In the postwar years, Washington’s social scene revolved around intimate diners and drinks among friends: diplomats, political columnists, and politicians who had in common “not geography but the experience of the Second World War,” says Gregg Herken, author of last year’s The Georgetown Set. “It was a gentleman’s club.”
As entrée became more sought after, invitees were increasingly asked to bring their checkbooks, and the proceeds were donated to a favorite cause. Slowly, the dos grew so large that they moved out of private homes and Georgetown altogether. Democratization followed. “The internet has changed everything,” says a local event planner. “If you want a ticket, you go on the website and buy one.”
The new gala culture isn’t as patently Washington as the one it replaced. Instead of reporters and White House players, the parties are populated by a semipermanent philanthropic class, with turnover caused only by updrafts of tech or lobbying money. The conversation “used to be about policy and politics,” says Herken. Nowadays, with elected officials largely barred by gift laws and media eminences shmoozing their sources elsewhere, the talk is often about vacation spots and schools. It’s a change that explains a central irony of this moment: The term “socialite” has unfairly come to connote “lightweight” even as the job of being one has grown harder than ever.
1. Invent yourself on social media.
Establish blog and Instagram feeds named for an obscure style icon. (Or come right out with it, like Cathy Anderson’s PoorLittleItGirl.com.) Post your fave rainy-day wrap, the odd Louboutins, arty shots of Grandmama’s hand-me-down jewelry, a mojito from your Tulum trip. Magazine spreads on your home and invitations to follow.
2. Hit the (right) gym.
Buy a pack of classes at SoulCycle or Solidcore, and make time for the modern-day sweat-lodge bonding rites that will allow you to start building a virtual Rolodex of the gala-going set. Be seen around town with swag bearing the gym logos.
3. Land a job at the White House or State.
Nothing too serious: a travel-scheduling post is the perfect prep for major party planning, as is a protocol spot in Foggy Bottom, close to the office’s chief, Peter Selfridge, whose name assigns instant credibility to any party roster. Harvest cell-phone numbers and e-mail addresses of up-and-comers you’ll want on your call list.
4. Get name-checked on a venerable charity event’s program.
Volunteer for the junior committee of the Phillips Collection’s Contemporaries Bash or the Meridian Ball’s Young Professionals and host a party for the “younger” donors. Year two: Buy your own table—or if your pocketbook doesn’t allow, hit up family or your book club for donations at the gold and silver levels.
5. Found your own charity.
Pick a cause and throw a party. Keep it simple—erstwhile “it” girl Ashley Taylor Bronczek got her start collecting prom dresses for young women less fortunate than she (i.e., most of them) before graduating to her bracelets-for-causes W.E.A.R. Project. Invite your old boss in the protocol office at State to be on your board.
This article appears in our December 2015 issue of Washingtonian.