It's that time of year again. Christmas parties. New Year's Eve on the town. Splashy cocktail soirees. Yes, it's that horrifying time when women everywhere find themselves uttering the five most dreaded words in the English language: I have nothing to wear.

Relax, ladies, Joanna Doniger has your number—for this season and the other three. If you have ever dreamed—and who hasn't?—of dressing up in one of those $2,000 drop-dead designer gowns that leap from the pages of Vogue, Doniger, 33, may be able to put you in your fantasy. Last month in Manhattan she opened the first U.S. spin-off of her successful One Night Stand rent-a-dress shops in London. For fees ranging from $75 to $300 per night, plus a security deposit of at least $200, customers can rent splashy gowns or evening dresses (worth up to $2,500) by such well-known designers as Arnold Scaasi and Bruce Oldfield, one of Princess Diana's most favored couturiers.

Diana, of course, would never resort to renting—and if she did, she would never resort to admitting it. But for those with more plebeian budgets who can't afford four-digit price tags for a one-event dress, Doniger's business can make dreams come true. Apart from enjoying the financial advantage of renting, party animals will be able to burnish their sartorial images. "If you wear an evening dress more than three times with the same people, you do tend to get a reputation of 'Oh, the girl in the same old pink-spotted dress,' " says Doniger.

One Night Stand is not the first business of its kind in Manhattan, but it is the largest. Doniger's Madison Avenue showroom is filled with more than 500 au courant dresses—neon-bright dresses, leopard-print and flamenco-style dresses, gold lame gowns, black skirts, lace skirts, and puffs of petticoats, crinolines and tulle. Accessories—boas, bags and jewels—are also for rent, and even a few maternity dresses are available. "There's been a tremendous demand for those," says Doniger. "We can't keep up."

Rentals are by appointment only, and on one recent morning, just a week after the shop's opening, all six changing rooms were full and the appointment book was already crowded. Carole Lawlor, 33, a men's clothing designer, was shoehorned in at the last minute for a black-tie dinner that very night. "I had planned to spend the morning going to every store in town, plus find time to get my hair done," she explained. Then her boss told her about One Night Stand, and Lawlor wound up renting a blue tulip skirt and black bustier top (an $800 value) for $130. Her grateful conclusion: "This place is wonderful."

Formerly a designer and manufacturer of leatherwear, Doniger, a London native, started her rental business there four years ago. "A girlfriend of mine was going to this terribly smart do at Kensington Palace for Princess Margaret and was in a complete panic over what to wear," she recalls. Doniger had her workers turn out an impromptu off-the-shoulder number, and her friend was thrilled, but Doniger realized that the woman's predicament was a common one. So, with 100 gowns bought wholesale at collections in Paris, Milan, London and New York, Doniger opened a shop in yuppie-filled Sloane Square. The business took off, and last May she opened her second store in Regent's Park.

Doniger won't divulge customers' names, but she assumes that clients must be telling on themselves "because we have tremendous referrals and word-of-mouth. In London, we have celebrities who come in to rent dresses for their television shows, and lots of our dresses went to the dance the night before Prince Andrew's wedding. They show up at plenty of royal functions."

Doniger's shops take care of post-party dry cleaning, and only twice (at the London shops) have withheld security deposits when dresses came back ruined. In general, Doniger tends to be philosophical about cigarette burns, food stains and spike-heel-through-the-hem holes. "If a woman comes in with gravy spills down her back from some waiter who's thrown it all over her, that's not her fault, and I can't penalize her for that," she says.

Not all horror stories are so routine. One renter tried ironing a dress at home and put a hole right through it. Doniger's most memorable disaster, though, involved a slinky red halter dress by British designer Janice Wainwright (worth $900 retail) that came back ruined from a university ball. "There were rips and cigar burns in funny places, and stains that were unmentionable," recalls Doniger. "Absolutely dreadful!"

So far, Doniger sees little difference between British and American tastes in evening dresses. This season, women on both sides of the big pond crave short dresses and "black, black and more black." But seasons pass and dresses grow weary. Come February, most of the winter party garb will be sold off, but not to just anybody. Old friends—customers who have rented a dress and had a ball in it—will be given the first option to buy.

  • Contributors:
  • Victoria Balfour.