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Getting Layering Right: A Primer

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Love, Frank has returned as a weekly style advice column tackling your hard-hitting fashion issues and addressing a different fashion glitch each week. Submit a query here.

I am actually wearing more shirts right now than this cake has layers, via Cakes Cakes Cakes.

Hi Frank,

Every time I try to layer, I look weird—not cool. Either my blazer doesn't fit under my coat or my jacket is too short for my sweater—you name it, it's not stylish. I don't think I have the right pieces. What are the keys to loading up without appearing all bulky and foolish?

Stumped and Stumpy

Dear Stumps,

Not to toot my own horn—but you've come to the right place. Layering is one of the few things in life I've truly mastered. I'm not being conceited, a fact is simply a fact.

There's something about the versatility of layering that just sings to me—if you're warm, take something off. If you're cold, add a few top layers. As an added bonus—layering extends the wearability of your wardrobe. Allowing you to don all those light outerwear pieces and gauzy, open-knit sweaters well after September. In fact, at least in my opinion, expert layering is the foundation of a true four season-wardrobe. And how exciting is being able to wear all your faves—barring the most winter and most summer, of course—year round?

I think it's pretty exciting.

J.Crew is layering supreme, via the catalog.

Especially considering where we are right now in terms of fashion. It's a maximalist's dream—everything is printed; everything has texture; everything is designed to be piled on. Have you looked at a J.Crew catalog lately? Or been to Kate Spade or Tommy Hilfiger or the Gap or Anthropologie? It's denim and tweed and floral and heather all at once—with a leather jacket and a tartan scarf on top.

I. Love. It.

That said, getting layering right takes trial and error. The first combination you throw on might not work—but once you pull a combo from your closet and it just sings … Well, there's your jumping off point. You know how and where those individual pieces work; and you can substitute in similar pieces in similar places creating whole other layered looks without leaving your walk-in.

So, play around, and see what works for you. Bearing in mind my four cornerstones to layering:

Fit: This is pretty much the key to successful layering—unless you're going for that Nanook of the North bulk. So, the items you're wearing closest to your body should be the most form-fitting. The pieces you're wearing on top should be blousiest. You wouldn't wear a skintight leather jacket over a blazer, right? Choose a body-skimming blouse; top with a lightweight, fitted cardigan; add a boxy blazer; and top with whatever coat you wear over said boxy blazer—a car coat, a trench, a duffel. Seal the deal with a scarf and/or buckets of jewelry.

Length: There is no hard and fast rule concerning length—there's no reason an untucked blouse can't hang lower than a shrunken blazer. I will say this, though: Unless your odd lengths are dramatically different from layer to layer, they really should go from shortest to longest from the inside out. A loose sweater that hangs two inches below a jean jacket—that's a choice you made. It's deliberate. A loose sweater that hangs two centimeters below a jean jacket—that's weak. That's a phone-in. It's like wearing two shades of red—unless they are exactly the same they should clash. Otherwise, it's lazy; you look like you're either trying to fool us into believing your clothes match or, worse, that your clothes are fooling you into believing they match when they very obviously don't.

Balance: Not to keep mentioning Nanook—but without a little balance you're going to look pretty puffy. I like to keep the bottom half of my outfit pretty sleek if I'm tripling up on top. Choose a tailored pant; a shorter, trimmer dress or skirt; and not-clunky shoes. Try a skinny jean with a slim-soled lace-up dress boot or choose pumps without chunk-a-lunk platforms (when will women stop buying those already?)

Mixed Media: Layering isn't just about wearing a bunch of shit at once—it's about successfully combining different colors and textures and patterns to create a luxurious, tactile feast for the eyes. This doesn't mean you need to be wearing head-to-toe print, but it does mean you should probably not be layering if everything you intend to wear is black cotton or blue denim. Try a printed cotton poplin or silk top with denim, twill or corduroy pants. Add a cableknit sweater and a tweedy, herringbone blazer. Top off with a solid-colored wool coat and a colorblocked scarf. The whimsy of the printed top and the texture of the tweedy blazer will play off the clean-but-rugged bottoms and the solid-but-plush overcoat will seal the deal in an unfussy way.

So, I hope this helps. Layering really comes down to comfort and loving your clothes—so have fun with it and fake it until you make it.

Got a style question for Frank? Leave it in the comments or email one in here. Then buckle your two-toned leather Moschino belts, folks, because it's going to be ? Something.
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