Posts Categorized: style

Reader Request: Balancing Style and Appropriateness

personal style dress code

Reader Maddie sent me this request:

Something I think a lot about is how to balance “dressing for situations that require ‘appropriateness'” vs “dressing in a way that makes me feel awesome and cool.” Like you I’ve been trending much more edgy – cool recently, and it’s a balancing act to figure out how far to let that go when I’m on site with a customer at a big health system. For example, I’m not taking out my eight ear piercings, no sir, but should I balance that out by not wearing my pointy edgy heeled booties? Is a leather pencil skirt too much now that my hair is dyed dark and I’m not pairing it with a cheerful floral, but a dark blouse? (But also, forgive my French, fuck the patriarchy, where does that fit in?) Are there some general ideas/guidelines for how to keep from accidentally going too far? I don’t care too much about offending people, but I do read the boss-lady blogs like Corporette and I really struggle to reconcile the dress-for-you vs dress-for-those-around-you-at-work messages I feel I get from different camps.

SUCH a tough one. And I will open this particular can of worms by saying that learning to balance your personal style preferences against the expectations of those around you is a delicate art, and also a highly individual one. What you can “get away with” depends on your environment, tasks, and – to some extent – personality. I can offer loose guidelines, but you should always trust your gut. And when your gut refuses to offer any guidance, consult your friendly HR rep. Or, if you feel comfortable, chat with your manager. I sincerely doubt anyone will dock points or giggle at you for asking earnest questions about what you can and cannot wear to work/with clients, but if they do? Better get that embarrassment and aggravation out of the way up front, and feel confident of your choices moving forward.

So. Here are some ideas to ponder if you aren’t sure how to balance what you want to wear with what you’re expected to wear:

One envelope-pushing item per outfit

As Maddie guessed, it’s gonna be easier to get away with a leather pencil skirt if you balance it out with something from another fashion family – something soft or retro or colorful. Something distinctly NOT tough, edgy, or sexy. Juxtaposition is your friend, and can help you slide a few items aligned with your personal style into outfits aligned with your boss’s expectations. (Or your friend group’s or your in-laws’ … this works in multiple settings.)

Accessories generally get a pass

If you’ve got a dress that you think is toeing the line, you’re probably better off relegating it to weekend wear. But aside from anything printed with obscenities or designed to be reminiscent of genitalia, most accessories are easier to incorporate into conservative, work, or client-facing outfits. OK, you might not want to wear a black leather dog collar or five-inch perspex heels … but chunky necklaces, funky shoes, stylized eyeglasses, unusual watches, and sculptural handbags will simply create interesting contrast against more conservative clothing.

More coverage = less kerfuffle

And here we delve into irritatingly patriarchy-related territory: Most people are more willing to accept unusual, edgy, or stylized pieces if they offer coverage rather than being revealing. Which is stupid and confining, but can also be used somewhat subversively. A skull-print top that’s sleeveless and low-cut will turn heads, but a skull-print scarf worn with a crew-neck and blazer might not even register. A leather miniskirt will cause a stir, but a leather miniskirt worn with opaque tights and knee-high boots could pass muster. If you’ve got something you know to be controversial, wear it in a mix that errs on the side of more coverage.

High quality, good fibers

Clothing that’s well made and created using high-quality fibers will generally make its wearer look sophisticated, even if it’s done up in wild shapes or funky prints. If what you’re wearing is both cheap and borderline-inappropriate, it’s more likely to attract attention. Which doesn’t mean you should start buying super-expensive clothes that might get you in trouble with your manager! Just know that you can get away with more envelope-pushing personal expression if you make sure to keep some top-quality items in the mix.

Very few of us are privileged enough to have total freedom when it comes to style choices, and it can feel stifling to conform to employer or social expectations. But there are always ways to make sure your unique style shines through, and I hope some of these will prove helpful to you. And to Maddie!

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How to Mix Neutrals

I’ve begun updating some of my greatest hits posts so they’re more current. This is one of them!

how to mix neutrals

At this point, my palette is ALL neutrals with splashes of navy, burgundy, and olive here and there, so this is a topic that’s close to my heart. There’s something so chic, elegant, and relaxed about mixed neutrals and I find that combination of traits irresistible.

When I set out to create a wash of neutrals, here are my personal rules of thumb:


Already Pretty outfit featuring leather jacket, heather gray tee, cargo sweatpants, long pendant, J.W. Hulme tote

An outfit comprised entirely of neutrals will look sophisticated and intentional if you include at least three distinct colors. In the outfit above, I have on a brown leather jacket and boots, gray top, and olive pants. I might be able to add one more neutral as an accent – the grayish-blue of the tote kinda fills that role – but any more than that might tip the scales into neutral overload.

This is a very loose guideline, since many outfits with only two neutrals look very chic. The key with two is to repeat at least one of them somewhere within the outfit. Like so:


Black jacket, gray tunic, black leggings, gray bag. The repetition makes the look unified and the choices seem intentional.

If you’re mainly interested in mixing just black and brown, the easiest shortcut is to pick ONE shade of brown (either chocolate or tan, not both) and utilize it at least twice within the context of your outfit. Or if brown is the base color, utilize black at least twice within the context of your outfit. Again, that repetition creates intentionality. This formula constitutes a great way to practice mixing neutrals and train your eye to accept shades of brown and black as complementary.


Already Pretty outfit featuring waxed denim moto jacket, Woolovers turtleneck sweater, plaid slouchy pants, ankle boots

Cool grays and warm cognac browns can definitely be mixed, but I find it easier to pair warm with warm and cool with cool. Look at the neutral garments hanging in your closet. You should be able to tell which ones have cool undertones (whites, blues, and greens in their color mixes) and which ones have warm undertones (reds, yellows, and ivories in their color mixes). Pair like with like and you can’t go wrong.


Already Pretty outfit featuring olive green jacket, tan knit dress, brown ankle boots, brown tassel handbag

Since neutrals are soft and easy on the eyes, all-neutral ensembles can read a bit bland. A great way to spice ’em up is to add a variety of textures: Leather, wool, slippery silk, nubby tweed, rough linen, smooth cotton. Pieces with embroidery, pick-stitching, and other 3D detailing also add textural interest.

One of the things I like best about my all-neutral wardrobe is that everything goes with everything else. Shapes may not be complementary and the occasional warm- or cool-undertone gray stirs up trouble, but overall I can wear everything together and it works. Neutrals have a reputation for being dull, but they needn’t be. Mixing them skillfully is easy to do, and can create some seriously chic looks.

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Reader Request: Styling Shawls and Scarves

styling shawls

Images courtesy Un-Fancy

Reader Isabel had this question:

I love to knit and am always trying new techniques/patterns and am slowly building a collection of knitted garments. Styling toques (I’m Canadian after all) and sweaters is pretty straight forward: it’s cold, so wear a toque or sweater. My challenge is primarily with shawls and scarves: how do I incorporate these into my wardrobe of jeans and t-shirts that works for a mother of a young kid and someone who is kind of lazy in the fashion department? (I’d rather knit a few extra minutes, or spend the time outside or with my family than fuss over clothing that same amount of time). In other words, how can I make my hand knits er, hip, instead of dowdy?

With blanket scarves and ponchos in high demand, this is actually a great time to work those hand-knits into your daily outfits. And I think jeans and tees are the perfect balance to shawls and scarves that may be a bit on the bulky side. As always, balancing volume (the handknits) with fitted-ness is wise, so go for slim-fitting jeans, tops that skim your curves, and figure-hugging jackets. In addition to the two above from Un-Fancy – both of which will work well with large scarves or shawls – here are a few other ideas:


Image source

This works best with a large rectangle, but you might be able to finagle a similar look from a triangular shawl. The key here is asymmetry: One half of the shawl hangs straight down from the shoulder and over the arm, the other is thrown across the body at a diagonal. This looks fabulous with a simple dress – add tights and boots for winter wear – but could also work with skinny jeans and a thin sweater.


Image source

This is the tie I see used most often for blanket scarves, but you fold them into a triangle before tying so it’ll work great with triangular shawls. Since wearing a scarf or shawl this way places a ton of fabric right near your face and neck, I’d recommend wearing your hair up and doing fitted clothes all over if you can.

blanket scarf 1

Image source

Yep, belting giant scarves is a thing right now. The addition of a duster or long blazer makes this look feel less overwhelming. Also make sure to use a medium or thin belt – wide belts tend to look odd over huge scarves. I’ve seen belted scarves over maxi dresses, but personally prefer the look with jeans as shown here.


Image source

OK fine, this is a ruana. But consider the other elements – heeled ankle boots, slim boyfriend jeans, fitted top – and swap in a large shawl.


Image source – tutorial there, too

This is some pretty advanced scarf-wearing, but I think it might look a little less funky with two scarves of the same color. Or even in the same color range. Click the link above for a tutorial on the tie. This is cute with the jacket and button-front, but could also work with a sweater dress and boots or a simple sweater and jeans.

Hopefully some of these will work for both hand-knit scarves and shawls! Need more ideas? For a cornucopia of scarf-tying inspiration, check Mai Tai’s Picture Book.

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