I want to dress better but don't know how.
November 16, 2011 8:13 PM   Subscribe

I want to dress better. I don't know how. Specific (and general) questions inside.

I seem to be stuck in a clothing rut, and am not sure how to get out of it. I had my clothing sorted by type (t-shirts, cardigans, blazers etc) and always seem to pick the same things, so I thought I would go through and make outfits. And it turns out I totally don't know how. I am clueless about what goes with what, and although a previous mefi question taught me a little about branching out of the 'something plus a black sweater' rut, it has become obvious to me that I am going to need more pants now too...

So, some specific questions first, then some general...

1) I seem to have a lot of browns. If the shirt is mostly brown and the jacket is mostly brown, can I wear black pants? I have a feeling the answer is no, so if this is true, what colour pants do I wear?

2) Can you mix shades within the same colour? For instance, if the pants are black and the t-shirt is mostly black with some lavender-esque aspects, can I wear a deep purple sweater? It looks like it goes okay, to my eye, but it is not the same shade of purple so I don't know...

3) What colour do you wear under a grey blazer or jacket? And then what colour pants?

4) I am only allowed to wear jeans at work on Fridays. What can I wear on non-Fridays as far as pants go so that I can make use of my quantity of navy-toned stuff? Obviously I am full up with navy now and need to stop buying it, but I have stuff now and want to wear it...

I like to layer because I am outside a lot (I am a teacher and have playground duty) so I am often cold, and then want to layer down later on. For this reason I also will not wear skirts. I don't want to spend a ton of money because I am on Weight Watchers right now and still in losing mode, but clearly I need at least a few pairs of pants and possibly a handful more t-shirts to layer with stuff I have already.

How can I plan in the future so that I am buying good outfits? What books/stores/blogs can I consult for a little bit of an education in this? Any tips or suggestions for a fashion newbie?
posted by JoannaC to Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion (18 answers total) 32 users marked this as a favorite
Watch every episode of this show you can get your hands on. Seriously, my mom became obsessed with What Not to Wear and within a year she went from bleach-stained-with-holes-tees as a basic wardrobe item, to things like properly fitted trousers, cute tops and jackets, accessories, etc. We can tell you a lot, but hearing the dos and don'ts from pros, plus seeing all the godawful outfits plus the good outfits really gives you instincts that you can't get just from reading.

1) Brown and black -- traditionally, this was a no-no, but modern fashion flaunts tradition. Unless it is a really horrid brown (in which case you shouldn't be wearing it anyhow), it should be fine.

2) You can, but whether you should or not depends on the specific items you want to mix. In the example you gave, I would give a yes. Matching the actual same shade of purple would actually be the no-no here.

3) Any! Preferably something bright so that you have pop. I would wear black pants, but that's my own preference. It is, however, safe.

4) By navy-toned you mean what, blouses? sweaters? jackets? Probably khakis-colored trousers would go well with any of these.
posted by DoubleLune at 8:31 PM on November 16, 2011 [2 favorites]

You can wear skirts when it is cold out - if you prefer pants, that's fine, but if you like wearing skirts, the cold doesn't need to stop you.

To stay warm in a skirt, wear wool tights, two pairs of tights, fleece lined tights, or sweater tights, plus boots. Make sure you wear warm socks under your boots! I actually find this warmer than unlined pants.

Skirts are also nice if your weight is fluctuating because they will fit you at more of a range of weights.
posted by insectosaurus at 8:36 PM on November 16, 2011 [5 favorites]

1. As a broad generality, don't wear brown and black together. They can look great but it takes the right materials and shades and a little bit of judgment. If you have brown shirts and things, you can wear them with a different brown - a dark brown sweater with tan, khaki, olive-brown, etc, or a light brown sweater with dark brown, tan, olive pants. Or many browns work well with greys. A camel sweater and grey pants are a classic combination. Brown and blue, like brown and black, is not impossible but challenging.

2. You can mix shades within the same color - in fact, this is an easy way to create variety in an outfit (although you can get carried away). You could wear a light blue shirt, a dark blue cardigan and grey pants. Or a light blue shirt in a smooth fabric, a dark blue cardigan in a smooth knit and dark blue pants in a textured fabric such as corduroy, tweed or velvet. IME, wearing a light cardigan over a dark shirt is harder to pull off. You can also wear, for example, a blue and white striped shirt, a blue cardigan and pants in a third blue. Remember that your blues - or other colors - should be similar unless you're feeling confident about how to mix them. So if I had a turquoise (ie bright greenish blue) shirt, I probably wouldn't wear it with navy pants (unless the specific shades really looked good together, which they do sometimes).

3. Grey is actually a very useful wardrobe color. Under a light or medium grey jacket I would wear blues, pinks, lavenders, yellows, ecru, cream, pretty much any pale color. If it were a rich deep grey, I might wear red or maroon or purple. I would be less likely to wear green for some reason. I would wear black pants or pants in a different grey or navy pants or khaki or olive. So I might wear a medium grey jacket, a pink shirt and khaki pants, or a deep grey jacket, blue shirt and darker blue pants, or a grey jacket, tan shirt and darker brown pants.

4. With navy shirts, cardigans and jackets, wear olive pants, grey pants, fig/aubergine/maroon pants...and look at off browns - not a medium/standard brown but a burnt orange brown or other unusual shade. You could also wear blue pants - ie, a deep blue that is not navy. Technically you could get all fancy and look for oddball shades, but I think blues, greys and olives are most practical.

Note that it is very hard to exactly match navy if the fabrics don't come from the same dye lot. If you want to wear two navy pieces together, it's best to have them be different textures - navy corduroys and a navy broadcloth blouse, for example.

For me (I like a simple yet dapper "uniform" in somber colors) I would want to have grey pants, olive pants, camel/dark khaki pants,navy pants black pants, pants in an unusual deep color like aubergine or burnt umber. I would want jackets or cardigans in navy and either black or two shades of grey. I would want shirts in pale neutrals, possibly with patterns - so right now I have pale blue shirts in two different cuts, a blue striped shirt, a blue-grey fine plaid, a white shirt with black dots, a white shirt with black checks, a pale grey shirt, a dark grey shirt and a lavender check shirt. I also have a couple of pullover sweaters in grey, stripes and blue. All of these are machine washable and dryable; many were second hand and a number of my shirts are secondhand Old Navy - nothing too posh. (I get things from Ebay in brands where I know my size).

I dress things up with scarves - I have a navy dotted scarf that goes with many things and that I wear many days, also a fine black one and a bright pink silk one.

Remember to make your textures equivalent in weight and formality. Ie, if I had a very nice pair of smooth wool pants, I wouldn't wear a cheap teeshirt in a coarse knit with them. I wouldn't wear super-summery shirts with heavy, wintery pants. I wouldn't wear a very casual knit sweater with a very formal shirt. This is why I tend to rely on fabrics that work together easily - twill, corduroy, velveteen, broadcloth, robust knits for cooler weather; twill, lawns and voiles for summer.

If you google "Already Pretty blog" you will find a good blog with a great blogroll of regular folks' styles.

I dress things up with
posted by Frowner at 8:46 PM on November 16, 2011 [13 favorites]

The first thing I'm noticing in your questions here is that you have a lot of different neutrals - you're asking about browns, blacks, greys, navys. It's tricky to mix neutrals - grey and black, and grey and navy, can work; but brown and black, navy and brown, navy and black - that's a more advanced level of fashion (and frankly one I avoid!).

It would be easier for you to mix and match outfits if you had only a couple of main neutrals to work with, is my feeling. I like to stick to the grey/black axis, myself.

Do you have any khaki? When I had to dress like a schoolteacher (and couldn't wear jeans) I had khaki pants, grey pants, black pants, and corduroys. A paler khaki is my preference; it works well with navy, as well as black, browns, and sometimes grey. Navy is tough for me since I am not preppie; my comfort zone of pairing with navy extends to paler khaki and grey.

I find it's better to not rely on color-matching too much within an outfit; what I mean is that it's hard to find a, say, black pant that matches a black sweater; they won't be the same shade of black, and that can look weird. As well, repeating an accent color too narrowly can look strange too (matching your belt to shoes to purse EXACTLY, etc.). I tend to go one-two-three with colors for everyday, a neutral (black or jeans), a neutral-esque (something that can code-switch, not too bright), and then a louder color to pop, usually the shirt.

To plan good outfits, when you buy something new, you need to think right away "what will I wear this with?" If you can't come up with five outfits off the top of your head, put it back. If you're buying a limited wardrobe then you need pieces that will stretch.

Don't be afraid of color. You'll get more use out of a red shirt that goes with any neutral shade of pants than a navy shirt that won't. I also like to bring color in with shoes.

I think YouLookFab is a great resource for straightforward style and outfit ideas. She's posted some "Mum-on-the-go" formulas that were interesting and pretty easy to put together - it's a great starting point for everyday wear.
posted by flex at 8:55 PM on November 16, 2011 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Oh, I forgot to add, one thing I think really kicks up your everyday outfits is to make sure to have an eye-catching *something* about your outfit - whether it's knee-high boots, big earrings, a statement necklace, bright shoes, a bright coat, an embellished shirt - just one something that's a little bold, a little unusual and different. It keeps you from feeling dull. It took me years to be comfortable with doing this - I tended to not want to draw attention to myself, and I was conservative with trying to make everything be quietly matching - but I wonder now what I was so afraid of. It helps you feel put-together and fashion-y.
posted by flex at 9:01 PM on November 16, 2011 [4 favorites]

Grey and any color is usually good. Give a pop.
Navy and grey can work. Green khakis and blue look good. Banana republic does alot of shade matching for casual to work, you can look at their pallets on their site. Ann Taylor as well. Ann Taylor oift is a little younger and offers teachers discounts!( not widely known). Loft is least expensive but all can easily be done with coupons! Def!
Skirts with cotton leggings look nice to flip it up if you never wear them. You can always pop a little color in earrings or a hair clip if going all dark. Too much if two tone/one color is generally not slimming.
Congrats on the diet!!!
posted by femmme at 9:35 PM on November 16, 2011

Your hierarchy of priorities should be : fit > fabric quality > color.

Fit: sounds like it's changing for you, but it's really worth paying attention to. Pants should be snug (stay up without a belt) but not tight (camel toe). Length depends on the type of shoe you're wearing. If you're short enough to need petites, buy petites. Tuck in your tops.

Fabric quality: Shun synthetics and stick to natural fibers-- cotton, wool, silk, linen. Linen is for summer and wool is for winter. Cotton and silk are for both. Fit is more important, but buying nice fabrics will make the biggest difference in how you feel about your clothing-- trust me on this.

Color: figure out which colors you look best and feel most comfortable in and build a palate of colors that look good together. For me, it's neutrals + black-- might be different for your skin tone and hair color. Buy clothing in your palate and don't even consider anything else.
posted by oinopaponton at 9:36 PM on November 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'll answer 1.) You can mix black and brown if you add an accessory which has both in it-- a leopard-print scarf or belt, etc. and a Longchamp-style bag with, say, brown handles and a black body (is body the right word here?). Or, wear a tan pair of pants. Grey can work also, it just depends on if you're wearing cool or warm browns-- cool browns go well with grey, but warm, eh, not so much. Also, a pair of brown tweed pants with different shades of brown, tan, camel, grey, etc. will be very useful. I'd wear a brown sweater, tan trousers and a cream-colored collared shirt beneath it.

4.) To begin with, I wouldn't wear navy with jeans. I think it looks too match-y and weird. Exception: break up the outfit by wearing a shirt beneath your navy sweater in a bold-colored print so it looks less obviously navy-on-denim. On other days, Camel, red, tan, yellow or possibly grey pants are the best choices to match with denim. Do not wear black shoes or belts! Camel, brown, silver, red or taupe are better choices for shoes/belts with outfits featuring navy.

As for accessories, I've found that less is more for daytime-- expensive, minimal jewelry such as pearl or diamond/crystal earrings and a simple matching necklace, thin, small hoop earrings will always do the trick. I think bold costume jewelry usually looks cheap. Scarves allow so much more latitude color-wise, IMO.

If you're trying not to spend a lot on this stuff, I can't recommend ebay enough.
posted by devymetal at 9:53 PM on November 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

Avoid matchy matchy between similar coloured items by ensuring sufficient contrast of tone. The mauve and purple mentioned up above works because it's in the same colour range, but different tones, one light and one deep.
posted by b33j at 10:07 PM on November 16, 2011

Best answer: Navy goes with everything black goes with, really. Navy and camel? Fab. Navy and pink? Fab. Navy and kelly green? Fantastic. Navy is a super, super basic. (Right now I am wearing a navy skirt with a coral top and a deeper coral sweater, but I wear A LOT of color.)

If you want to branch out with your navy stuff on non-jean days, I do suggest you try skirts (you can wear them with tights and boots and be pretty warm). A navy top and a colored/camel, or plaid skirt is so cute. (I agree that navy + jeans is really matchy).

It sounds to me like you need some color in your wardrobe. If your bottom (or top) is neutral -- camel, navy, black, or grey -- you really can wear any REAL color you want with it. Camel pencil skirt plus red v-neck sweater = cute. Navy trousers plus green sweater = go for it! Also, try patterns: I own seriously like 15 blue and white striped tees. A classic stripe or polka dot top will go with A LOT. Etc.

Personally, I wear a lot of J Crew, and I find that they are really good at styling their catalog -- it might be a little kooky for you (it sounds like you dress somewhat conservatively), but their stylists are really good at mixing colors, and put together sharp work looks, so it might be worth a look to see how they throw things together (ignore how sometimes they want you to buy harem pants). Also, if you work with or are friends with people whose wardrobes you love -- even if they aren't clothes you would PERSONALLY wear -- ask them to go shopping with you. I LOVE going shopping with people and helping them revamp their wardrobes. This would definitely not be an imposition on somehow who loves clothes.

What Not To Wear is a good starting point, too.
posted by Countess Sandwich at 11:09 PM on November 16, 2011

I sometimes wince when talking about the "dos and do nots" of fashion. I will proudly say that people have always told me I'm a very fashionable person. I think it came from a childhood of my mother dressing my sister and me up like clowns and a stint with school uniforms. To answer the questions -

1) Absolutely. Unless you're walking around on a Caribbean island, blacks and browns are common from what I see. Throw in an accessory that's subtle as well, like a maroon scarf or turquoise necklace, a grey hat, if you think it'll make it more 'complete'. I think two and three colors is the magic number.

2) I have mixed feelings on this. I think you can definitely get away with blacks but not many other colors.

3) It's all about balance. Grey I've found go well with subtle colors. Off white with chocolate brown or black pants. Mustard yellow with black or brown pants. Go a little crazy and try a black shirt under the grey blazer and bright colored pants.

4) Navy I found goes great with brown / tan corduroy, light grey, even whites.

I think my motto has always been to have very clean simple styles (no crazy trends like big bows, weird puffs in random places, etc) and match dull colors with bright or deep colored accessories. Invest in a very nice jacket (like a black fitted double-breasted long coat) which will be fashionable throughout the winter time and matches all sorts of outfits... and keeps you super warm outside.

If you want to get a little more colorful and experimental, I definitely recommend you follow this blog - Sea of Shoes.
Best of luck!
posted by hillabeans at 7:14 AM on November 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: ...and as I was getting up today I thought about this post, because despite my tidy collection of related pieces in similar colors, I was having the devil of a time deciding what to wear.

Some thoughts:

At the beginning of each season (which are basically Very Hot and Very Cold here) I tend to sort through my clothes and see what goes with what, check on how my tastes have changed and work on integrating anything I've bought since last Very Hot/Very Cold. I find that my favorite shirt one year may be too drab or boring the next year and make a reappearance as an absolute necessity the year after that. I also find that I like skinnier pants in winter because I am invariably wearing lots of layers otherwise. The seasonal sort helps me to get dressed in the mornings. It also helps me see consistencies in what I like - I know that I like greys and blues better than black, I like to have one good black shirt and a black cardigan anyway, I don't wear much olive and I like a rich caramel instead of chocolate or beige.

I also note which fits don't work - I am short, stout, wide-shouldered and muscular, so wide-legged pants make me look like a brick standing on end, for example, and I need a closely fitted shoulder if I am not to look like a football player.

You might want to go to a department store and try on a TON of shirts, looking at these things: do you look best with a dropped sleeve? with a fitted sleeve? with a loose sleeve? Do big shoulders balance your frame or add bulk? How big a collar looks good? How tight a shirt?

The first fact of jackets: They need to fit in the neck and shoulders. Everything else can be altered, but a tailor can't do much with neck and shoulders except totally remake the jacket. Because I have really wide shoulders, for example, I tend to go with knit jackets and structured cardigans so that fit isn't a huge problem. The neck of the jacket should sit closely along your neck, but should not be tight. Often, tightness will make the lapels or the back of the collar look funny. The shoulders should be comfortable through a range of motion and when you bend your arms the sleeves should not look like overstuffed sausages. You should not feel uncomfortable pull across the shoulder when you fold your arms in front of you or reach up. A well-fitting jacket will not ride up weirdly after you've reached for something above your head - it will largely return to place without fuss. In fact, if you constantly have to adjust a piece of clothing, it is not a good fit.

For shirts, the same rules apply, with the added excitement of needing to fit your chest perfectly. (This is why many women wear knits, right?) For button-front shirts, I like Talbot's, Lands' End and certain shirts from Old Navy - they are cut fairly consistently so I always know my size and they tend to have enough stretch that they fit my chest without being HUGE around the waist.

Pants are extremely variable. The key is that the waist AND hips AND thighs need to fit. The waist can be taken in if you have a high waist-to-hip ratio. I don't, so I have to find pants that are comparatively wide in the waist, narrow in the hips and also allow for big ol' bike-rider legs. Do you have wide hips in relation to your waist? Narrow hips? Do you have slender, tapered legs (pity the women who have large waists and slender legs and still want to wear pants...) or muscle-y ones?

Also, consider your bone structure. Many clothes - even plus sizes - are designed on the assumption that you're small-boned, with narrow shoulders and a shallow rib cage, tiny ankles, etc. "Big-boned" isn't just a euphemism for fat - if you have wide shoulders and big hands and so on and wear (say) a size 10, you have different fit concerns than someone who has narrow shoulders and tiny knees who also wears a size 10.
posted by Frowner at 7:36 AM on November 17, 2011

Buy clothing in your palate and don't even consider anything else.

This is good advice. Despite black being really popular, not everybody suits it. I'm very pale and have dyed red hair, and pastels look bad on me too - yet many women's items come in sugary pinks. I find I wear a lot of navy, but almost never black.

What I would do is find a style that you like - a jumper with a round neck, or a V-neck, or a cardigan, say - and work out what colours suit you best. Then think about which of those colours will suit what you have. If you go to a store like Uniqlo where they have the same item in several colours, this is a good way to check whether you look better in cerulean or navy.
posted by mippy at 8:08 AM on November 17, 2011

What Not to Wear is brilliant. Just focus on the episodes on women with a similar body type. A lot of it can be fast-forwarded, too, so the time investment isn't as big as it may sound.
posted by dreamphone at 10:56 AM on November 17, 2011

Unfortunately they recently quit actively blogging, but the ladies at Academichic still have all of their posts up and I think you will find them very helpful. It's a fashion blog written by 4 women (with different body types) in academia who also teach. They have lots of example photos of various outfits, but they also have many "Fashion 101" posts that discuss color combinations, proportions, cardigans & jackets and much more.
posted by geeky at 12:43 PM on November 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

As another color data point: while navy & black never looks "right" to me, I'm a big fan of wearing chocolate brown with black. It's become a running joke with my coworkers. I tend to avoid navy but after being given a pair of pinstripe navy pants, I've found I like to wear lime green or grey with it.

Another idea for color choices is to search pinterest.com for two colors. You'll see pictures of outfits and home decor items that could give you some ideas.
posted by bluesapphires at 2:41 PM on November 17, 2011

Best answer: 1) I seem to have a lot of browns. If the shirt is mostly brown and the jacket is mostly brown, can I wear black pants? I have a feeling the answer is no, so if this is true, what colour pants do I wear?

I would probably never wear a brown shirt and a brown jacket. What would work better is a broken jacket with brown pants, and some other color of shirt--maybe even a pattern. You could wear a brown jacket with brown pants, khakis, or jeans. A brown shirt would go with jeans, or a funky skirt. I generally like to have one loud thing and one neutral thing, but either one can be a shirt or skirt/pants. (Like loud shirt/solid skirt or funky skirt/solid shirt)

2) Can you mix shades within the same colour? For instance, if the pants are black and the t-shirt is mostly black with some lavender-esque aspects, can I wear a deep purple sweater? It looks like it goes okay, to my eye, but it is not the same shade of purple so I don't know...

Absolutely--there is a difference between "matching" and "going." Some things match, and some things really GO together. If colors are in the same family, and are obviously not so close in shade that people might think you thought they were an exact match (sorry for how complicated that is!), you can totally wear them together.

3) What colour do you wear under a grey blazer or jacket? And then what colour pants?

Almost any color, but I do mean COLOR and not another neutral. Grey looks great with yellow, green, blue, pink, red...pretty much everything. Don't be scared of pattern, either! You could wear black pants with a grey jacket. To me black and grey are like color cousins, and grey and brown are really not my favorite pairing. You could also wear jeans, if it were that kind of occasion. And seriously--skirts! I thought skirts weren't for me until last summer, and now I can't get enough. I carry a lot of weight in my waist, so I wear all my skirts to be high-waisted. It creates a flattering line and brings the focus of my look more towards my boobs than my fatness. For winter you add leggings or tights (I like footless tights..something about having my toes connected to my waist makes me feel claustrophobic) and boots, or booties, or whatever the current thing is. Like someone said above, I find this warmer than wearing pants. And I feel pretty, which doesn't hurt. And skirts come in a lot of types, so you have a ton of options and some will look better than others. I like both pencil skirts and a-lines.

4) I am only allowed to wear jeans at work on Fridays. What can I wear on non-Fridays as far as pants go so that I can make use of my quantity of navy-toned stuff? Obviously I am full up with navy now and need to stop buying it, but I have stuff now and want to wear it...

Khakis of the classically colored variety look great with navy! So would some of those grey pants and blazers we talked about earlier. And I bet a lot of skirts have navy in them!

I won't lie--you're going to have to shop around, and it's going to be frustrating. I agree with a lot of other posters about watching What Not To Wear. They talk a lot about blaming the clothes instead of yourself, and that can be helpful. They also like to remind everyone that you should get your things tailored. I'm taking two dresses in to be altered tomorrow, because they're too long but other than that they're perfect. Sure it's an extra bit of money, but walking around in something you had tailored to fit you feels really good! And it doesn't hurt that it looks good too. Don't be afraid to buy things and then return them. Don't be afraid to try colors or garments that you thought you'd never wear. And have fun! Shopping, once you get the hang of it, can be really rewarding. Literally, I guess.
posted by masquesoporfavor at 4:53 PM on November 17, 2011

Response by poster: Thank you so much, everyone! What great comments.
posted by JoannaC at 5:25 PM on November 17, 2011

« Older Why do birds migrate?   |   Eyeglasses for distance cause up-close things to... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.