There are very few dress-code mistakes that can't be fixed with a great shoe, says Colleen Sherin, senior fashion director at Saks Fifth Avenue. The other option is a lovely necklace or earrings to draw people immediately to your face.
Both Axelson and Koch encourage easily removable accessories that dress up or down an outfit. It could be the statement necklace that tucks under your collar if it's a more relaxed crowd, or a beaded wrap or tailored jacket -- maybe one with sparkle, Axelson suggests -- that can be hung with the coats if needed. No one will be the wiser, they say, and you'll walk in knowing you have options.
It's not a bad idea to keep "a few spare parts" in the car as well, in case you've shown up on the casual side, says Koch.
"My transition toolbox is textured tights, long dangling earrings, a very long, vertical scarf, a cuff bracelet and a brighter lipstick," she says.
Van Damme purposely carries a clutch to parties, which blends better than a big overstuffed handbag, so she can slip things in or out without drawing attention.
She'll always choose a sleek and chic silhouette over something froufrou -- it's respectful and stylish, she says.
Generally, Axelson thinks separates, cigarette or dark denim pants with the pleated or slinky tank and cardigan, for example, offer more flexibility. "With a dress, once you've made a commitment to it, you are staying in it."
What about brocade or jacquard skinny pants with a great blouse? You'll probably feel comfortable in it and treat walking into a party like you were stopping into the corner place for coffee, Sherin says.
But Van Damme puts her foot down on denim. "I don't think jeans are right for a cocktail party or most parties -- maybe with a fabulous, fabulous top, but why not put black pants on instead?"
No one is going to the trouble of hosting a party for guests to look like they just rolled out of bed, she says.