Reader Andrea e-mailed me this request:
I’m 22 and about to start student teaching at the high school level, but I look like I’m about 15. I’m currently trying to build a wardrobe that doesn’t make me look like a student, but I don’t want to age myself too much and end up looking frumpy, either. So far, I’ve been leaning towards things that are generally more formal than the dress code for teachers in most public schools just to further differentiate myself from the students, and I’ve mostly been wearing heels (which also give me a slight height advantage, because I’m petite). If you have any other advice on this topic, I’d love to hear it.
There were several questions in the suggestion box about similar topics, so hopefully this post will cover several bases! I also know that dressing to look older and more sophisticated is a goal that many women have, and can arise for many reasons including internships, interviews, career, or the simple desire to evolve personal style from previous, less refined stages.* The instinct to dress a bit more formally is a good one, as casual clothing and style are naturally associated with youth. Here are a few more specific ideas and guidelines to help create a more polished, adult look:
Focus on muted tones and gray
I LOVE bright colors but, as I’ve said in the past, they are more on the bold/fun than the sophisticated/serious side. There are many ways to wear brights and make them look grown-up, but if you’re looking for a shortcut to a more adult style, making muted colors your main shades is a great way to go. I also suggest relying on gray as your primary neutral, since it’s easy to fall into a rut of colorful-top-with-black-bottom. If warm colors suit you and you’d rather keep to autumnals, you can swap in some brown for the gray, but keep the color focus on dusty, muted, subtle shades.
Upgrade or simplify your jewelry
I generally feel like jewelry and accessories can be bought inexpensively since it’s frequently harder to tell what’s cheap and what’s quality. (Harder for the untrained eye, at least.) But that idea applies mainly to those seeking to be expressive and experimental in their style goals. For anyone hoping to refine her look, I’d advise either upgrading some of your main pieces of jewelry, or simplifying your jewelry overall. Instead of F21 chandelier earrings, buy a pair of sterling ones from a department store. Invest in a simple, elegant necklace and wear it regularly. Don’t worry about springing for real diamonds, but get a small, tasteful pair of CZ or Moissanite studs. Understated, classic jewelry is a great route to grown-up looks. (Here’s an older post on building a classic accessory wardrobe.)
When new grads enter the working world, they tend to gravitate toward outfits that rely solely on solids. Working with printed fabrics in clothing and accessories will create a more confident, mature, refined overall impression. However, proceed with caution: Best bets for prints include blouses, cardigans, skirts, scarves and dresses. Printed tights, blazers, shoes, and pants may feel too young. Also use your common sense about which prints to wear: Animal, ditsy floral, and anything with tiny critters or whimsical graphic elements might give the wrong impression. Stick to abstracts, geometrics, watercolors, and similarly artsy designs.
Mind your footwear
Andrea already mentioned that she’s sticking mainly to heels – which is definitely a good choice since heels aren’t generally associated with young women and/or students – but there’s no need to feel like they’re the only option. Pretty much any clean-lined, relatively unembellished shoe will work, especially if the other elements of your outfit are tailored and urbane. Avoid shoes with ruffles, floral embellishments, exaggerated platforms, and lots of hardware. Until you’ve built some sartorial confidence, you also might want to avoid sneakers. But classic ballet flats, wedges, flat boots, and even booties will definitely work.
Refine your smart casual outfits
Since you won’t want to look buttoned-up every single day, give some thought to creating a grown-up casual look for yourself. Typical tools of the trade include dark-wash jeans, waterfall cardigans, scarves, and walkable heels. When conceptualizing your new version of casual consider using upgraded or formal versions of staples (jeans, tees, shoes) or creating mixes of casual and formal (jeans with heels instead of sneakers).
Some of the more common sense guidelines include avoiding mini skirts, ripped/distressed anything, graphic tees, extremely tight clothing, anything with loads of sparkle, ruffles, deep necklines, and extremely casual items like flip-flops. Also keeping makeup fairly neutral is probably best practice for anyone hoping to give the impression of refined sophistication.
Avoiding frump should be fairly simple. Most young women who aim for “grown-up,” don’t end up overshooting and landing in “elderly” territory. Those who look naturally youthful are especially unlikely to encounter this problem. But should it be of concern, simply stick to contemporary styles and garments, and make certain that they both fit and flatter your figure. In my opinion, “frumpy” has to do with wearing outdated garments that fight or hide one’s body. So avoiding frump means wearing modern cuts that fit you. Simple as that.
* Although some strive to dress MORE youthfully. That’s another post!
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