How to Layer Clothing With Style

by Antonio on February 21, 2013 · 30 comments

in Dress & Grooming, Style

STEVE MCQUEEN - 1972

Are you bewildered by talk of “layering” in menswear?

Don’t worry — most men are.

The goal of this article is to help fix that.

So let’s start out simple.

Your average guy on the street typically has one visible layer: shirt and trousers. Maybe a jacket if he’s dressing up (a second layer), and perhaps a coat or a scarf if it’s cold (a third layer).

Layering is nothing more than mastering the combining of your clothing so that it functions properly (protects you, allows you to move, and is comfortable) and is aesthetically pleasing to the human eye.

In general, layering is a four-season look. It lends itself naturally to fall and spring — when changing temperatures make it convenient to have pieces you can take on or off throughout the day — but with the right wardrobe pieces and the right materials you can have a layered look all year round if you want.

But why layer at all? What’s the point?

Here are two: practicality and style.

Layering Is Practical

The obvious function of layering is heat-retention. Please note that layering for heat retention is not the focus of this article; however, if you want to read a classic AOM article where we cover layering for cold weather, click here.

If you’re wearing multiple layers — all of them stylish — and you get hot, you can take one off and still look sharp. When you start to cool off, you slip the top layer back on and still look put together. In a sense, smart layering enables you to look great in a wide range of temperatures without heading home to change.

Less obvious, but often even more important to our comfort, smart layering can help manage sweat and moisture as well. A good wicking underlayer with thicker, more absorbent layers on top moves sweat outward and keeps rain or other outside wetness from penetrating.

Layering Is Stylish

Variety. Everyone is really tired of looking at guys in generic collared shirts and jeans or slacks. If you have anything else in the outfit, you’re already ahead of the game. Decent shoes and a good watch is already more effort than the majority of men put into their clothing; think how striking you’ll look once you start adding body pieces as well.

Color. With just a shirt and pants, you’re limited in your color options — two or three at the most. Much more than that and either your shirt or your pants are way too loud. But once you introduce jackets, scarves, pocket squares, vests, sweaters, hats, and so on to the mix, you can easily have five or six colors going on in one outfit. And yes, that will mean taking a little more care to make sure the colors all work together, but it’ll also look more interesting.

Rules of Successful Layering

jean

So let’s say we’ve convinced you to layer your clothes. How do you go about doing it?

1. Each visible layer should be something you could wear on its own.

Visible layers being the key here — your undershirt can be as flimsy and low-class as you like as long as no one sees it. A simple sleeveless cotton shirt is a practical and comfortable under-layer. Nothing wrong with that. But don’t let it show. Anything that’s visible should be something you’re comfortable wearing as your only layer on that part of the body (besides your jacket/coat). If it’s not, it’s either too flimsy, too tacky, or both, and you shouldn’t have it in your outfit.

2. Your outer hems should be longer than your inner hems.

sweater

The hem of your shirt shouldn’t poke out from the bottom of your sweater.

Sure, you’ll see some exceptions here. Twenty-something guys seem oddly fond of untucked shirt tails poking out from under a sweater these days. But it’s not a great look, and you shouldn’t be doing it unless you’re really, really sure you want to. In particular, avoid a sports jacket or blazer that’s longer than the coat over it during cooler months.

3. One or two bright colors.

brightsweater

Only wear one or two bright color pieces, at the most.

You can have lots of colors, but there should be some familial similarities between a couple of them, and only one or two should be vivid, bright colors. If you’ve got bright green trousers, don’t wear a hot pink shirt and a lemon yellow scarf. Have one or two “poppers” and leave the rest of the outfit a little more muted. The difference in colors provides plenty of “pop” on its own without using brightness to jump out as well.

4. Scale your patterns from lightest to strongest.

scale

Examples of scaling patterns while layering. On the left, the inner layer goes from a plaid shirt (heavy pattern) to a smooth blazer (no pattern). On the right, Mr. Eastwood has a simple dress shirt (no pattern/texture) but progressively adds more texture in his outer layers.

You can go in either direction with this one, but try to make the relative strength of your patterns a steady grade. That is, if your overcoat is a big herringbone tweed with lots of mottled color (heavy pattern), wear a more restrained sports jacket and a solid-color shirt so that you have less and less pattern toward your core. Alternatively, if you’ve got a plaid shirt on, wear a sweater or jacket with a little visible texture and then a solid, smooth overcoat on top. Either way, the change is gentle and graduated rather than an abrupt, jarring back-and-forth.

5. Know the practical function of each layer.

jacket

You’re allowed to be a little impractical if you’re living your whole day in climate-controlled buildings, but in general each layer should include at least a little thought toward function and comfort:

  • Inner layers lie against the skin and can be completely hidden. They don’t have to be fashionable at all unless you’re deliberately exposing them. Their main function is to be lightweight, breathable, and to wick moisture away from your skin. Undershirts and underwear are the obvious examples.
  • Shirt layers are just that — a shirt. They can be long- or short-sleeved. They usually lie against your skin for at least part of your arms (or for your whole torso if you don’t wear an undershirt). They tend to be partly hidden by layers on top of them, but visible right at the center of your torso. That means they should provide a good visual anchor (usually by contrasting with the layers above them) and be light and breathable.
  • Middle layers or jacket layers are often sports jackets, but could just as easily be something like a cardigan or vest. Essentially, it’s your top layer when you’re inside and have taken your outdoors coats and accent pieces (hats, scarves, etc.) off. They should have a little warmth and absorption, and be loose-fitted enough to slip comfortably over a shirt or two.
  • Outer layers or coat layers are your basic outdoors top layer. Peacoats, trench coats, wool overcoats, and pretty much every other type of non-blazer coat fall into this category. They should be long enough to cover all the layers beneath them, and cut loose enough to fit over a jacket or sweater.
  • Shell layers are thin, protective garments for bad weather. You might not wear them that often, but they don’t need to be completely unstylish. A good Gore-Tex jacket in a dark earth tone is always respectable, as is a waxed cotton field jacket like the ones made by British outdoorswear manufacturer Barbour (and various imitators).

If you’ve got one of each of those on — an undershirt, a base shirt, a jacket or sweater, an overcoat, and if needed a shell — you should be both protected and comfortable. The final step is adding accents that create new “layers” of their own, like the examples we provide in the next section.

Essential Layering Pieces and How to Use Them

ac

You can layer almost anything as long as it’s cut close to the body but loose enough to breathe on the inner layers and for outer layers, big enough in the openings to slip over the inner layers.

That said, there are a few styles that lend themselves very explicitly to layering. Here are a few you may want to stock up on.

Inner Layer Pieces 

  • Undershirts are pretty much the top dog here, and it’s worth your while to invest in a quality undershirt that fits well with no hot spots.
  • Insulated shirts are long-sleeved, high-tech versions of undershirts designed for prolonged outdoor (and especially cold weather) activity. They’re awesome if you’re out doing that stuff and overkill if you’re not.
  • Long-sleeve T-shirts in thin materials (you can get them at any generic clothing store like Gap or Old Navy) aren’t very sturdy, but can make a good colored alternative if you want your under-layer to show.
  • Underwear is your own business. Maybe have a pair of long underwear for cold weather. However, if it’s a visible layer, you’re either Superman or sagging, and either way you’re doing it wrong.

Shirt Layer Pieces 

henley

  • Dress shirts are the easy choice. Simple, straightforward, button-fronted with a turn-down collar — the staple of menswear. Nothing wrong with them. Wear ‘em under jackets, sweaters, whatever. Some color or pattern helps them pop, but you can use a plain solid to anchor an outfit that’s visually busy in other pieces.
  • Henleys (seen in the above photo) are a great layering option. If the T-shirt were a high-schooler, the henley is his older brother with a place of his own in the city. They’re thin, light, usually plain-colored, and have a couple buttons right up at the neck, but no turndown collar. You can get them in both long- and short-sleeve versions. Too good to pass up.
polo

Image Source: Danny Lowe

  • Polo shirts get worn a lot as the outer layer in summertime, but they work under lightweight jackets or weatherproof shells as well. They are especally good for looking sporty. Their long-sleeved cousin, the rugby shirt, does well under sweaters and blazers.
  • T-shirts under jackets or sweaters defined the rebel look of the 1950s. Now it’s a retro nod, and still a classic. Don’t rely on it as your everyday wardrobe, but don’t be afraid to show a plain T-shirt under a sports jacket or short coat.

Middle/Jacket Layer Pieces

sweater1

A simple, thin v-neck sweater makes for a nice middle layer. Throw on a sport coat in colder months for an unbeatedly put-together and handsome getup.

  • Sports jackets and blazers are, again, a staple of menswear here. Find inexpensive but high quality ones in thrift stores and have them adjusted if you’re on a budget — it’s not out of style; it’s “vintage.” Don’t forget a pocket square any time you’re wearing a blazer-style jacket.
  • Sweaters come in two great layering options: thin cotton sweaters (or sweater-vests) that can be worn under a jacket, or thick wool sweaters, and especially cardigans, that work as the outer (non-coat) layer. Own a few of each. You won’t regret it.
  • Vests in both the sweater and waistcoat variety are a classic way to add another layer and liven up an outfit. Again, thrift stores can be a big boon here — just make sure any waistcoats are long enough to actually “coat” your “waist.” They should hide your belt-line completely; otherwise they’re too short.

Outerwear and Accent Pieces

jacket2

  • Belts are about the only visible layering you’ll ever need on your lower body. Don’t underestimate the power of a wide or brightly-colored belt to make a statement on its own. It also makes a handy dividing line if you’ve got aggressive colors or patterns going on in both your trousers and one of your upper layers.
  • Scarves are the ultimate functional and versatile neck layer. Draped big and blousey they’re almost as much of a presence as a shirt; wrapped nice and trim, they’re scarcely more noticeable than a necktie. We cover seven ways to tie a scarf here.
  • Coats are coats. They’re great while you’re outdoors and should be hung in a closet while you’re not. Put some thought into them, and when you find a style you like buy the best you can afford. It’s always worth having at least one long overcoat that you can reliably wear over blazers and sports jackets without their hems showing.

Other accents that add some more business and visual variety to a layered outfit include everything from hats and gloves to boutonnieres and jewelry. Don’t go too heavy on these if you already have a few visible layers and a lot of competing colors or patterns, but do use them to spice up a fairly monochromatic outfit.

Want more information on layering that’s a little more fashion forward? Check out Barron at the Effortless Gent or Dan at The Style Blogger.

____________________
Written by Antonio Centeno
Want more Men’s Style Advice? Then grab my free 47-page eBook.

{ 30 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Miles February 21, 2013 at 7:41 pm

Another fantastic article. Thank you, Antonio.

2 Jay Riggs February 21, 2013 at 8:26 pm

Steve McQueen…Classic Dude!
Good article. Great Site for real men. . . Before I went from working hand to business man I read “Red Socks Don’t work” by Karpinski. It was a great read to help me learn about the best and worst of classic men’s styling.

3 Kellen Quigley February 21, 2013 at 8:40 pm

This article is extremely helpful; especially for us readers up in New York. Appropriate layering can be difficult, and this will be a great guideline for future reference.

4 Nick P. February 21, 2013 at 9:20 pm

Great article Antonio! This came at a perfect time. I am trying to better understand really great looking men’s attire and build a quality wardrobe of my own. This was very helpful and I will reread this several times I am sure.

5 Josh February 21, 2013 at 10:16 pm

Antonio,

Above you said you can find good quality sports jackets and blazers in thrift stores. May be a dumb question but what defines “good” quality on an item like this?

And awesome article! Men don’t wear thing like this casually very much and we definitely should. It’s a great look!

6 Ivars February 22, 2013 at 5:56 am

Great article, thank you!

This morning I got layering related question. In late I have got to like combo of white long sleeved T-shirt worn under navy short sleeved shirt. Is such a combination ok, or is it “guy with weird underwear showing” kind of thing?

7 Sean February 22, 2013 at 7:21 am

A great article for the warmer spring weather, should be very helpful.

8 David Y February 22, 2013 at 7:57 am

Those pictures of Steve McQueen & Clint Eastwood show that classic styles will still look good decades later. Much better than chasing after the latest fad look.

Of course it helps if you are as cool as Steve and Clint.

9 Ike H. February 22, 2013 at 8:27 am

Another great article on style. Thanks a lot Antonio!

10 Vash February 22, 2013 at 8:48 am

I’m fashionably challenged because I don’t know how or what to wear to make me look nice. I stick to just plain old white t-shirt since like forever. But one does not simply wear white t-shirt for the rest of their lives.
Now that I am entering the work force, I was buying dress shirts and dress pants the other day and had no clue what matches what. This article is pretty great at giving me some exposure on how to match clothes by layer.

11 dave February 22, 2013 at 10:33 am

A very well put together article, Antonio. A note about sweaters: V-neck sweaters are almost always the best choice. What I found out last night, however, is that a bow-tie looks best with a deep-v, cardigan, or crew neck. What I would consider a “standard” v-neck sweater creates enough negative space below the bow-tie to look awkward and disproportionate.

Just something to think about if you decide to strap up something different from the necktie. You can also check out these special occasion knots:

http://agreeordie.com/blog/musings/553-how-to-tie-a-necktie-trinity-knot

12 Erik A. February 22, 2013 at 10:39 am

@Josh You can find good quality clothes at thrift stores but you just have to be patient. It may take several visits before you find something good.

13 Dave Valdez February 22, 2013 at 12:24 pm

I really enjoy these articles because it seems that there was a disconnect on the art of teaching men how to dress. Most of the men I know dress like slobs. I try not to, but then again, I’m in uniform most of the time, so my clothing options are fairly limited.

Would it be possible to see an article that might demonstrate that clever t-shirts are not only not a substitute for a personality, they really discourage social interaction?

14 Sonny February 22, 2013 at 12:27 pm

Great pointers but still looking for layering options for warmer climates. It regularly hits 65-70 and much warmer here in California during the summer so it can make anything besides a light tee uncomfortable, especially in my case as I tend to get hot once it gets past 70.

15 Alvin February 22, 2013 at 10:32 pm

Hey Antonio and fellow reader. This article indeed have comprehensive content. But as I live in a more hot and humid region near the equator many of these layering technique seems obsolete when even a single piece of clothing is more than enough to make one sweat profusely. Of course it’s a different story if you go to malls and offices. But for casual occasion layering can only be done to tops two layer. With a coat layer sometimes on bad weather an moonson. Than you nonetheless

16 J February 23, 2013 at 2:46 pm

A lot of this is way too casual for me.

17 M Raghavan February 23, 2013 at 10:15 pm

superb article and very useful info. thanks.

18 Eric at a LEGO a Day February 25, 2013 at 9:30 am

I too am a fan of the long sleeve t-shirt under another t-shirt. Is this acceptable still?

There have been several mentions of “quality” items. What defines this quality? What am I looking for?

19 Craven February 25, 2013 at 11:11 am

Every time I read a post like this, it makes me wish I lived somewhere where dressing like this is possible more than a month or two a year. :/

20 Jeremy February 25, 2013 at 8:53 pm

There’s a fine line between dressing nicely and dressing in a way that reveals your insecurities and vanities. When a man cares too much about his clothing or puts too much thought into what he is wearing, it comes off as pretentious and ultimately, “Not manly,”

Those guys in those pics look like young urban professionals with too much time and money on their hands.

IMAO layering should be functional and happen by using common sense, rather than layering for the purpose of being “fashionable.” I just don’t get why the Ashton Kutcher or the Calvin Klein look is considered manly.

21 Matthew February 26, 2013 at 2:07 am

@Craven I wish I lived somewhere were layering was a more frequent option during the year, too.

I like the idea of mixing different clothing textures when layering, like pairing a smooth button-down shirt with a knitted tie and a wool jacket. The varying textures serve the same purpose using different colors, and they add an extra touch of flair to an outfit.

22 Evan February 26, 2013 at 6:41 pm

layering works!!

23 Ted Lichtenberger February 27, 2013 at 10:29 pm

Loving the inclusion of Eastwood. Once again a great article from AoM

24 ZH March 5, 2013 at 11:39 am

Is that a pipe in Steve McQueen’s left hand?

I believe that McQueen would have been a fan of AoM!

Keep up the great articles.

25 DX Li March 15, 2013 at 1:40 pm

Nice article; very helpful. I disagree with the point that the outer hems should be longer than the inner ones. Take, for instance, a suit: ideally, 1/4″-1/2″ of shirt cuff should be visible beyond the jacket sleeve. If this is okay for a suit, why not for other layering pieces? The additional glimpse of the inner layer may add visual interest and tie together the colors/patterns in the outfit better in some cases.

26 K Cochran March 24, 2013 at 10:00 am

I know a better reason to learn effective layering: concealed carry. Thanks, this article gives suggestions to help hide the obvious carry look.

27 settydc March 27, 2013 at 11:03 pm

Should a dress shirt always be tucked inside your pants?

28 sad May 17, 2013 at 11:04 am

Thanks. Great article and very helpful to me.

29 Ian ST John August 15, 2013 at 6:54 pm

Antonio has some fantastic articles but I must respectfully disagree on layering. It’s a fundamental strategy for field activity but I caution my corporate clients against employing it in the workplace. A virile masculine image is critical in this arena, almost all male CEOs have a full head of hair for example. Visibly layering a sweater over a shirt or exposing a T-shirt under a shirt, comes across as either infirm, geeky or effeminate. Ask a women to assemble a mans outfit and they will invariably layer it.

Alternatively, select different weights of sport coat to adjust for the seasons. Most offices are heated to a constant temperature, the sport coat comes off as soon as we get to our desk.

Other effeminate styles to avoid, patterned knitwear, duffel coats, funky scarf knots and sweaters tied around the neck.

30 Rishi Chullani August 26, 2013 at 10:15 am

This is a great article,

Layering has definitely been trending for a while now and allows men to mix and match both colors and textures. I completely agree with gradual scaling of patterns in either direction. And now that the fall season is arriving it is the perfect time to add layers such as tweed jackets to accentuate textures as well as patterns and color (burgundy ties for example!)

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