If you can read this blog post, my guess is that you also know how to tie your shoelaces. It’s something you can do without thinking about, right? You just do it. Now, imagine I told you that you had to teach an alien how to tie their shoelaces, step-by-step, over the phone, without any illustrative materials. Not so easy, right? I give this analogy for a reason. Today, I am going to explain how to style an outfit. For me, after all these years, styling a pretty look is something I can do without thinking about it. I just do it, just like you tie your laces. I don’t follow any formulas or rules or have some sort of guidebook that was given to me when entered the fashion industry. It’s similar to how my mother-in-law, who is of Sicilian descent, makes her amazing marinara sauce. Every time she makes it I ask her to teach me, to which her reply is always the same, “I don’t follow a recipe, I just make it.”
When I started my style consulting business back in 2002 I had to think about my thought process of how I put looks together. I work with women who struggle with this, who have different brains than me, whose thought processes are totally different than my own and who have hired me because this is something they can’t do by themselves. This is why, over the years, I have developed terms like chicken outfits, blackcidents, wishful wardrobing, the color tripleplay, and more. I realized that, unless I slept in every client’s closet, and dressed them everyday, I would have to translate what came naturally to me into easy to understand concepts. Thankfully, I am really good with coming up with analogies.
I remember visiting the Rodin museum in Philadelphia many years ago. Staring at the gorgeous sculptures, while I could more than appreciate their magnificence, I just couldn’t wrap my brain around how hard they were to create until I tried to mold my own sculpture with a lump of clay that I purchased at the museum’s gift shop. What I learned from this was that anything that looks easy rarely is. So if you look at a gorgeous outfit that seems so easy to pull together, yet, when you try to execute it it falls flat, know that styling is not as easy as it looks. Remember, I do this for a living. It’s my job. However it’s not impossible and it’s certainly a lot easier than sculpting something as perfect as The Thinker, especially with a little guidance.
To teach you some of my tricks and tips, below are some styled outfits. As I put them together I paid close attention to my thought process as I chose the pieces for each look. After each outfit you will see my thought process illustrated. My hope is that, through these explanations, you will learn some key steps in styling your own looks. Keep in mind, often a great outfit is created simply by instinct, by adding a little here, pulling back there, testing things out and taking chances…similar to how my mother-in-law probably makes her sauce, however, some tested fundamentals, like those below, should definitely give you place to start.
Easy Ways to Fabulously Style an Outfit
Shop the outfit:
How this outfit was built
Oddly, in this outfit, I started with these shoes from the Gap. This happens sometimes when I put looks together. I find something I like and I go from there. The first thing I thought about were colors that work well with orange in the loafers. Teal came to mind immediately. Not only is it fun with orange, but it is a shade that is really universal, it complements everything well. (Put that in your notes!!!)
From there, I backtracked and built the base of the outfit. Finding this teal top from Anthropologie, I knew I was going to go in a casual direction and chose these ivory slim cargos from J. Crew to set the base. The base is the foundation of an outfit and usually in more tailored or structured pieces and they are usually neutral. With a neutral base you are free to add any color as the accent, in this case the teal top. The orange shoes finish the look as the pop color.
Now, I could have just stopped there, but I wanted to push it a bit further. I kept seeing yellow in my mind. I had to test it out. See, even I test things. I knew it was either going to look ridiculous or it was going to really cool. I added this Boden cardigan in mustard because I envisioned it being worn open with the teal top hanging longer. What is also important to point out, if you are going to push the envelope with color, yellow will usually work (another little cheat to add to your notes). After the outfit was brought to this point, looking at the bare neckline, I thought about filling it in with a statement necklace. Any more color additions to this already colorful outfit would be too much, so I kept it simpler with this white and bronze necklace from Stella & Dot that still makes a statement without a lot of color. The last addition, the Tory Burch clutch, was pure luck, really. Seeing this outfit styled with a wristlet, I started looking around for some and stumbled on it. If you’re not so lucky to find a clutch that perfectly pulls together all of the colors in the outfit you are building, just know that I would have happily settled on a metallic, or teal clutch instead.
How this outfit was built
I started this outfit when I found this coral jacket from Modcloth. Coral is such a versatile, and very flattering face color (note that, ladies), that it really didn’t matter what neutral color the base piece was. Black, grey, olive, brown, and more, would totally work with it. For this outfit, I chose this simple navy dress from Reiss.
I could have stopped there, used a pair of navy shoes, a navy bag and simple earrings to make this outfit look complete. However, wanting to take this outfit further, because everyone already knows how to style an outfit this way, I chose to use turquoise blue. Like using teal in the previous outfit, coral is another shade that really works with a variety of colors. I added thse pumps from Diane Von Furstenburg and the earrings from Max & Chloe. Lastly, the trick to styling a great outfit is knowing when you have pushed too far. For example, if I had added a turquoise handbag the outfit would have gone from coordinated to matchy-matchy. Restraint can often be a good thing. So, to this look, I added this navy Michael Kors handbag and gold stacked bracelets from Bauble Bar. If you feel like an outfit has been styled too far, it usually has. Trust your instincts.
How the outfit was built:
Here is another trick when styling an outfit. I have talked about this on my blog before but it bears repeating. As you can see in this outfit, my base is this pair of jeans from Jessica Simpson and a cobalt blue v-neck sweater from J. Crew. To make this very basic look more interesting, I used this printed scarf from Echo. This scarf works so well because it not only picks up the color of the sweater, but it also introduces new colors to add to the outfit. This is a great cheat sheet for adding more color to a look.
With the scarf, I introduced the red flats from Modcloth and a golden yellow handbag from Macy’s. Even if you were to take away the scarf and the bag, the red shoes still work and add that third pop of color to the base and accent. For a finish, I used these cobalt blue earrings from Kendra Scott.
How the outfit was built:
I knew I wanted to create an outfit using green as a pop color because it is so versatile and a trick I use all the time when making an outfit more interesting (add green to your notes). It’s a little secret you should know about. When I started with these minty green Anthropologie sandals I knew I could go in any direction with the colors of the outfit itself. It was then that I found this bright purple top from Modcloth. So, basically, yes, here I am starting with the shoes and working backwards again.
I was super stoked when I came across these navy and white Bermuda shorts from J. Crew because it gave me an opportunity to explain, like I have done many times on this blog, that when you have a neutral and white pattern, like black and white or navy and white, you can treat that piece like a solid neutral. Because of this, I liked illustrating this point using the shorts with the bright purple top and green sandals. With enough color going on with the top, sandals and shorts, I finished the outfit simply, with a navy handbag, a gold Banana Republic bracelet and gold Stella & Dot studs.
How this outfit was built:
Lastly, I think it is important to talk about outfits where the bases are completely neutral, like in the case of this one where these pants from French Connection are olive and the Madewell shirt is white. When the base is neutral you are free to add accents and pops in whatever colors you want. If you don’t like the teal and yellow accents and pops I used here, through the slip on sneakers, yellow Vince Camuto bag, rope bracelet, and yellow and blue earrings, use whatever accent and pop colors you would like. This is the freedom that an all neutral base gives you.
Final thoughts on styling an outfit
- The power of 6 I think it is worth pointing out that every outfit above has six pieces in it. It’s not something I noticed until I was writing this post. I don’t want you to see this as a make-or-break outfit formula, or something you have to follow to the letter, but I do think it is a notable observation.
- Accent and pop should relate to each other What often makes an outfit interesting is when there are three parts to the look, the base, the accent and the pop colors. When trying this strategy out for yourself, always make sure that your accent and pop colors harmonize and work together. Looking for it to be easy? Make your accent or pop colors coral, teal, green or yellow. Rarely will you be limited when using them in an outfit.
- Have one neutral shade in an outfit Again, don’t see this as gospel or something you have to do, but having a neutral shade in your outfit is a really easy way to build a look. Neutral shades are black, navy, white, ivory, grey, brown, tan, camel, khaki etc. Once the weather gets warm you may wear more color. If this is the case, you can always add neutrals through your accent and pop pieces, like metallic or neutral colors.
Styling isn’t science or math, there is no perfect formula or equation to putting the perfect one together. Instead, see it more like cooking; you add a little flavor until you get the right balance. However, just like cooking, what is crucial in a great outfit is using the right ingredients. With these tips, you should be well on your way to styling an outfit that is a masterpiece.
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I got so excited about this post that I went right to my closet and started putting an outfit together for a galentine’s dinner tomorrow night! Your color suggestions and the number of items recommended really made an outfit I am excited to wear! Thank you for making your thought process so explicit. You are a great teacher!
Hi Jen!!! I am SO happy to hear this! And I love that you celebrate Galentine’s Day. I first heard about it on Parks & Rec. I would love to see what your outfit looks like! Have fun!!
I took photos with my phone as I laid everything out. I’ll send them your way. I had such a fabulous time that I didn’t get any of myself dressed. Thank you so much for the great lessons!
Cute cute cute outfits! If you were styling nos. 1&5 for a petite, would you do anything differently? I’ve read petites shouldn’t have more than one focal point. Plus that contrast thing. Too many rules…
Hi Dot. I don’t think I would. I would probably look at the petite woman’s individual body characteristic. In the last look I would make sure that the pants aren’t too drapey and the shirt isn’t too long or relaxed. In the first look just make sure the top isn’t too long. Keep the pants skinny, like shown. I have never heard the focal point tip. I can get the contrast thing, to a degree, but the way I see it, if you are petite you are petite. What is a monochromatic outfit going to do, add an inch or two? I know that can be crucial when you are short, but I don’t think a woman should pass up a fabulous outfit if she loves it and it doesn’t follow all the rules.
Thanks for taking the time to give me some tips. I really appreciate it.