else; that is, contrast.
The days of elegant cocktail parties and white linen events are not over, of course. Modern party-planning allows for any and all tastes. The difference is that the Contrast Party (for lack of a better term) lets us combine those tastes into something much more distinctive and, in the end, more fun. While you probably have your own ideas of what to contrast, I hope the following suggestions will inspire you to be creative and have fun the next time you are called upon to host an event.
A friend of mine works as a lunch chef in a classy white linen establishment. Rather than take the evening off, though, he started a fairly unique business. His clients hire him to cook dinner for them and their families, using only the food in their kitchens and whatever supplies he can fit in a small cooler. Because he never knows what his clients will have stashed away in their pantries, he can never plan meals ahead of time. Will they have linen tablecloths and truffle oil . . . or bulk paper towels and expired ketchup? There is no way of knowing, so my friend has to think on his feet and be creative. Whether he ends up creating an Asian salad with crunchy Ramen noodles and canned fruit cocktail or a Doritos-encrusted baked chicken, he manages to impress every time.
When he first told me about his side business, two things came to mind. First, he really needs to go on Chopped, because he would blow the judges away. Second, what we consider upscale or downscale is really just a matter of how we have been socialized. If New York restaurants can infuse a hamburger with foie gras and my friend can somehow turn frozen pizza into mouthwatering bruschetta, surely a party host can display PB&J sandwiches on a gorgeous Chicago tablecloth rental without offending guests’ sensibilities.
To date, I’ve done two Upscale/Downscale parties—one for a loved one’s birthday and another, smaller event as an excuse to get together with friends. I’m sure there are others who have different methods of putting one of these events together, but I enjoy combining upscale table linen with downscale food—or vice versa. The reasons for this are fairly obvious. For one thing, renting linen and other décor is a lot cheaper than preparing high-end food for twenty or more guests. For another, you’ll hate yourself a little—or a lot—if you try to serve beluga caviar on a paper plate decorated with cartoon characters. It’s easy to make cheap food look comically expensive, but lobster bisque will never look like something you’d serve during a casual get-together.
I do recommend that you rent tablecloths, and furniture if necessary. You probably don’t have high-end table décor at your disposal and renting is much more practical, particularly for larger events. I have a friend who arranged an Upscale/Downscale party as a high school reunion event, so she decided to go for red and gold tablecloths—her school colors. She also served downscale, era-appropriate kids food, including cereal treats and gourmet sliders—not strictly downscale, but more delicious for it.
To make your cheap food look like haute cuisine served in a white tablecloth restaurant, my tip is to keep portions bite-sized. This will allow you to go crazy with the toothpicks—and even Cheetos look sort of upscale when skewered with toothpicks. I’d recommend putting some sort of ornamentation on the toothpicks as well, or serving more than one item on each toothpick. Consider adding a green olive to a bite-sized portion of lasagna. Grapes have the same effect when added to cheap desserts like pre-packaged cake.
Anything with layers is a good idea—the aforementioned lasagna, Pop-Tart napoleons, and sandwich cookies. You can also do the “deconstructed” route—instead of hot dogs, for example, serve mini-sausages skewered with a gherkin, a small slice of French bread, a dollop of mustard, and a sweet onion. None of those ingredients are expensive, but they carry with them a weird sense of class that perfectly fits the tone of an Upscale/Downscale party.
Everyone loves ‘80s night, but the Retro/Modern party takes this concept a step further. Instead of just celebrating the silly trends and music that made a certain era so distinctive, the Retro/Modern party recognizes the era with a sense of self-awareness. I don’t mean hipster self-awareness, which is often a bit mean-spirited, but the self-awareness that comes when we recognize the impact a certain era had on our culture. As an example, there is no way that tights and leggings would be as popular as they are now had they not risen to popularity in the ‘80s and ‘90s. By acknowledging the presence of retro choices, we are free to indulge in era-appropriate trends that are anything but anachronistic.
In this sense, the Retro/Modern party is a bit more elegant than its flatly Retro counterparts. Instead of paying homage to 1990 California with a linen rental in aggressively fluorescent colors, for example, you can select that trend’s most obvious modern incarnation of bright color blocking. Instead of wearing acid-washed jeans, you can go with a bleach-splotched modern alternative to add some texture to your clothing.
So pick an era. There are a lot of eras in revival right now, with the ‘20s, ‘60s, and ‘80s being the most prominent, so you can select art deco-inspired table linen and serve your drinks in modern bootleg flasks, look to Mad Men inspired décor, or explore the modern, sheer varieties of black lace tablecloths and attire.
Music is an essential part of any Retro party. You can certainly go with artists from the era you are looking to for inspiration, but another option is to choose a covers-only playlist. There are also a number of modern bands that obviously draw inspiration from previous eras.
The most recent generation of adults has been accused, for the most part unfairly, of suffering from “adultescence.” This is in part due to economic woes and in part due to the seeming cognitive dissonance of person’s ability to maintain employment while occasionally visiting the land of Hyrule for a bit of escapism. Whatever your feelings on the latest generation to come of age, however, you can at least appreciate the potential such a “condition” has for party planning.
Of course, your guests need not express a fondness for cell animation to enjoy a Childhood/Adulthood party. Most of us will gladly watch an episode of Invader Zim with a younger relative or wax poetic about the days when waking up early on Saturday meant playing in the backyard instead of taking the early shift. The Childhood/Adulthood party is about recreating that feeling, but with decidedly adult style, like table linen and, of course, drinks.
The attire is up to you—guests can dress like their favorite characters from kids’ cartoons or like children—preferably in a non-creepy manner, obviously, though sometimes creepy can be funny. I like to combine chaotically printed table linen with conservative napkins. Dessert usually consists of dessert “sushi” constructed out of cereal bars and fruit rolls, or of that old favorite the Fluffer Nutter. For more nutritional fare, go with finger foods—something simple like a veggie plate or hot dogs.
If you want, you can host it outside and break out your old inflatable pool or a game of Twister. If you do so, break out a colorful table linen for guests to sit on and enjoy themselves, which is the ultimate goal of the Contrast Party.