How to Spot Versatile Jewelry and Accessories

Accessories can become their own little shopping rabbit hole. They’re generally fairly cheap (and can certainly be thrifted for pennies), relatively small, and can often be rationalized when clothing and shoes cannot. It can be tough to predict which items will become versatile staples, and which ones will be abandoned after a few wears. Especially since accessories are often the sartorial realm in which we branch out: We may not dress like a rocker head-to-toe, but the occasional tough-edged accessory may work its way into regular wear.

As usual, I’m not claiming to have a foolproof method for vetting accessories. But I’d like to share a few observations I’ve made as I’ve built my own collection, and offer a few ideas to mull for anyone considering a new accessory purchase.

Is it color and genre neutral?

I have lots of bracelets, including some funky thrifted bangles in an assortment of bold colors. But the ones that get the most wear are pictured here. They’re all silver or silver and black, which means they work with the vast majority of my clothing, and they’re all capable of working across a variety of outfit styles. Undeniably neutral accessories are best as finishing touches: Items that add polish and interest but don’t serve as points of specific interest or bridging pieces. In my case, that means bracelets, earrings, sunglasses, and sometimes tights.

Or, on the flip side, does it include multiple colors?

When it comes to scarves, though, I take a completely different tactic. I generally use scarves either as focal points, or as jumping-off points for interesting color schemes. Therefore, I find multicolored, printed scarves to be my most used and most versatile. Since they’ve got lots of tonal options within a single piece, they can jump from outfit to outfit and genre to genre with ease. Multicolored bags, belts, and necklaces have also proven versatile for me, though shoes, earrings, and bracelets seem harder to incorporate.

Does it fall into an aspirational genre?

OK, this is by far the riskiest pre-purchase quiz question. As I mentioned above, accessories provide a great way to dabble. Maybe you can’t wear full romantic garb to the office, corset and all. But you can certainly wear a locket or a silk sash. Preppy may not be your thing in general, but you can certainly do pearls and structured handbags with your non-prep wear. I’m no punk, no rocker, no badass … but this studded belt has proven itself to be a surprisingly versatile item. In my experience, accessories that fall into aspirational genres are best when they’re fairly small – belts and jewelry as opposed to bags and hats. But that’s just me.

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  • Anna

    I’m with you on the multicolored scarves. I have several and always look for them in thrift shops and at estate sales, and I’m regularly surprised when they play well with items in my closet that hadn’t sprung immediately to mind when I first obtained them.

    (Amusing note: years ago, a guy who was quite clueless about style asked my XDH, “Why does Anna wear her scarf that way? Does she belong to some kind of organization?”)

    • Sal

      Gosh. How were you wearing your scarf? Tied around your upper arm or something. 😉

      • Anna

        No, just the usual drape-and-tie!

  • I also agree on the ‘genre’ thing- for example, I’d say burnished & antique gold suits a bohemian/ vintage style, whereas rose gold is a lot more classic & silver makes me think of edgy/ rocker/ minimalist/ mod etc.

    However, I’d also say that’s more important for the accessories to complement you first- like gold accessories on warm skin & silver on cooler-toned skin.

    The other thing is that I’d say to evaluate your clothing in terms of colour/ print & then buy your accessories accordingly- do you like to wear lots of printed dresses? If so, simpler (but not necessarily plain!) accessories in a single colour may be best. On the other hand, if your clothes are generally neutral-coloured without much pattern, then a printed scarf in a bright colour might be the perfect accessory to jazz up your look a little!

  • Color neutral even works for so-called statement jewelry. I have a couple big, chunky necklaces that are in neutral silver or black tones. They go with just about anything, depending on neckline. They can jazz up an outfit immediately, & I wear the heck out of them!

  • Allison

    LOVE that scarf in the first photo. Where is it from?

    Great tips, as always!

  • I thrift most of my jewelry and accessories these days. I love brightly patterned scarves, too–I often pull out a scarf and then style an outfit around it.
    I love funky, unusual jewelry–it’s where I can put a bit of my personality into a more conservative outfit.
    In fact, I thrifted an early 80’s chunky wooden parrot & beads necklace yesterday in vibrant turquoise shades with bright orange accents and a bit of black. It inspired a whole out–black crops, dark orange top, black thin cardigan, aqua flats and purse. I’ve been complimented left and right on hpow cute it looks and how interesting the color combo is–which I would’ve never attempted before finding the necklace!

  • First of all, I have the same bracelet in the largest picture. I bought it because it would go with a lot of different outfit and, at least in my case, it was $4. My guilty accessory pleasure is Forever 21. They are usually cheaply made but always less than $12, so how can you really go wrong? At this point in my life I don’t have the money (nor does my boyfriend) for “investment” jewelry pieces. So to liven up my outfit, I agree that inexpensive accessories are the way to go.

  • I have two double sided necklaces. One is red stained glass/pale purple silk and the other is white on one side and black on the other. I find those two necklaces will serve all of my vacation needs while still having a pop of colour. I totally agree on the practicality of all metal (be it silver or gold) it’s not going to clash with anything.

  • I have found it really useful to stick with a color scheme for my entire wardrobe. I love purple and like the way reds, pinks, and purples complement my skin tone. So the bulk of my patterned/colored clothing is in that color family. I also mostly stick with black or gray neutral items (like work pants and shoes). I have a small wardrobe and a smaller budget so making sure everything falls into either the color family or the neutral family allows me a lot more room to mix-and-match, and I don’t think anyone notices that I don’t own anything blue or green or brown.

    This makes it a lot easier to accessorize as well. I try to mainly buy silver jewelry and look for purses & shoes with silver hardware. Any scarf with a tiny bit of purple or red or pink will match the bulk of my clothing. I also add color with scarves more than anything else. If it has a tiny bit of purple but lots of greens and blues in the pattern, it will work with my purple stuff but also add some dimension to my outfit with the other colors.

    Granted, I am a hugely boring dresser compared to a lot of bloggers, but I find that keeping my entire wardrobe in the same color family makes getting dressed and accessorizing so much easier.

  • Most of my accessories have been thrifted or gifted. The only two things I paid big bucks for were my Audi-harnesses. I worried about how much use they might get but their PPW is already well within a few dollars and they’re still in excellent shape. I think I have a pretty good handle on my style now so I don’t sweat the small stuff. I am just plain not a jewelry person, scarf person, or hat person. But I do have a few of each. I like belts a lot, but even these days I’ve been erring on the less is more side.

  • sue

    I’m curious, that scarf in the first picture (with the blue dress) how versatile has that turned to be? It definitely looks like something that could be used with lots of outfits but I don’t think I’ve seen it featured on your blog since you initially wore it with the blue dress. Or am I wrong, and I just missed it? Which is quite possible.

    • Sal

      Nope, it hasn’t really been ideal for summer wear. It’s silk, which breathes, but it’s also HUGE which means it’s really only useful as a wrap for warm weather. I’m anticipating that it’ll get more use once the weather cools down.

  • Val C-MN

    I am a big accessory collector/wearer: primarily jewelry, purses, and hats. With my skin tone, I can wear any color (get a lot of compliments on red, coral, magenta, chartreuse/olive green, and cobalt). Since I have a lot of color in my wardrobe, I primarily perfer colorful bags; however, I do own some black bags and neutral color bags. Sometimes a neutral or black bag can ground a “busy” print or ground a colorful outfit..

    For hats, most of mine are fedoras and then a few pageboy styles and the colors are primarily darks and a few houndstooth/patterned. Those can go with any color outfit or neutral, or add interest to a dark ensemble.

    Jewelry, I have costume jewelry which I still love; however, I have been wearing mostly gemstones or else all-metal styles this year. Most gemstones will go with any color and any metal will go with a variety of colors, too. It depends on what is your style or what type of metals you like. I have some dainty jewelry but I normally wear medium scale to statement pieces as far as size. Depending on the look I am going for will determine if I wear earrings, necklace, bracelet, ring, or just a few areas. I also own a lot of watches which allows me to incorporate color, metal, or style aesthetic.

    In the winter time, I will wear scarves and fingerless gloves. I love Talbots and TJ Maxx for beautiful knit/pashmina scarves.

  • Cee

    I really appreciate these tips Sal. I am awful for buying accessories willy-nilly. Some make their way into my rotation, but sometimes that’s only after years. For example, I have a pair of beaded hoop earrings which I bought about three years ago, and have only been wearing regularly for the last three months.

    Sadly, this means there are lots of ‘losers,’ looking at me balefully from my jewellery drawer because I can’t figure out how to incorporate them. Now I’ve read your post, I realise most of them were aspirational badass pieces that I can’t make work!

    On a side note, your read skirt in the second group of images. Was that originally fitted at the waist or at the hips? I have an almost identical one fitted at the hips, but I’m considering having it taken in to fit on my waist.

    • Sal

      Cee, the skirt with the tights and gray top? That’s a thrifted J.Crew skirt that I’ve always worn at my natural waist. With my figure, I prefer full and a-line skirts to hit me at the waist. Hope that helps!

  • Glamdoc

    I used to wear so much black all the time that a (good) friend of mine said I always looked as if I was heading for a funeral. Not that I wanted to look like an architect at all times (sorry about that, beautiful architect lady on Sally´s blogroll), I guess it mostly had to do with a lack of color combo skills.

    In India I picked up a bunch of animal print scarves in earth tones and pink that have gotten a lot of wear, and recently I bought a big fuchsia and orange leopard print scarf in thinly woven wool (this one: http://www.shoplesnouvelles.com/solo2/dev/page/load/96/details/1589/product/askilio-scarf ). Nowadays I wear the latter so much it´s kind of a neutral to me and I pretty much always carry it with me in my purse (summers in Norway can be pretty cool and windy), but when I do put it on in front of the mirror at home I notice that it really adds a lot of sass to my otherwise beige/muted pastel outfits.

    I´m really big on earrings, so that´s where most of my personality comes in to play in my outfits. And considering my work gear I´ve started to rock the smaller versions as well 🙂 I love all tones of metal, but find them difficult to mix. Love necklaces too, but am 5´3 and average/slim but very well endowed, so even though I prefer really long ones they tend to draw even more attention to the already quite obvious boobage.

    Since I´m an avid reader but seldom comment I´d just take this opportunity to say thank you to Sally for this wonderful space. I´ve learnt so much about dressing from you and you inspire me a lot. And I really appreciate the way you promote body positivity. And with this entrepreneurship of yours; I hope you earn loads of money (at least enough to not having to think about it much). This can be elaborated upon ad infinitum, but really, thank you.

    • Sal

      You’re so kind, Glamdoc! Thank you for reading and for your incredible support.

  • Viktoria

    This is such a timely post, I have just turned my attention to my jewellery drawer after weeding and pruning my wardrobe and scarf collection!

    I have, after a lot of buying and trying these last years, really taken to wearing my scarves as a necklace, pinning them to my shirt with a brooch. Like you, I have found that colourful scarves workes best for me (I like one-coloured clothes) and the brooches that go best with that are silver, round and on the large side. I tend to match that with rather small earrings, also silver, with a little bit of a dangle, I like the movement, thinks it draws attention to my face in a good way. I never wear bracelets or necklaces, but I find I always need a watch (I am still resisting the everpresent mobil phone), and my next project is to stock up on some options that are a bit more attractive than my old trusty, but ugly, Casio.

    I really like having found what works, and will give away or sell all that stuff that just sits there, for others to enjoy.

  • Kathaleen

    Belts! When I read this post, I thought to myself: I love belts on other people but can I pull off wearing a belt?! I haven’t worn a belt in… forever!

    Last night, my thrifting-senses were tingling and I stopped off at my local favourite thrifting store on my way home from work. I found the *perfect* belt in a stretchy navy blue with a faux croc navy blue buckle that I just knew I could use for the rest of my life with absolute success. I went home and used your advice: shop your closet.

    I ended up creating an outfit centred around the belt: Turquoise faux wrap jersey sundress, navy blue cover-up cardigan and my new fabulous navy blue belt which allows me to keep the cover-up closed (keeps the girls under wraps for the office) and gives me a waist (I’m short-waisted and a curvy hourglass). Adding white earrings (faux over-sized pearl drops), white casual sandals (with white nacre accents), and white/navy/peacock green/turquoise metallic cuff) and it all looks GREAT, if I do say so myself.

    I have had SO many compliments on it today at work (one woman said: “Why so fancy? It’s Friday! Aren’t you uncomfortable?” I just laughed and said it’s the most comfortable outfit I’ve worn all week – and I wore trouser jeans yesterday! Another woman keeps saying “I love the belt!” whenever we see each other around the office). I have deemed this outfit to be my ultimate stylish travelling outfit; I’m heading to the Finger Lakes for a wine tour this weekend after work.

    And, I wanted to say THANK YOU, Sal. I am so glad I discovered your blog and I just bought your book, too!

    • Sal

      Kathleen, that’s FANTASTIC! Have fun at the Finger Lakes (so gorgeous), and thanks for your support!