How to Layer

Layering is a BIIIIIG concept. Group of concepts even. And there’s certainly no right or wrong way to do it. But I wanted to talk about some layering fundamentals because for absolute ages I feared layering. Truly. It was one of those dressing techniques that others appeared to execute effortlessly and I could never seem to nail.

Growing up, I envied the girls who could throw on long-sleeved thermal shirts and then layer their cute little graphic tees on top. Because when I tried this, I looked like an outhouse with legs. It wasn’t until much later that I realized I was doing two things wrong: Trying a layered look that fought with my natural figure AND utilizing pieces that weren’t meant to be layered.

A few years after I moved to Minnesota, I realized that I’d better figure out this layering thing or lose my limbs to frostbite. So I experimented a lot, and finally got the knack of keeping warm through being super layered without bulking up. You’ll have to pick and choose which of these will work with your natural figure, of course, but I’m hoping that at least a few from each category will resonate with you.

Snug shirts: Heroes of the non-lumpy layering arsenal

As I mentioned above, part of my problem in years past was attempting to layer garments that weren’t meant to be layered. Some women can create artfully draped layered looks from loose garments, but most of us will feel more successful if we stick to simpler and closer-fitting ensembles. Make sure your underlayers fit to your bod, especially if they aren’t going to be fully visible. I have several tank tops that would be positively risque worn alone, but work great layered beneath other shirts and just peeking out at the hip or neckline. Underlayers need to provide extra warmth, a bit of length, a dash of color, and STABILITY for outer layers. Make sure you have a few tanks, tees, and long-sleevers that are tight enough to stay put if you want to throw another similar garment on top.

Tights that fit: Essential to layered comfort

Tights can be a bear, people. Unless you have rock hard abs and the exact proportions required for waistband comfort, you will deal with Segmented Worm Syndrome. But if it’s a choice between doing the dance every so often or wearing pants all winter, I will happily get down and boogie. Some folks swear by the cheapie Target versions, and I envy them. I have found that spending big on Falke tights alongside a few pairs of Express opaques serves me well. Also a fan of Spanx high-waisted tights, as my main fitting issue is the rolling waistband and a higher band solves the problem for me. Of course, you may have a whole different set of tights-related issues! The point is this: If you wear tights, invest some time and energy in finding brands and styles that work for you. You’ll be a much happier layer-er.

Slips: Old-fashioned but necessary

I don’t wear slips in summer, a fact that still leaves my mom mildly scandalized. But I wear them in winter, oh yes indeedy I do. Because many of my skirts are unlined and I’m usually wearing tights with them and that means friction galore. Minus a slip, I end up looking like I’m smuggling a squirrel nest between my thighs. Plus a slip, I’m warmer, less frictionalized, and my skirt and tights can coexist peacefully. Slips are key to winter layering. (More on slips here. More on employing underthings here.)

Fitted outer layers: Subtle shapers

Now, don’t get me wrong: Layering isn’t all about tight, tight, tight clothes. But since adding more garments is going to add more bulk, and since many women prefer to keep their bulk to a visible minimum, this bears mentioning. Your underlayers should be tight. Actually tight. Your outer layers can be considerably less tight, but will generally work better if they show the curves and contours of your figure. Sweaters that fit to your torso, blazers with princess seams, cardigans with shaping will help you look more defined and less like you’re preparing to play a game of ice hockey. As the goalie.

Balanced outfit assembly: Because loose stuff feels great

So now that I’ve basically said that the only way to layer is to do so with lots of tight, fitted stuff, here’s the flip side: Loose, oversized, roomy clothes can be fantastic for layering. Tight layers look sleek and chic, but looser ones often look arty, funky, and graceful. That is if they’re part of a balanced outfit. As I’ve said ad nauseum, if you’re gonna do a loose, outsized top it will generally work better with a fitted bottom. If you’re gonna wear a voluminous, flowy bottom, it will generally work better with a fitted top.

Remember my long-sleeved/short-sleeved t-shirt layering conundrum from earlier in this post? Problem one was that my underlayer (long-sleeved t-shirt) was loose-fitting and didn’t work well under my also loose-fitting outer layer (short-sleeved t-shirt). Problem two was that I wore these two enormous layered shirts with big, wide-legged jeans. Slimmer-fitting pants or jeans would’ve worked better to balance out the shirts … although such pants were in short supply back in the early 90s.

ANYHOO. The lesson here is that – in most cases – wearing a loose garment paired with a fitted one will help create visual balance within an outfit and prevent the observing eye from filling in extra body bulk where there is none.

Scarves: The layering accessory supreme

You lose 317% of your body heat out of your neck, and also at least 15% of the body heat of the person standing nearest to you. Scarves are the ultimate layering accessory because they provide welcome warmth and also allow for additional color, texture, and pattern.  For some scarf-tying inspiration, here’s a great list of resources. My favorite is the pretzel knot, though it works best for big/long scarves.

Again, layering is a massive topic, and I’ve just scratched the surface in this post. But I consider these to be some of the most basic techniques to use and pieces to try if you’re looking to bust into the layering game.

I’d love to get your input, of course! Got any layering basics to share? Tips and tricks? Garments or accessories that work well? What do you see as the key to successful layering?

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  • Anne

    Great post Sally. And thank you for the pretzel knot. I’ve been trying to figure that one out for a while. Now I know why I find myself stuck in the tee-shirt-cardi-scarf rut. The proportions work. I’ll be referring to this post to try and switch things up this winter. Some one told me that you always look 5-10 pounds thinner when you wear a slip. That’s reason enough for me.

  • Aziraphale

    Good tips, Sally. There’s nothing I disagree with. May I add that when layering tops, it’s often a good idea to have the bottom layer longer than the top layer, like you’ve got in your photo above? A shirt bottom poking out from under a sweater looks great. The shirt can’t be too long or too short, though. The proportions have to be right. Also a longer, stretchy, clingy knit top — like those thin tank tops you get from places like American Eagle Outfitters — with a shorter, but also fitted, tee shirt (long or short sleeve) over top looks great.

    I just clicked over to your post on slips, and I was surprised to read that you think they are such difficult garments. Are you sure you’re not wearing one that’s too tight? I usually size up, so that the slip’s waistband is fairly loose. That avoids any segmentation problems. I have a harder time with tights, because by definition they have to be pretty tight, and the wrong ones will indeed cause a big dent halfway up my body. But a half slip causes no segmentation problems. My main issue with a half slip is that it’s one more thing you have to futz around with in the morning when getting dressed (and you can’t omit the slip, unless you like the feeling of your skirt crawling up your thighs when you walk). With pants, you put them on and you’re good to go. With a skirt, you’ve got to find a slip of the correct length, with a slit if appropriate, and then tights or hose that are also appropriate for the outfit and the weather conditions. Some mornings that’s just too much for my fuzzy brain.

  • http://www.eliseduran.com Elise

    Girl, you crack me up! With the squirrel smuggling and losing other peoples body heat, this blog is the best way to start the day!

  • Susan

    Not a fan of the shirt-tail hanging out. I know it became a “thing” several years ago, but it looks dumb to my eye. Tops have been growing longer in recent years, and I think people have gotten used to a different proportion, but having a shirt-tail apron isn’t a good substitute, in my opinion.

  • Mari

    I live in Scandinavia, and have acquired some simple techniques for both layering AND showing off my layers even when it’s freezing cold.

    1. I often layer a cardigan or blazer over a slim-fitting long-sleeved tee. I scrunch the sleeves of the outer layer all the way to my elbow. Then I schrunch the inner layer about halfways up between my wrist and my elbow. This adds texture and interest to my look while still keeping me warm.

    2. I also like to wear tapered or cropped pants. In winter I will layer tights underneath, wear booties and roll the hem of my jeans or pants so that an inch or so of my tights can be seen between the hem and the shoe. Works both with high and low contrast tights.

  • Irene E

    My sister and I were just talking about layering yesterday, and how difficult it is to find outfits that look good if you take off the outer layer(s), to accommodate different temperatures in different spaces. It seems like most outfits look best a certain way, and not so well if you take off or add a layer.

    Thoughts?

    • SKP

      I’d like to second Irene’s question. I wear lots of layers purely for temperature control and am always adding and removing throughout the day. My system, such as it is: start with an underlayer that is presentable in public, add some lightweight accessories that make it look more finished, then find some warm layers that go with the rest. Easier said than done.

      Sal, it would be interesting if you included layer-adjustment in your outfit posts. (If you ever have to do it.)

      • http://playingcloset.blogspot.com/ Claire

        Yes! This. I run hot and overheat to the point of feeling faint and sick so fast, I must be able to strip down to the bottom layer quickly. I’ve learned from experience that even if I don’t think that bottom layer looks acceptable on its own, getting overheated will override my social constraints, so those appropriate bottom layers are a top priority. I find this to be a problem in ANY climate since the difference b/w outdoor and indoor temps can be so extreme.

        • http://butaneanvil.blogspot.ca/ Amber of Butane Anvil

          This very thing – creating outfits with both functional and attractive layers which can be presentably added and removed – is what my temperature-fluctuating life demands, and it’s glorious when it works!

  • http://viktoriasbookshelf.blogspot.com Viktoria

    Having lived in Lappland for 20+ years, I am so sick of layering sweaters and cardigans. No sweater trend can change my mind about that! Another problem is that indoor temperatures are often very high, like 23-24 degrees, while outdoors it can be as cold as -20-25 for long periods of time.

    My new sport is to invisibly layer underwear to achieve the unlayered look, while maintaining perfect temperature. I find that a silk undershirt, then a cotton undershirt (I love the Swiss Calida brand, they last forever) of the same model is almost perfect under a shirt. Add a pretty silk scarf, and I have the look I want. I also don´t need to big and bulky a coat when I go outside.

    • http://www.closet-coach.com Heidi/The Closet Coach

      I totally agree about silk long underwear for lightweight, but very warm layering. I traveled to Iceland one March and my silk thermals kept me plenty toasty.

  • http://theonepercentclub.blogspot.com Emily

    Thanks to the blogosphere I learned about layering collared shirts under dresses, which I’m trying out today. Tights…sigh. They always end up falling down, with the waistband somewhere around my thighs. However, if the waistband is very tight, I run into the rolling waistband problem. I don’t get tights sizing…it’s like they assume everyone is short and thin, or tall and fat? I’m short and a bit fat, so it’s like…¿wut?

  • Kirsten

    The last few years, I’ve finally gotten serious about layering as well. I start with a snug ribbed silk undershirt w/ three quarter sleeves. Then a fine ribbed merino sweater (Lands End has merino t-necks on sale now).

    Over this goes a woven shirt cut with enough room in the shoulders to garden comfortably. Often this means the waist isn’t very fitted, but a belt can fix that while giving a cute peplum effect. If I’m still cold, a boiled wool vest or jacket with princess seams can be layered on, and let’s don’t forget the scarf.

    The lower half usually means deciding between pants or skirts. If it’s super cold, skirts win, since only one or two layers can be worn comfortably under pants, while skirts can have many layers underneath without compromising movement.

    My favorite winter skirt is a flared corduroy maxi w/ back elastic and side seam pockets. Old-fashioned maybe, but classically dashing w/ a boiled wool jacket topped with a gorgeous pashmina.

    Under the skirt, I wear long wool or silk leggings, topped with a long half slip. With a longer skirt, there seems to be less friction if my knees are covered by the slip. My feet get knee high wool socks pulled up over the leggings, then there are the tall riding boots.

    In very cold weather, I’ll wear a flannel skirt under the outer one, and it is cut exactly the same and hemmed a few inches shorter so that it disappears completely. When wearing this, I also wear a thin crisp cotton skirt immediately under the flannel one (cut exactly the same, and slightly longer than the flannel one) to prevent the wind pushing the flannel against my slip, which would lead to the squirrel nest again. That’s right, I’m wearing three skirts, one under the other, then a slip and leggings.

    To prevent a bulky waist, the under skirt back waistbands have ribbon drawstrings instead of elastic so they can hang at slightly different heights on my waist. By layering the skirt waistbands, I can look like a normal woman wearing a skirt and boots, while being warm enough to enjoy the outdoors in Minnesota.

  • http://franishh.blogspot.com Fran

    I had a post last week about having a hard time with layering – one of my readers shared the tip of when you are wearing a sweater over a collared shirt, you wear a tank top in between the two layers so your figure doesn’t get lost in the layers, and it helps hide buttons/lumps. Genius!

    Also, vests :)

  • http://www.aminglingoftastes.com Julie

    “outhouse with legs” is one of the funniest images I’ve read in a while:) I layer with shelf bra tanks and insulated long sleeve tees under my sweaters.

  • BelindieG

    I agree with Susan=–shirt tails out (and the dreaded J Crew half-tuck) aren’t flattering, really. I think layering works best when it’s light layers under heavier ones.

  • Sonja

    I think I’ve already mentioned this several times in the comment section of this blog, but just in case: During the last winters I’ve perfected my system of layering on the top half, and strapless tube tops have became my best friends. Their straight edge looks great layered underneath a top with a low neckline, they don’t add bulk at the armpits, they can be pulled down and tucked into pants/skirts in order to cover your waist section (warm kidneys!) and they are even easy to take off if you want to wear less layers inside or go from work to play and want to show off your decollete.
    I’m taking note of Viktoria’s layering system with the warm underwear, this is something I want to try. I’ve never worn a silk undershirt, that sounds really interesting. Has anyone tried wollen underwear?
    I agree with Irene that it’s difficult to layer for cold weather, then enter a building and have to start taking things off yet still want to look great. I suppose sweaters, blazers and scarves would be the most obvious candidates for that …
    Last year I started to teach a class in the evenings two times a week, and the classroom was superwarm, whereas I had been sitting in my cold home office the whole day. I usually planned for a look that could be modified easily, for example wore a huge sweater at home and took it off for the class. Instead of wearing tights, those days I usually wore leggins + socks as an inner layer and took the leggins off in the bathroom of the building before class.

    • Andrea

      Oh, now this sounds smart. My life has no place for tube tops as an exterior garment, but I think you’re onto something as a layering piece…
      To answer your question, I wear and love merino wool underwear. I prefer it to silk, honestly, which doesn’t feel as cozy to me. I have a couple wool tanks, plus short and long sleeve tees and they are very warm but smooth and non-bulky. I’ve had the best luck with Ibex brand, but Smartwool and Icebreaker are also good and those are all machine washable. I even have a couple pair of wool boyshorts that I love to sleep in.

    • Molly

      I like your tube top idea too! I’ve always avoided them because…well, they’re tube tops, but this is a great idea. I’ll have to start keeping an eye out at the local thrift stores.

  • http://fashionforgiants.blogspot.com Gracey at Fashion for Giants

    This ” I end up looking like I’m smuggling a squirrel nest between my thighs.” made me snort with laughter, so thank you for that.

    My main issue with layering is that it makes me look lumpy. Because I insist on trying to layer over button-down shirts which aren’t long enough to tuck on my giant self and end up looking crazy after about 10 minutes. I should just stick to layering over sleek layers but I love a bit of collar.

    Also, in terms of tights, I go with Spanx tight-end tights but found that Hue are pretty good too, even on someone my height.

  • http://www.closet-coach.com Heidi/The Closet Coach

    My favorite snug shirts for winter layering are tissue weight turtlenecks. They’re just as warm but much less bulky and usually softer, too.

    (Example: http://www.jcrew.com/womens_category/knitstees/tissuetees/PRDOVR~17656/17656.jsp)

  • http://readinginskirts.wordpress.com Mia

    I still haven’t quite gotten the sweater-over-button-front look to work for me, probably because of the fit issue–if the button-front is too tight-fitting I can’t bend my arms and I otherwise feel horribly uncomfortable, but if it’s a looser-but-still-slim cut it rumples and folds under the sweater and drives me bonkers. Maybe I need to invest in button-fronts made of stretchier material to make it work, since, as you said, I still like to keep my sweaters pretty fitted in order not to look boxy and shapeless. I’d’ve given up long ago if I didn’t like the preppy look so much! (I suppose there’s something to be said for those sweaters with the fake collar and cuffs added, but they’re so limited in remixability…)

    • Sonja

      There are also button downs with jersey backs or side panels, maybe those could work for you!

  • http://secondhandwardrobe.com Cheryl

    Thank you for the thorough post, Sal! No tights for me–I finally figured out that the combination of a petite body and long, skinny feet meant that my toes never had enough room and felt like they’d been strangled by the end of the day. I go with leggings, warm socks and either boots or booties.

  • Joyce

    For great layering tips, especially with tights, talk to dancers! Trying to prevent that segmented worm look at the waist, I bought a few pairs of cotton blend tights one size bigger than usual last year. Of course, by the end of the season the waist elastic got stretched out a bit, and they started to slide off me after just a couple of hours of wear. I was bemoaning this a bit over coffee, and my friend told me to just put on a pair of nicely fitted boy leg undies or shorts over the tights. It works like a charm to keep the tights up, and it is great to have another thin layer on my frosty buns.

  • Alex

    I read once (can’t remember where) that the key to staying warm is to have a pretty impermeable bottom layer, So, in winter (admittedly the not-very-extreme London winter), I always wear a fitted cotton t-shirt tucked into woolly tights (sexy, no?) as a bottom layer, with socks over my tights (only works with boots),a long-sleeved cotton top over my t-shirt, and a cardigan or jumper over the top (plus a coat when outdoors). Obviously, this involves a skirt too, for basic decency! The advantage is that it’s very easy to take off the coat and jumper in order to avoid sweltering on the tube, so it’s ideal for commuting. Also, this method doesn’t involve too much bulk and has always kept me warm.

  • Caroline

    HOORAY!!! I wrote you an email requesting a piece about layering, not sure if this inspired it or not but WAY helpful. Especially the tips about slips :) and tight under-layers. Thank you!!!

  • Pingback: Style Guide: Winter Dresses « The Magic Square Foundation | A Leeds fashion blog celebrating charity shop fashion

  • http://butaneanvil.blogspot.ca/ Amber of Butane Anvil

    Much appreciated, Sally! A getting-dressed tip for fitted top layers is to put one garment inside the other and slip them both on at once rather than fighting with twisting sleeves.