Under or Over dressed?

posted in: Style advice | 9

I often see seriously underdressed people walking around. I am not talking about seeing too much flesh (a woman on the tube the other day had a pleat in her cleavage!)

No, “underdressed” describes a woman in a purple jumper and a pair of black trousers, and apart from her shoes, that is it. No jewellery, scarf or bag to bring the two colours together. Boring hair and no noticeable make up. Or a man wearing old jeans and T-shirt he got from work. They don’t spend too much on clothes, buying their clothes in M&S, Primark or somewhere undemanding. They have made too many mistakes in the past, perhaps buying something they didn’t have the confidence to carry off. They don’t think clothes matter, and dress for comfort and ease.

Clothes do matter. They are the first thing others see when they meet us. Other people will make a judgement based on what you look like, even if you believe this is shallow or unfair. Wearing a nice outfit which enhances you will make you feel better, will make a good impression on others and will also be much more economical. We really don’t need to spend a lot of money on clothes. I think most of the money we spend is wasted as we don’t wear or enjoy our purchases (or makes, if you sew).

The Three Cs
The Three Cs

Here are three Chief Executives who are well dressed, in my view. I am wearing one of my Curvy Pencil skirts, a turquoise business shirt, flat but brightly coloured shoes and a blue belt. My jacket was the VW copy in teal with a big silver insect brooch. Nick Horne from Knightstone wears a grey blue suit, an open white shirt, trousers the right length and good glasses. He also has yellow socks! Sasha Deepwell, the Deputy CE at Wulvern wears a lovely red linen blouse and matching shoes with her conservative navy trousers. She had a beige jacket on that day, and a turquoise handbag.

I am amazed at the disconnect between the huge sums we spend annually (£21bn in the UK) on our clothes and the lack of any pleasure in viewing people on the streets. It looks to me like maybe one in 20 has actually thought about what they are wearing. And unfortunately half of these have got it a bit wrong, and its obvious, and that discourages the others from even trying.

Know what I mean? The overdressed will always have highly coloured hair. It will be set, or straightened to within an inch of its life. They will have a full face of make up, including lots of mascara or false eye lashes, lipstick and bronzer. A tight outfit, often black and invariably with some animal prints too. On the other hand they love colour and it might be red, or turquoise or purple that floats their boat. It will be matchy-matchy. They invariably wear high heels and shiny leg wear, and jewellery, and a handbag that probably cost more than many earn in a week. They like shopping at TK Maxx where they go for the “designer” item. I know this group are trying – but probably too hard.

What stops all of us getting it right is lack of confidence in dressing. And this is hard to acquire if you don’t have it. So here are some guidelines which might help. All the “models” in this post are people I just met in the street!

Wear some colour

Lady in Kings Cross
Lady in Kings Cross

When you see someone in something colourful it will catch your eye, in a sea of blacks and grey. I spotted this lady and asked to take her photograph. She has put two bright, contrasting colours together,  added a silver necklace and red lipstick. She has chosen a white phone and a nice big silver ring.

I love to see a yellow cardigan or a pink coat! Or green, or light blue. These colours put people off because “black doesn’t show the dirt”, and this is true. But its not nice wearing a dirty coat even if it looks OK. However a neutral coat is just fine if when you take it off you have on something other than black, or another neutral. Why not wear a green or red dress to work? You will be washing your dress after every wear or two.

Avoid black unless you have black hair

Black does look great on people whose natural colouring is darker. As a rule of thumb it is a good neutral for people who have naturally black hair. But for most others it is just not nice. It washes us out and makes us look older and tireder than we really are. If you suit darker colours try darker browns, reds or blues. If you suit muted colours try the deeper blue greys. And even if you choose a black coat because it suits you try wearing some of your colours underneath.

Fast walker in Kings Cross
Fast walker in Kings Cross

This lady looked stunning with her black blouse with the collar turned up confidently, well-fitting grey linen trousers, paired with grey Converse shoes. She is also wearing earings, a silver bangle, natural hair and a neutral bag.

Enhance your natural beauty rather than fake it

Jacqui parsons at Camberwell Green
Jacqui Parsons at Camberwell Green

This is an artist I met on Camberwell Green. She made the jacket and the sweet flower brooch she is wearing. Her glasses are a nice shape for her face and she has a leather handbag across her body. But I took the picture because I love natural hair. I love the shades in it.  Jacqui’s hair has lots of different colours in it and it looks marvellous with her bright blue eyes and light pink jacket.

The variety of colours in natural hair  means it looks shiny and lively rather than flat like coloured hair. I know because I coloured mine for about 40 years (I should have had shares in Clairol). I love naturally red hair. I love shiny Asian hair. I adore natural African hair and wish that more women celebrated it rather than straightening it with strong chemicals (I was influenced by Malcolm X). I love looking into people’s eyes and seeing so many colours. My own eyes have yellow in them as well as blue, grey and green! This is why seeing someone with coloured lenses is so shocking. Their eyes look flat. Fake tan, breasts, whitened teeth all look horrible at the extreme. In my opinion.

Wear make up

The just got up look
The just got up look
Two minute make up
Two minute make up

I didn’t wear make up until I was about 50. It made me itch, it rubbed off and I didn’t have the time. Now I find some products are so good that they will stay in place most of the day (I am talking about MAC). I usually manage to get some subtle eye make up on, and if I am trying, some lipstick too. As with the general advice – just a little to enhance you, to give a little definition to your features, but not so much that you look like you are wearing the colour card.

Use accessories

Man in Kings Cross
Man in Kings Cross

OK – a bowler hat is a bit of a statement, and could go into the “overdressed” category, but I felt worn with the vintage sunglasses and a modern, trimmed beard this looks just great. A nice blue, slim fitting suit (with just the top button done up), the dark tie to stop the hat looking too dark, with a toning pocket handkerchief.

Here is a list of accessories you might select from

  • shoes
  • gloves
  • hat
  • scarf
  • belt
  • jewellery (brooch, earrings, necklace, bracelet, rings)
  • glasses
  • good hair cut or neat facial hair
  • hair ornament
  • and for men – shoes, tie, pocket handkerchief, watch, cufflinks, wedding ring

For goodness sake don’t wear the lot (spectacle chain plus flower in your hair, anyone?) because you will look like a children’s activity centre. I just listed them to show you where you can add a little detail, to bring your outfit together.

9 Responses

  1. Joe Chambers

    Oh Kate you are funny. What an excellent piece. I think there is one other issue apart from colour and style – fit. Be honest about your size – big or small – and buy/make that size. Even if you are larger than you would like, if your clothes fit well you will look loads better. So be brave and buy your size.

    Kate do you fancy the blazer and bowling shoes together could be over dressing then?…



    • fabrickated

      Thank you SohoMod! I totally agree about wearing the right size – slightly loose is better than slightly tight; perfect fit comes with bespoke. Striped blazer and bowling shoes are not too much, but keep the top and trousers plain.

      • Sarah

        I quite agree about size. Remember talking about gaping shirts? I decided to go up a size and even though slightly too big on the shoulders, it looks so much better than when straining across the bust. Also important to go by the fit, not the size on the label. Although I’m usually a size 10, the clothes in my wardrobe range from size 6 to 14!

        • fabrickated

          Yes, Sarah, you are so right about high street sizing. I also agree with avoiding tight clothes – they just draw attention to the largest parts! With a gaping shirt you need a “FBA” – a full bust adjustment. This is not hard when you make or adapt patterns but impossible with RTW. Other solutions include the one you mentioned – press studs, or even stitch up the opening to the upper chest and putting the shirt on over your head.

  2. Joyce

    Practise, once again comes into play don’t you think. Its not easy, too much, too little?? — playing it too safe??
    Great advice as always. Lets not forget the best asset of all?- your beautiful smile, and we all have one! :~ ) Sometimes if I have to wait in line, I watch the people go by and play a little game ….. about fashion and style, “what looks good to me, and why?” I am trying to learn, through example. I agree most people are very Undressed and are not inspiring, Overdressed people make me feel uncomfortable.
    One of the reasons I like your blog is the very positive and confident writer’s voice you have. Confidence is a beautiful thing, thanks again for sharing your point of view. Today, I will be a little more confident in my choice, keeping your pointers in mind.
    ( I once read a book entitled “In Good Taste”…and that’s where I learnt, too much, is just tooo much! Ha.) Till the next time,

  3. sew2pro

    A very enjoyable read, Kate, thanks. And an interesting topic about which I could talk all day!

    A couple of observations. I have a very good friend who recently visited London (from Croatia) and was disappointed by how “samey” everyone looked compared to the last time she was here in 1999. My opinion (I’m not sure if I’m right) is that there are so many more of us now that it takes a lot more for any individual to get noticed.

    I do have dear friends who think that putting some thought into having one’s own style is shallow.

    When I was younger, I did feel some pressure from the older women for me to dress a certain way to send a message that I was decent (e.g. slim, lipstick, ironed clothes). I thought that was shallow!

  4. fabrickated

    Thank you Marianne. You have raised some interesting points which I will need to think about. In general I notice that people love to criticise both themselves (eg I hate my body) and others – Who does she think she is to wear a leather jacket/ bikini/ track suit etc. We can’t win can we?

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