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How to dress clothes down and up?

by Julie
(Chicago, IL, USA)

Talbot's Seasonless Wool Trousers

Talbot's Seasonless Wool Trousers

Julie, one of the lovely students in my recent online style program, has worked out the set of words she wants to use to represent her style. They are: Confident, Approachable and Versatile. She asks:


"One of my style words is Versatile -- being able to wear the clothing for different types of occasion -- but I'm getting stuck. I'm so used to having a casual wardrobe, a business wardrobe (which has dwindled), and a fancy wardrobe, that I can't come up with ways to dress up my casual stuff and dress down my business and fancy stuff.

Can you give me suggestions on how to dress up and dress down items (appropriate for a 60 yr old -- my Google searches are finding things for the 20-somethings)? I'm betting it has something to do with accessories, but really need some guidance."

Jane's answer...Julie gave me this specific item of clothing to work with (see picture above):

Talbot's Seasonless Wool Trousers (a smart and comfortable wool, nylon, spandex mix) that she has in navy and black and has been wearing for business with a matching jacket and a shell underneath. I suspect something similar to this combination:
Suit pants in formal and semi-formal business outfits

Understanding levels of dress


Julie's right to think that accessories have a lot to do with making an outfit more formal or more casual. However, that's not quite the complete picture. It's about understanding what makes both accessories and clothing more dressy or more casual.

Clothing and accessories are typically seen as more formal and dressier when they:
  • Are more structured, fitted, and tailored

  • Are great quality, for example, quality fabrics, quality construction, well made, refined

  • Cover more skin. For example, shoes that cover toes, panty hose with skirts, upper arms covered, not too much cleavage on show (except perhaps for evening wear)

  • Have more classic design lines

  • Have no exaggerated, trendy styling details



Items are seen as more casual when:

  • Clothing has less structure

  • Clothing has more stretch, such as sportswear

  • Shoes are chunkier

  • Fabric is coarser

  • More skin is exposed



Here are some examples for dressing down the navy suit pants shown above:

Dressing suit pants down to business casualDressing suit pants down to smart casual


Dressing suit pants down to casual


These pants are tailored so they will always create smarter casual outfits (as opposed to relaxed casual). However, do you see that by pairing them with more and more relaxed, more casual clothes and accessories that they create outfits suitable for various lower levels of dressing?

And here's an example of dressing the pants up for a semi-formal or cocktail-style event:


Dressing suit pants up to semi-formal


Here I've added a quality lace top, nice jewellery, dressy sandals and a sparkly evening bag.

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