I recently started working with a new client who has very relatable wardrobe issues. I have chosen the alias Mrs. Sublime to protect her identity and to capture who she is. Sublime, which is a quality of greatness, summarizes her quite well. Mrs. Sublime is a successful, intelligent, and impressive woman with a warm, welcoming personality, and an open and trusting nature. And like with all my clients, despite all these amazing qualities, she has taken some missteps with her wardrobe, none that would put her on any worst dressed list or get her laughed at but are missteps that have created a few problems. Her purchases have simply lacked strategy, adeptness on how to build a look, and clear goals.
Case in point, when Mrs. Sublime showed me her three black backpacks in her hall closet and I asked her why she had three, the best defense she could come up with was, “I don’t know.” The funniest moment was when her “normally very bright, but not in that moment” husband, Mr. Sublime, called out from his home office, “why is it that when Bridgette asks why you have three black backpacks you don’t get defensive like I when ask?” I don’t remember Mrs. Sublime even bothering to dignify this question with an answer. I just remember her husband getting a very icy glare.
As Mrs. Sublime and I were culling through her wardrobe we came upon a very standard jewel neck cashmere cardigan in a stunning burgundy shade. Jewel neck cardigans being one of my least liked basics on the planet for how challenging the neckline can be to work with, my initial thought was to just have Mrs. Sublime ditch it, especially considering Mrs. Sublime’s seemingly ambivilant feelings about it. But then I talked through a look around the sweater that was right in line with Mrs. Sublime’s style and both our feelings about the cardigan changed. It wasn’t the sweater itself but the look that this sweater could help create that made it a keeper. That was the moment I got the idea for today’s post on how to build an outfit. It’s not just Mrs. Sublime who has pieces that are dying on the vine simply because they aren’t being used to the best of their abilities, this is one of the most common wardrobe issues I see.
HOW TO BUILD AN OUTFIT: WHAT TO DO WHEN YOUR OUTFITS LOOK UNINSPIRED
Vision is critical if you want a workable wardrobe and vision is exactly what most women lack when they shop for clothes. It’s the key thing I help clients develop in helping them move towards a style they want. You can’t get where you want to go if you don’t know where the destination is. I touch on this a bit in this post about finding your style through the process of elimination and, yes, envisioning an end style goal is a critical step. But the next hurdle is execution, and this can get incredibly frustrating. I liken it to putting someone in front of a piano who has never taken a lesson. Here they are, staring at all these beautiful keys that make sound, and they have no idea how to turn that sound into music.
To help with this, I have come at this topic in a few different ways in the past. I have called it finishing an outfit, have talked about the Base, Accent Pop formula, and have also created the four different outfit styling strategies. While all approaches work and can be helpful, the biggest advice I can give is to never lean too strongly on being formulaic. These formulaic approaches when followed too closely can become overly clinical and leave little room for creativity and instinct. Imagine styling formulas as foundational guideposts that get you started, like practicing the scales on the piano before you can add your own mastery and personalization to a piece of music.
Next, building an outfit, which is exactly what I did when I saved Mrs. Sublime’s cardigan. On its own, that jewel neck cardigan was as snoozy as a turkey-fed nap, and the way Mrs. Sublime was wearing it, which was the way most women wear one, just layered over something plain and boring, was as thrilling as watching a video on the history of the dial tone. If you’re bored with pieces or entire looks in your closet, it’s worth considering that it’s not the pieces that aren’t working but how you are styling them. Certainly, I am not suggesting keeping things that you shouldn’t —Mrs. Sublime and I got rid of bags and bags of clothes — but to take a look at these pieces in your closet and assess if you aren’t building these pieces into something more interesting. The best way to dig deeper into this is to show you some examples of how to build an outfit.
This is a close replica of the type of look I described to Mrs. Sublime when we saved her cardigan. Mrs. Sublime’s cardigan is burgundy which could easily be swapped in as a replacement for this teal cashmere style from Boden. This look could also be changed up with grey tailored pants and taupe shoes or lower-heeled booties all while keeping the integrity of the look. This goes back to the point I made in this post about thinking about building an outfit like building your makeup when you apply it. For many women, they dress as if they are putting on their base coverage and walking out the door. It works but it’s flat, lacking dimension and unfinished looking. By building this outfit, the cardigan becomes a component in the bigger picture of this look just as your blush or mascara is part of the bigger picture of your makeup.
In addition to the Boden sweater, I styled this look with a grey pencil skirt from J.Crew, my favorite BOSS Hugo Boss mock buttondown shirt, taupe tall boots from Vince Camuto, belt from Rag & Bone, and a long station necklace from Style & Co.
If ever there was a good debate to stop overbuying duplicates of the same old, same old, this is it: building outfits take variety and having 15 pairs of black shoes, three black backpacks, a bunch of tops that all look the same, drains your wardrobe budget and leaves you with very little variety to use when you try to build an outfit.
I am likely one of the few women out there who doesn’t own a black blouse. It’s a style I’m not a fan of most clients owning because, to me, it’s a trick blouse. It’s a style that seems like it will be versatile but winds up not working out that way. What do you do with it besides wearing it with black bottoms (“Hello, My name is Johnny Cash”), light-colored bottoms (with a black top? Um, no.) or jeans. The only way I will relent when a client wants to keep a solid black blouse is if they have, or are open to, butt-friendly colored or patterned bottoms where black tops can be useful. Yet, a black top and colored pants look still isn’t enough to create much of a wow factor if you want to build an outfit. You’re not breaking new ground with that look, my friend.
I was building this look and came upon these chartreuse low-heeled pumps from Theory and I knew it, I knew this was how I would finish this outfit. It’s the unexpectedness of the shoe color that kicks the outfit up a notch. Imagine this same outfit with a basic pair of black booties instead. You can say that that I added these shoes on a whim, which I did because I don’t follow formulas when I style, but, really, the styling formula used was Complementary Styling which means to use two colors opposite each other on the color wheel. In this case, it’s the burgundy pants paired with chartreuse. As a result, the black blouse from Joie takes a backseat to the other pieces and is part of the whole vs. the expectation that such a basic piece does all the heavy lifting. The rest of the outfit consists of the grey cardigan from BOSS Hugo Boss, and a long pendant necklace from Gas Bijoux.
There are two strategies I used here to build this outfit. First, pattern mixing, which can be tricky and a bit advanced. The two most basic approaches I can give you for mixing patterns are to mix geometrics with rounder prints, as I did in this look using plaid and a floral print, and to work with scale and mix a large scale print with a very small one. The next strategy used here is Road Map Styling which means to use a print as a guide for color combining. The issue with Road Map Styling is it can get very formulaic and matchy-matchy if followed too closely, so you want to loosen your grip when employing this approach. In this case, going too far would be adding a cobalt necklace or cobalt shoes. Instead, there is just a small deco of cobalt in the plaid of the blazer as well as the undercollar. You don’t want to forsake style and elegance for a formula.
I styled this look with a floral blouse from Halogen, a houndstooth blazer from J.Crew Factory, navy pull-on pants from Vince, cognac booties from Marc Fisher, and a chunky tortoise statement necklace.
When I mentioned in a past post that I would be exploring the topic of how to build an outfit, someone commented that “when you have to work in varying temperatures, it’s sometimes too warm for all your ‘pretty, finishing’ layers; and sometimes too cold to show off any of the ‘pretty, base layers that add interest!” I took that comment to heart realizing that the backbone of building an outfit often involves that balance of layers. The more layers, the more interest, but that isn’t always a reality.
I built this outfit with that in mind. An outfit does not need layer upon layer to look interesting and sometimes all you need is a change-up of shoes or a punch of unexpected novelty. In this very basic look above using this washable silk blouse from M.M. Lafleur and high-waisted pleated pants from COS, it’s the color-blocked penny loafers from Cole Haan and novelty tan leopard socks from Anthropologie that create a more memorable look with personality. I further finished the look with a tan belt and floating pearl stud earrings. In this outfit, the base is very basic and it’s the finishing components that add the interest. When you use this approach, you can keep the base the same and change up the finishing components in a variety of different ways which can help you get more looks with less.
This outfit is a situation where I started with this cardigan from Club Monaco. I really loved how it was belted and despite how novel the piece is, I still wanted to build a look that didn’t solely hinge on the novelty of it. I added these grey plaid pants from Theory and this simple charmeuse tank from Lafayette 148. I already had this tortoise necklace and belt from the other looks and as I was about to add the cognac booties from look three, which would work perfectly, I hesitated. Instead, I wondered how I could take the outfit even further. The addition of these olive boots from Vince Camuto is what clinched it.
There are a few reasons why this works. First, green is a colored neutral which means there are very few instances where green won’t work as an accent. Plus, this shade of green is olive, which can essentially be treated like a neutral. Third, tone-wise, all the colors in this look are similar in chroma and value, which you can read more about here. As a result, the outfit comes together harmoniously while also having points of interest vs. being singular and flatter in look.
In order to build an outfit, it takes a combination of implementing some reliable formulas, instinct, and practice. If it takes time for you to craft together interesting looks from pieces that lack excitement on their own, give yourself a break. Just like learning the piano isn’t a skill learned overnight, neither is mastery of building looks. However, you can start with small changes that over time will build into bigger ones until before you know it that boring jewel neck cardigan has earned its spot in your closet.