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How to Layer Clothing With 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 [1].

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:

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 

Shirt Layer Pieces 

henley

polo

Image Source: Danny Lowe [7]

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.

Outerwear and Accent Pieces

jacket2

Other accents that add some more business and visual variety to a layered outfit include everything from hats [12] and gloves to boutonnieres [13] and jewelry [14]. 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 [15] or Dan at The Style Blogger [16].

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Written by Antonio Centeno
Want more Men’s Style Advice [17]? Then grab my free 47-page eBook [18].