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Creating Outfits With Layers The Right Way

The primary function of clothing is to protect against the elements – a shirt on our backs to shield away the sun and shoes on our feet to cushion our soles. And when it gets nippy, we throw on a sweater or jacket. But of course, we also wear clothes to express ourselves, and to communicate various things. The only problem is, the man of today is spoiled for choice on what to wear – various types of shirts and pants and outerwear in a myriad range of colours, patterns and materials. So much variety, in fact, that when one decides to step out of the dependable comfort zone of minimalist tee-and-jeans or shirt-and-pants combos, one might find out that they have no idea what route to take. The truth is, as in all things, the “right” way is contextual. But fear not, this article will help you dress better using the one technique that works every time – layering.

What is layering?

At the core of it, layering refers to the way you combine different clothing items to create your outfit – “layering” different colours, patterns and textures. How is this important? Well, good layering adds depth to your look and makes you look well put together. If you’re exceptionally good at it, you can express your individuality and personality in a pleasing way and can pull off daring combinations that make you stand out from the crowd. If you’re bad at it, you might look garish or shabby.

How Do You Layer Outfits The Right Way?

For starters, before thinking of finding the right way, start by learning how not to do the wrong way. There is a difference. As stated before, the “right way” of layering is situational, and perhaps not the same for everyone. To really dress well, an intuitive sense should be developed where you learn what works for you and what doesn’t through trial and error. A much easier thing to do is not dressing badly – by dressing in tried and true ways that work for everyone. This is easy to achieve because you can follow rules that are generally applicable to everyone.

The Basic Rules

Complementary Layers

So you bought an exquisite new cardigan. You decide to wear it to work, and you try to pair it with your favourite shirt. But the cardigan is a delicate pastel blue and the shirt is a rich maroon. Do you go ahead? Alternatively, you’re about to head outdoors in a chequered shirt, but find that it’s a bit too cold for only a shirt so you decide to layer. You find a plaid overshirt in a tartan pattern that’s similar to the shirt you’re wearing. Would that be a good choice?

The truth is, there would be no one right answer. Perhaps you might find a way to make it work. But would definitely be hard to pull off in either case, because they are not complementary.

In the first case, the colours clash, and the layering order is wrong (Of course, again, 'wrong' is subjective, but let us go with general agreement for the sake of ease). For one, in general, the outer layer of a piece is, the darker in colour it has to be. This makes the combination blend more seamlessly. And for another, maroon and pastel blue are colours that clash. A good rule of thumb is that shades generally go well with similar brightness and saturation and that black and white generally go well with almost every other colour. Your pastel blue cardigan would go better with a white shirt underneath. Alternatively, inverting the colours with a dark maroon cardigan and a pastel blue shirt underneath would work better too.

In the second case, you have too much going on, making your outfit too loud. Generally, patterned layers do not work well next to each other, especially if they contain similar and/or strong colours. Had one of the layers been a solid colour, it would have worked. Be it a solid-coloured jacket with the chequered shirt or the plaid overshirt with a solid-coloured shirt underneath.

Don’t Overdo It

Don’t go overboard with the layers. A good rule of thumb is that there must not be more than three visible at one time. This is for making sure everything looks well fitted, and to minimize clashing between the different patterns, colours and textures. The more the layers, the more components there are to balance against each other.


A clothing item that is a good fit on your body may not always translate to it being a good fit in an outfit. Keep in mind how it works as part of the whole. A general rule is that inner layers should be thinner and smaller than those outside. One reason for this is practical – thinner clothes over thicker ones tend to bulge and seem ill-fitted, even if they are in your size. Another is more intuitive – usually, shirt hems that extend underneath jacket hems don’t look good. So no oversized shirts fit under regular-size outerwear.


Accessories aren’t part of the primary clothing in your outfit, but the peripherals that supplement it – hats, watches and chains for example. These are especially useful in summer when the heat reduces your layering options. A good watch, pair of glasses, and/or hat go a long way in building depth in your look. In winter, you can also accessorize with different types of caps, scarves and mufflers.


As previously stated, the “right way” is situational and subjective. For example, you can pair a bicolour chequered plaid jacket with a black-on-white Breton striped shirt underneath if the overshirt is dark enough. It might technically break the pattern with the pattern rule, but the contrast in pattern style and colour brightness is enough to make it complementary. Similarly, lighter colours outside and darker inside might work, as in the iconic white-on-maroon suit Al Pacino wears as Tony Montana in Scarface. White often works over darker colours, contrary to the rules. Beyond these specific examples, there are many rule-breaking possibilities for you to discover. At the end of the day, fashion is a social construct, and all a man has is his confidence and his intuition.

Written By: Girish P

Edited By: Chirajita Gupta

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