Reader Request: How to Soften Your Look

how to make your outfits feminine

Anne from Modern Mrs. Darcy e-mailed me this request:

This past year I’ve been trying to “soften” up my image: for years I’ve dressed in crisp basics–dark denim, jewel-neck cardis, jackets, white tees. (I just can’t help it–I worked in the legal field for too many years!!) I think the look is pretty but it’s also pretty no-nonsense, and I want to inject some softness and flowy-ness and easy-going-ness (howdya like all those adjectives?) into my appearance. So I’ve been experimenting with long necklaces and wispy bangs and long open cardigans and flowing scarves. I think I’m making progress, but I would love some tips from the pros.

Anne has already hit on some classic techniques for adding softness to your overall look: Flowy jewelry and hair, long layers, and, of course, scarves. So she’s well on her way! But here are a few other ideas that might further her goal of taking the edge off her current style:

Romantic prints

Already Pretty outfit featuring sheer floral blouse, skinny jeans, orange pumps, J.W. Hulme tote bag

Most prints will actually read a bit softer than solids, but there are definitely some stark abstracts that are incredibly edgy in appearance, so let’s say “romantic” to play it safe! Think florals, small geometrics, watercolors. Anything that gives the same impression as those scarves and long necklaces; That of movement, flowing water, rounded edges.

Low contrast

Black looks amazing with bright, cool colors like hot pink and turquoise, but outfits that contain those shades will have hard breaks and loads of contrast. If you choose colors that have roughly the same value – brightness, dustiness, darkness, etc. – you’ll create outfits that seem naturally softer. Collections of jewel tones, pastels, earth tones, and neutrals worn together look sophisticated and welcoming.

Long, flowy garments

Already Pretty outfit featuring cognac leather jacket, high-low hem dress, brown suede boots, Foley + Corinna Mid-City Tote, chunky chain necklace

You’ve got flowing down, but how about long? Are you doing waterfall cardigans that hit mid-thigh? Dusters? Jersey-knit maxi skirts? Soft tunics? Very few stark, hard-edged ensembles incorporate long, liquid layers, so throw a few of those into the mix to create visible softness.

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  • Elin

    I find that asymetrical hems lines – like those that are short in the front and long in the back – often give a soft appearance. Also, simply the texture of the fabric can give a softer look. So, wearing soft cotton shirts or sweaters instead of blouses can achieve that look. Also consider sleeve style – cap sleeves and pushed up long sleeves or 3/4 lengths will be softer than say a french cuff or a tight and longer sleeve.

    • Sal

      Great tips, Elin!

  • I love these looks and tips. Thanks, Sally! (And thanks for helping with my continual style evolution.)

  • Jen

    I have the opposite issue, I am all softness and romantic looks as much as possible! My husband jokes that if something has ruffles, flowers, or layers of flirty fabric I can’t resist it! However, I have had several friends who have asked me the very same question that Anne has asked, and some simple ideas I’ve given them are to snag flowy ruffled scarves, fabric flower pins to add to your ensembles, jewelry that has a romantic touch to it, or hair accessories that soften your look (headbands, scarves, pins, etc).

    Some days, especially when I am running events for work (I’m a school counselor), I have to tone down my romantic look and appear more business-like. But that doesn’t mean I don’t sneak in a flower pin or a pretty necklace with my suit!

  • sigourney

    Oriental-inspired ear-hangers, lipstick with a little pearly sheen, (irregular) pearls, mother-of-pearl jewellery, moonstone, any variety of quartz cabochon necklace, bedhead, sheer insets in clothing, lace, knit sweaters/cardigans with flattering, floppy collars/necklines, layered clothing as opposed to stark lines and edges, mohair, fur, the red shades that Imogen Lamport calls “skin enhancers” like coral, peach, blush, pink – whatever suits your complexion.

    Phew. I should heed all those myself.

    • Kris10

      Maybe not full-on bedhead, but imperfect hair goes a long way!! I love wearing my hair naturally (thick waves) in some sort of updo or half-up style with a more structured outfit. It looks like I at least groomed it, but it’s soft and less formal.

  • Yep, very good suggestions. I am a soft and flowy dresser and these are the things that I do.

    I totally need advice on how to badass it up a little bit without a) turning into a suit or b) going back to all black and dark tones. Can you even be badass and wear lightweight clothing and tropical-appropriate colors?

    • Sonja

      I cannot help much with softening looks, but maybe I can give you one or two tipps about “hardening” your look and still dressing adequately for warmer weather. I like silver jewelry with geometric forms, especially big earstuds – I love that they make a statement but do not make me sweat. When it comes to colours, try grey instead of black. Stiff but breathable fabric like cotton and linen are great for simpler or “harder” looks. And I personally don’t like them, but if you want to go really badass, there are tons of sandals with many straps and studs, those gladiator ones and other styles.

    • Angela

      Cynthia, I think the easiest way to “be badass” with a soft and flowy wardrobe is to add some hard-edged accessories! Chuck Taylors, moto boots or a moto jacket, and jewelry with leather and/or spiked detailing can create a fun look when juxtaposed with softer pieces. This photo from the Sartorialist hints at this concept: http://www.thesartorialist.com/photos/on-the-street-devon-new-york/

    • sigourney

      How about a light-coloured tee-shirt with an edgy print?

  • Like Jen, I’m drawn to the softer stuff immediately. I love dangly earrings, flowy skirts and pink lipstick. But I adore chunky boots too. Your tips are great, Sal, and I love, love that cream outfit with the sheer skirt – gorgeous!

  • Sarah

    Where did that gorgeous scarf come from???

  • ruth

    I think what is good about the suggestions is that they are still fairly neat and tidy. I can understand Anne wanting to soften her look, but if she feels comfortably with crisp and neat, that is probably what works best for her. There are some people who can waft around in trailing scarves and lots of drapery – and others who just can’t. Introducing some pattern and toning down the colour contrasts, plus using some softer fabrics, all as you suggest, can still be done with the same trouble-free clothes and she will probably feel most comfortable that way.

  • I find that a little lace or ruffles can add pretty softness to a look, too. Sometimes too much, and you end up looking like a little girl, but there are loads of great tops our there with flowy ties, lace edging, or a little bit of ruffle that are pretty and romantic without being twee. A structured garment made of lace, like a lace pencil skirt or tailored shell, could work, too. Ruching can also add some softness to otherwise basic pieces.

  • Kaitlin

    I also tend to lean towards the flowy, scarf-y, jewelry style. Very ruffled and flowy! I love it. I wear TONS of scarves, long earrings, lots of jersey dresses in pretty pastels. I love gladiator sandals in metallic tones (especially bronze). Sometimes a whimsical piece of jewelry is all it takes–check out etsy–there are toooonsss of gorgeous handmade pieces. I think a statement necklace with lots of cabachon gems (moonstone, amethyst, garnets, etc) would be just lovely!

  • Over the years, as I am aging, I try to buy pieces that are originals, not faddish, and that emphasize my quirkiness. My main “supplier” in that I have 100’s of her pieces accumulated over time, is Secret Lentil (Helen Carter). When I wear her pieces, I am timeless, neither soft nor hard, but very much my own person. Her work is both flowy and edgy. She sells through Etsy, and has her own website: http://www.Secretlentil.com.

  • I personally have the opposite problem. I always try to toughen my look. I think it’s easy to find feminine pieces with princess seams, poofed sleeves (if you like them), ruffles, soft colors, soft fabrics. I think once you start learning to buy individual pieces that when combined with others will create a cohesive look – be it soft or hard. I think we all get stuck looking for plain basics, but outfits can become something else entirely when you utilize interesting basics – like a tee with a ruffle or trousers with a small pattern or skirt with a funky kickpleat.

  • b.

    I’m a soft dresser, too. I’d like to add to the above, excellent lists:

    -rounded- or oval-toe shoes
    -gentle necklines–scoops, boatnecks, rounded vees, rounded collar points.
    -princess seams
    -knit fabrics rather than wovens
    -a touch of lace or crochet detailing peeking out from under other layers
    -slouchy purse shapes, like hobos

  • Thursday

    I have to echo the fabric suggestions mentioned above – a touch of lace, a sheer layer somewhere, a jersey blouse instead of a shirt. For me it’s also about the silhouette – an a-line or full skirt instead of a pencil, but how useful that might be for others depends on figure flattery priorities and other things.

  • Kris10

    I’m in the middle of the road with softness vs. hardness. I usually contrast soft with structured–today, I have a clean A-line skirt and structured military jacket (softened by rolling the sleeves) with a soft blush scarf. I’ve found that wearing gray and taupe instead of black and brown is a much softer look. (I also lean on off white, army green, and navy as neutrals.) The softer neutrals contrast well with all sorts of shades without the stark contrast of black + color. Also, I rarely wear black or brown shoes, preferring gray, animal print, taupe, cognac, or colored shoes.

  • Great suggestions!! It’s wonderfully helpful to have a big old list of elements to choose from just like the post and comments here. Some suggestions will be total duds or just make you feel uncomfortable, but you’ll find those few which are the answers to your prayers! I love to play ultra-femme off of rugged in my outfits, but i’m picky about what type of femme i wear. Play around with different types of softness to find your personal, trademark faves!

    Flowy blouses and tunics in chiffon/crepe/gauzes are classic, tres femme and available in abundance these days. Even more romantic in a soft floral print. In prints look for blurred edges & low contrast.

    Soft textures and construction are wonderful – boucle, wool crepe, organza, gauze, chiffon, lace, eyelet, crochet, popcorn knits, angora, suede, perforated leather……

    Certain colors have a softer feel. Less saturated hues, of course. But also any hue which is overwashed or dipped in soft grey or which has a ‘tea dyed’ look. (explanation & pix at bottom of this post: http://dashingeccentric.blogspot.com/2012/03/color-theory-in-your-closet-color.html )

    Also, some historical eras feel more romantic than others. Pieces hinting at the Victorian, Edwardian, & Roaring Twenties times will often have a softer feel. Have fun!! steph