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Grown-up Theme Party 101

For the hosting elite, a theme party is the glittering frontier of social extravaganza.  A swell soiree with a thought-out theme can be talked about for months, even years – but planning a perfect party is a serious undertaking that requires time, a bit of cash, and some major creativity.  Here, Ruffle teaches you how to pull it off.

Choosing a Theme for Your Grown-up Theme Party

You’ve really got two choices when choosing a theme for a knockout party: go basic or go elaborate.  If you must go basic, choose a standard party theme and create the best version of it your guests will ever see.  Instead of hosting a sock hop using the party store jukebox set (matching invites, paper plates, napkins, and tablecloth), plan a blowout version of the same ‘50s party.  Gather vintage décor from a thrift store or an aunt’s attic or garage, and wow your guests by creating a specific, theme-appropriate setting, like a malt shop or drive-in.

If you’re looking to really create a statement event, choose a theme that’s so unique the mere idea of it will blow people away.  The easiest way to choose a unique theme is to pair a basic theme with a specific time period and/or exotic location.  For example, a safari theme party becomes a buzzworthy event when you place it in 1920s imperial Africa.  A standard Halloween party becomes an epic bash when it unfolds in Victorian England.  Selecting a time and place also helps control the mood of the party.

Setting the Party Mood

If you’re not careful, it’s easy to veer into kids’ birthday territory when throwing a theme party for adults.  To avoid such an embarrassment, make sure you have a clear idea of your theme party’s mood before you make any purchases, set any menus, or call any friends.  The mood of your party is the vibe it gives off; it’s how people feel while they’re celebrating with you.  All the decisions you make when planning your theme party should be ruled by the mood you want to convey.  Is your under the sea party going to feel more like Ariel or like Jacques Cousteau?  What about your Hollywood gala – Paris Hilton or Lauren Bacall?

Building Buzz for Your Party

The invitations for your theme party set the tone for the entire event, so make sure you make an impression in two ways: concept and language.  Once you have a strong theme and a clear idea of mood, determine a theme-appropriate concept for your invitation.  As always, let the theme and mood of your party dictate: a verbose memo for an office-themed party, password access to a secret website for a spy party.

Next, break out your thesaurus and make a list of words and phrases that express your vision.  As you move those ideas into an invitation, choose wording that reinforces your theme.  Consider whether something out-of-the-ordinary is appropriate, such as period language, poetry, slang, or even onomatopoeia. Don’t forget to stick to your theme when communicating basic information, too.  Give directions as an email attachment or global coordinates and information on attire as the “company dress code” or as “mission-appropriate gear.”

By the time guests are done experiencing your theme party invitation, they should be clearing their calendars and picking out party attire.

Decorating for the Theme

Creating a themed environment is the most difficult and yet most rewarding part of party throwing.  Décor is where most hostesses cut corners, but remember that fabulous decoration is what really makes a fantasy concept a reality.  It’s the element that transforms a regular party into something inspired, impressive, and memorable.  The good news is creating sweet ambiance is easy if you take it step by step.

First, consider your whole space (theme) and break it up into sub-spaces (sub-themes).  For example, a pirate theme party might have sub-spaces themed like a ransacked village, a ship, and a treasure cave.  Now, instead of hoping eye patches and triangle hats will somehow fill your entire space, you’ve got specific items to look for – wooden crates, old buckets and rags, and strings of fake pearls – that do more than just scratch surface.  These items will end up being the ones you can use over and over again, too.

Second, steal.  Go ahead and poach ideas from movies, old photos, and theme parks to recreate in your home.

Next, keep your choices authentic and specific.  Take special care when decorating for parties with geographic or ethnic themes to make sure you’re not mixing elements from similar – but distinct- cultures.  Save the limbo rods and parrots for a Caribbean party, not a luau, and don’t serve sushi at a Chinese-themed party.

Finally, shop without breaking your budget.  Hit thrift stores, your mom’s basement, and your own closet.  Many everyday items can suddenly transform when put into context:  beaded candle holders work in a bordello, a castle, a moody night club, and a Russian tea house.  Also keep in mind the bang-for-buck rule: concentrate on making less-expensive purchases that take up more physical space.  Remember, too, that themed food and its serving dishes can and should double as decoration.

Themed Eats

Creating a menu for a theme party is as easy is taking ten minutes to brainstorm or hit the internet.  The key is to use the food to point guests back to your theme.  Remember, authenticity is key: pirates don’t eat baby carrots and dill dip, but they might eat whole carrots, unpeeled.  Also, don’t forget to use serving pieces that reinforce your theme (you’ll find that silver you got from your grandmother and have never used is surprisingly versatile).  Finally, display and serve your themed treats in a way that makes sense for your party.  For example, a pirate party should feature food in savage piles, while a bon voyage cruise buffet on neat pedestals would be perfect.

Theme Party Music and Sound

If there’s one area where mood really comes into play, it’s with your party music.  The tricky part about great theme music is that a lot of different styles and can work together to create one, cohesive mood, which means creating that ultimate playlist can be very time consuming.  Do yourself a favor and invest some quality, all-purpose theme music.  The Ultra Lounge 25-disc compilation is priceless – hands down a fabulous go-to mix for serious hostesses.  Theme park music is also a major treasure trove for party throwers, a lot of which is free online.

To really take your themed environment to the next level, another great investment is a cache of basic sound effects.  Layer them with music using basic software like iMovie for a seriously impressive effect.  Suddenly your 1930s mob music is peppered with gunshots, screeching tires, slamming doors, and dockside noises.  Hello, atmosphere!

Also, consider playing different music in different areas to match the sub-themes you’ve created through décor.  At a mob party, some lovely Italian opera would go nicely in a restaurant area, while tinny jazz would be the perfect backdrop for a speakeasy room.

What to Wear to a Theme Party

Save a bit of money on décor knowing that properly attired guests help create ambiance.  The trick is getting them to participate.  Increase the odds by providing two things:  several examples for those who will cooperate (in the context of your themed invitation) and back up costume pieces for those who don’t get onboard.  Hats are great back up – they’re easy to connect to a specific theme and add a lot to your existing décor because of their height at eye level.  Always, always buy three or four and be ready to pass them out to slackers.

Ideas for Beginners

If the theme party idea sounds like heaven, but you’re not quite ready to pull out all the stops, it’s okay to start small.  Host a movie night that features food inspired by the onscreen show.  Try Willy Wonka and a candy buffet, Field of Dreams with ballpark goodies, or Ocean’s Eleven accompanied by all the food Brad Pitt eats throughout the film.

Or, jazz up an ordinary dinner party by making it a murder mystery box party or a team cook-off.  And remember, while thoughtful guests may show up with contributions, etiquette allows you to accept food and wine gifts without opening or using them at the party, so don’t panic if someone’s kind gesture throws off your planning a bit.

Photos: nytimes.com, everystockphoto.com

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One Response to “Grown-up Theme Party 101”

  1. i love your party tips! it inspires me and takes the guesswork out of planning a fabulous event!

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