MANual of Style

Lesson 15: Putting Together an Outfit by Shreyas
16 February, 2010, 9:11 am
Filed under: Basic Concepts | Tags: , , , ,

There are a few different ways you might approach putting together an outfit; I thought I’d sketch some situations out for you and show the thought process behind them. Some of these processes may look like they take a while, but you’ve only got to do them once. Once you know a particular outfit works, just remember it (put it down in your style journal if you want to), and you can go to it effortlessly. Say you’re getting dressed in the morning, and you say to yourself:

I want to wear my crazy hat today!

Okay, great. The first thing you do is get your hat and put it on your bed, or couch, or hat rack or whatever. All set? Good. This object is going to act as your valet. You lay out outfits on it like it’s a paper doll and imagine yourself wearing them. It’s a lot more efficient than actually trying on everything you might consider wearing like girls do on TV, and it gives you a good visual check against your gut feelings about how two or more items work together. (After you get some practice, you can do this in your head, but even when you get to that point, it’s useful to do the valet thing every now and then.)

What you’re trying to find is a dominant garment—the biggest thing you’re wearing, probably a top—with colors and textures that work harmoniously with your hat. Harmony doesn’t have to mean that they’re identical. Contrast can work just as well; just remember what we learned earlier about color, pattern, and texture. However, in this case you’re trying to showcase a particular item, so you don’t want to contrast too strongly. Your other pieces should complement and support your star item, rather than compete with it, so the supporting pieces should be less emphatic.

Once you have that dominant garment, you’ve got your palette of colors and textures. Assemble the rest of your pieces based on the two items you have in front of you. Keep in mind, the formality of your outfit emerges from the formality of the pieces. A nice sport jacket can elevate a tee and jeans to going-out wear; similarly, a cool pair of sneakers can make it okay to go to the grocery store in a three-piece suit.

I am sad today. I shall wear black.

I’m sorry to hear that! The thing about wearing black (or any other monochromatic outfit) is that it really shows if your clothes are faded; black dyes especially are usually made up of a mixture of several colors that fade at different rates, so after you wash your favorite black shirt a few times it might become green or grey or navy. If this is the case, you have two solutions: you can either dye your clothes (a messy and laborious option), or you can wear them so they don’t touch other, differently colored “black” things, such as by wearing a light-colored belt between your black jeans and your black tux shirt.

Instead of wearing just one color, you can showcase a color by pairing one key item with neutrals. That might turn out to be a little easier. Either way, be sure that your showcased color doesn’t overwhelm your face; some colors are easier to wear in larger amounts than others. You can always experiment and see what’s the ideal amount of lime green or royal blue for you.

Man, I feel fat today.

The best thing to do when you’re not feeling super great about your appearance is to dress up, not down, and pay attention to silhouette. Start by thinking about the cut of your clothes before texture and color, and choose the clothing which best creates the way you want to look. If you’re feeling weak, go for T-shirts that cut across the widest part of the bicept to look more muscular. If you’re feeling fat, go for slim-cut items and thinner layers. If you’re feeling too skinny, wear structured items that give your frame more power and substance. Only after you’ve got the silhouette worked out should you start worrying about whether the colors go. If something doesn’t work, then swap it out for a piece of clothing which does the same (or a similar) thing for your silhouette. And for extra self-esteem boost, include one accessory or item that makes you feel really good, that you’re proud of finding, and choose today to show it off.

Putting it together

When you get good at constructing outfits in these ways, you’ll be able to tell what type of outfit an item is good for when you purchase it (“I love this color!” versus “I love this cut!” versus “This is a work of art and I want to show it off”). You’ll also be able to create outfits which do more than one of these things— monochromatic slim-cut silhouettes and outfits that show off a single color as well as an amazing item, for example.

The power was inside you all along

Honestly, if you’ve been paying attention to all of the lessons here on MANual of Style and dutifully writing in your style journal, you already have all of the tools to put together a killer outfit. This is just an overview of the things we’ve already discussed. You have the power, now use it.


Lesson 8: Accessories by Shreyas
14 January, 2010, 10:44 pm
Filed under: Basic Concepts | Tags: , , ,

So let’s talk about accessories—all those things you wear without which you’d still be dressed, things such as watches, jewelry, gloves, scarves, and hats. (Not too long ago, a hat was an essential, not an accessory!)

Why Accessorize?

An accessory is a removable, repositionable detail. You use it the same way as any other detail—to draw the eye to a strong feature. You can also use it as a decoy. Since it draws attention to itself, you can deflect attention from a part you’re not so sanguine about. Until quite recently, I wore a pair of keys on different lengths of ball chain as a necklace; it’s a flashy, moving object that makes a clanking sound when I move, which makes it a nearly irresistible attention trap. I could tell it was working because lots of people made comments about it. At the time I was gaining some weight, and it helped keep eyes off my waistline.

That’s not a particularly subtle way to use an accessory, but I hope it makes it clear what you can do with them. One friend of mine always wears very fancy vintage belt buckles to draw attention to his package, but that’s not for everyone either. On the other hand, I have a lot of friends who spend hardly any money on their clothes, but invest hundreds of dollars and lots of man-hours finding just the right glasses to accentuate their faces. That’s a relatively low-risk thing to do; glasses have an inherent practical value, and if you don’t want people to look at anything you’re wearing, a great pair of glasses is a good way to accomplish that.

Path of the Eye

When you’re choosing accessories, think about where on the body you’ll wear them. Also think about the way the gaze has to travel to take them in. When people are casually looking at other people, their attention naturally falls on the face, and from there it travels to approximately the nearest visually interesting area; it generally gets to the hands at some point because hands are expressive and mobile. So, if you’re trying to keep eyes off your middle, you can wear a striking accessory on your wrist, or have a shirt with a bright sleeve detail, and the eye will travel from your face to your hands without ever going to your middle. Alternately, you could wear a long scarf hanging straight down, so when the eye moves off your face, it hits a straight line leading to the floor.

If you want to be checked out head-to-toe, be sure to wear an interesting belt and interesting shoes, and possibly jeans with an unusual back-pocket detail, to ensure that you get looked at all the way before the eyes go back to your face. It’s important to give people something to look at if you want them to look at you.

Accessories that Stand Out

Choosing a good accessory is a challenge. For starters, as usual I recommend a small selection of conservative items. It’s hard to go wrong with a nice analog watch on a dark leather band, a solid or striped scarf in a color that suits your skin, and a basic leather belt with an interesting buckle. Also consider a few pairs of shoes of varying levels of dressiness.

Forgive me, because I’m about to be judgemental: Most digital watches are only appropriate if you want to look like you’re from Back to the Future. If analog watches bother you, think of it as a mechanical bracelet and check the time on your cell. There are a few designers who make really cool digital watches (like Nooka), but they’re hard to find and often more expensive than comparable analogs.

But, back to the main point: Since the purpose of these things is to direct attention, you should feel free to splurge on really distinctive items, daring colors, investments, or conversation pieces. Accessories can add color to an outfit (I have a scarf with red and yellow stripes that I wear when I’m feeling down) or change your silhouette. They’re also a great opportunity to reference your interests; I knew a couple of Buddhists who always wore their prayer malas as bracelets, for instance. There is some great anime-inspired jewelry out there.

Less is More

While it’s important to have visual landmarks, you shouldn’t overdo it. Too many accessories cancel each other out and look cluttered. One or two is usually enough. Coco Chanel said you should always take off the last thing you put on; while you may not actually have to, it’s always a good idea to check yourself out as you’re walking out the door to be sure you don’t look like Mr. T.

That’s it for today. Check in with us on Saturday, when I’ll tell you about some accessories I like. Tell me about some of your interests or concerns, and I’ll recommend some stuff that you might like, too.

Lesson 7: Color & Pattern by Shreyas
12 January, 2010, 11:51 pm
Filed under: Basic Concepts | Tags: , ,

We talked about color briefly in regards to using it for emphasis, but we haven’t talked about it in depth yet, so here goes.

Colors that Work for You

What’s it mean when we say “That color looks good on you,” anyway? What that means is that the color, adjacent to your skin, makes you look healthy and natural. Without getting too much into the technicalities of color perception, the basic principle to understand is that the human visual system creates contrast, so wearing a really saturated green will make your skin, alongside it, look more rosy. Similarly, wearing black makes you appear paler, and so on. The other useful thing the visual system does is create relationships, so if your shirt is the same color as your eyes, it highlights your eye color. That’s a little harder to illustrate so it isn’t shown below, but here are some swatches of different skin tones with a variety of colors alongside them, so you can see a little bit of the contrast effect in action.

Once that’s sunk in a bit, try an experiment: find three differently-colored shirts and look at yourself in the same mirror, wearing each one. Pay attention to how it interacts with your skin tone and your features. Take notes in your style journal if you notice anything interesting.

Think about how you can use this effect to your advantage—you can intensify the impact of your hair color by wearing a color that contrasts with it, or downplay the redness of your eyes after a night of hard partying by wearing a light blue, etc. The trick here is that there isn’t a color (speaking broadly) that doesn’t work for you, but you might need to shop around to find the right tone of that color. (Like, for me, cool reds work, but warm reds make me look sort of jaundiced. The blue undertone counteracts the red’s effect to a degree that makes it wearable.)

Fashion Neutrals

In color theory, a neutral is a color that has no hue, but that isn’t actually a very useful definition for clothing. Instead, I think of neutrals as having a minimum impact on the perception of your coloring. In practice, that means everyone has different neutrals: one family that’s roughly the same as your skin tone (these will simply disappear; the various skin tones used in womens’ hosiery are the main example), and one that’s roughly complementary to it (these will slightly intensify your skin tone without shifting its balance of colors). In both cases, less saturated colors are more neutral-acting.

The complementary family is interesting because it includes denim. Most people have a couple of shades of denim they look good in and several they don’t look that good in, and this is why—the colors closest to the complement of your skin tone will exactly bring out your natural color, which is often the most flattering.

I don’t generally think of white and black as neutrals, because they’re extremely high-impact colors. Black acts like a super-saturated color, taking away the color from your face and making it look more contrasty, which will highlight any blemishes or irregularities you have, so if you do wear it, it’s a good idea to interrupt it near the face unless your complexion is really clear and luminous. To add insult to injury, black doesn’t reflect any light onto you, which exaggerates shadows (under most conditions you’re lit from mostly overhead). White is more forgiving to the complexion, but less to the figure—it has a lot of visual volume. If you’re built for it, a slim-cut white shirt is a great thing that illuminates you and catches the eye from across the room, but don’t wear it on a part of the body you want to minimize.


Patterns behave in complex ways, visually. The large-scale impact of a pattern is basically similar to the solid color it looks like from a distance. However, the colors that compose it have their own effects, and as you recall from Silhouette, the very fact that it’s a pattern rather than a flat color makes it more visually weighty.

The other important thing to be aware of, with patterns, is the effect of patterns with dominant lines. Just as with lines in the silhouette, lines in a pattern lead the eye in the direction of their motion and interrupt the eye in the other direction. That’s why horizontal lines make you look wider and vertical lines make you look taller. This effect isn’t quite as strong with patterns of lower contrast or small scale, so if you’re looking askance at a buttondown because it’s got horizontal pinstripes, don’t worry about it too much. (That’s a pretty daring pattern because it’s not traditional at all, but it’s not particularly dangerous, visually.) As you might suspect, grids tend to cancel themselves out.

Color and Color Together

There are a couple of well-known ways to combine colors, based on their relationships on the color wheel. Again, I don’t think we need to get into the nuts and bolts of color theory, but it’s useful to think about the ways colors interrelate. Generally, when you’re putting together an outfit, you want to start with a dominant color (the color with the most visible area) that is flattering for you, and build color relationships around that color.

A couple of ways to put colors together:

  • Monochromatic: All colors are tints and shades of the dominant color. They vary in saturation and brightness but not hue. The monochromatic scheme can be really high-impact if executed in e.g. orange or yellow, but in greens, blues, and greys it’s pretty subtle.
  • Complementary: The dominant color and its complement—the color opposite to it on the color wheel. Complementary schemes are almost always pretty high-impact, because they have a very strong built-in contrast.
  • Split Complementary: One color and the two colors adjacent to its complement. Any of the colors may be dominant. Still contrasty, but a more subtle statement than the direct complementary scheme. Omitting one of the three colors can sometimes create a pretty interesting color relationship, but it’s risky.
  • Analogous: Two or three colors adjacent to one another on the color wheel. This is a pretty colorful way to go about your life, but it’s also relatively safe, as in hard to screw up.

Color and Pattern Together

Combining color and pattern is a pretty advanced technique that’s hard to master. One safe way to start is to wear a color that actually appears in the pattern; you can be sure that that color will work with every other color in the design. It’s a little more challenging to match by eye, but also relatively safe, to pair a pattern with the complement of one of the dominant colors in the pattern. Doing so will draw more attention to the pattern than color-matching does. Of course, it’s always safe to pair a pattern with white.

Once you’re comfortable pairing colors and patterns this way, your eye for color is probably developed enough that you can confidently make more subtle pairings. Refer to the color schemes above.

Pairing Patterns

This is a complex topic that deserves its own post, and we’ll tackle it farther down the line. For now, this concludes today’s lesson, and we’ll see you Thursday for the last lesson in Unit 1, the intro to accessories. See you then!