Fiber Clashes and Fiber Formality


In my experience, even people who say they don’t know or care much about fashion have very definite opinions about levels of fiber formality and how they can contribute to fiber clashes. In other words, there are folks who feel that a cotton tee shirt looks utterly preposterous with a silk skirt, that fluid jersey knit and robust wool do not belong in the same outfit, and that cashmere looks awfully odd with twill. When pressed, many people cite their moms. Previous generations had VIEWS on which fibers were dressy and which we casual, and many of us have those views printed on the backs of our brains. Because when we were little and tried wearing favorite graphic tees with Sunday School skirts, we heard a few things about outfit assembly, fibers, and appropriateness.

Interestingly, jeans are the great equalizer here. Although some of my clients would never dream of wearing a charmeuse pussy-bow blouse with distressed boyfriend jeans, they get that it works. To many people, jeans are the ultimate symbol of casual dress, so pairing them with formal tops makes a clear and distinct juxtaposition, even to people who often feel unsure where those lines might be drawn in other scenarios. Denim jackets are still a bit dicey, and some folks can’t imagine wearing them with poplin sundresses or pencil skirts. But jeans get a pass. They can go anywhere they’d like, when it comes to fiber partners.

I shock the daylights out of many of my clients when I nudge them to push beyond their fiber-pairing hesitations. That structured twill blazer and that jersey knit dress? Most people will be focused on cut and color and give nary a thought to the fact that one fiber is considered more casual than the other. That cotton tank and wool skirt? Throw a cardigan into the mix and it’ll feel fabulous. I agree that sweaters and wovens are generally more formal than tees, I know that silk will always feel a little dressy, I get that heavy fibers like wool carry a certain gravitas that makes them seem like a poor partner for lighter, more casual materials. But I also feel like fiber rules and guidelines are being slowly eroded by wave after wave of street style choices, runway decisions, and fashion mavens who just plain want to wear everything all the time. That doesn’t mean you have to ignore your instincts or cast aside your preferences. It just means that you might want to think twice before you judge someone who is wearing a cashmere sweater with cotton cargo pants. That combination might not be pleasing to your eye – not yet – but in an era that shuns style rules, there’s nothing inherently wrong with it.

That’s my take, anyway. And my guess is that many of you will feel quite strongly that I’m 17 kinds of wrong! So, tell me: If you are a stickler for fiber formality and fiber clashes, what are your guidelines? Where did they come from? Do you ever bend or break them? Why are they important? If you don’t feel bound by fiber formality rules, were you aware that they existed? Any that you’ve been following without realizing it?

Originally posted 2014-06-23 06:15:53.

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11 Responses to “Fiber Clashes and Fiber Formality”

  1. Natalie

    I am totally with you on fibre clashing! The majority of my clothes are black or grey, so for me mixing up fibres and textures is critically important to make my outfits work. I love mixing soft, delicate fabrics like tuille and chiffon with tougher fabrics like leather. Thick wooly sweaters look ace paired with jersey (my favourite winter outfit for work is a black 3/4 sleeve midi dress layered with a chunky cotton/angora blend waterfall cardigan).
    I don’t really have any conception about particular fabrics being dressy or not – although I’d probably see something made of silk as quite dressy simply because of the price!

  2. Lynne

    For me, those juxtapositions are what makes an outfit interesting!

  3. PolarSamovar

    Since my mom is a stickler for propriety (her advice boiled down to, “you can’t be dressy in cotton”), I am aware of this rule. But a lot of your example pairings are combinations I’ve worn often – denim jacket with silk skirt, fluid knits with heavy wool. I think this is because I spent the first half of my adult life in Austin, Texas, working in the science or tech industries. Not exactly bastions of formality. As long as we had bathed and looked like we’d made some kind of effort, we looked professional enough. The combination of many rules in childhood, and very few rules in young adulthood, were probably good training for today’s style.

  4. Lisa Wong

    Fibre clashing has probably become more mainstream and appealing thanks to retailers like J. Crew. who’ll mix a chambray shirt with a wool skirt and sparkles and make it work. 🙂 I don’t have any hang-ups about formal vs. informal fabrics, but that being said, I still have seasonal rules I can’t cross. Wearing seersucker and linen during winter, for example, still feels wrong.

  5. Shawna McComber

    I love the juxtapositions, and I think that is what makes an outfit interesting, though there is nothing wrong with staying classic. It’s just a different way of styling. The irony is that I feel the whole juxtaposition thing is now so de rigueur I feel that it’s looking a bit old. Of course, everything is old, everything has been done, so we should all just do what we want to. Look how hard the hipsters are struggling to be different! They had to resort to normcore! LOL

  6. walkercreative

    Perhaps I am older, or just old school but the fiber mixing thing makes me crazy. (Probably learned behavior.) I cringe whenever my daughter puts on a cotton slub tee with a rayon skirt. I tried hard but I couldn’t get on the chambray train either. Something about a button down in a denim fabric messed with my mind and seemed confused . . . paired with flirty skirts even seemed odder to me. I tried my chambray shirt 5-6 times before donating it. Anything ribbed or cabled was strictly casual or winter territory. I think some fabrics also held class connotations for me. . . I’ve been struggling with the “twill” casuals trend, because when I grew up that was strictly yacht and country club territory. Satin was the poor mans silk, so to wear it meant you were broadcasting you couldn’t afford the real thing . . .and some recent job sites have recommended steering clear of satin at work. Though I know some is nice, I am struggling with chiffon in the same way, because the market has been flooded with cheap and ill made chiffon. (again, broadcasting poor.) I am getting better with Shiny graphic T’s and blinged out shirts with dresser pieces. Fabrics have evolved a long way though — polyesters are smoother. . .and I have accepted jersey beyond the T-shirt quite nicely! It’s interesting to watch things change!

    • Bike Pretty

      Well, chambray shirts are just plain ugly. Satin wrinkles horribly and the shine is not forgiving of any bumps. And cheap chiffon…negative points for terrible seams and the inevitable fraying.
      Whatever your reasoning, it sounds like your instincts are solid.

  7. crtfly


    I like the idea of fiber clashes but I am not sure how to do it. I like your choices and those of some of the other fashion bloggers. I am hoping it is a skill I can learn.


  8. Ginger

    My rule is that clothing has a purpose. It keeps you warm, helps you stay cool, protects against wind, wards off rain. I have no issue with a thick wooly skirt (keep you warm) and a long-sleeved cotton skirt (keeps you a little less warm). The thick wooly skirt with a cotton sleeveless tank top? Hummm — it’s not so much a fiber clash as a function clash. If it’s cold enough to go wooly what’s with the for-hot-weather top?

  9. DorothyP

    Fiber or texture? Flat-woven silk top over a knitted cotton skirt would bug me, but not the reverse.

  10. Vildy

    I commented yesterday but it got lost in the Disqus login. It is still on my mind, though. You bring up the most brilliant topics. I had never detected that shunning mixing levels of dressiness owing to *fabric* is what I do. I also don’t do irony where one of your garments is supposed to negate the other or, more mainstream version, dressing something “up” or “down.” You can tell I don’t do the little black dress idea. So I don’t do what I think of as dressy cocktail or evening wear – sequined tees – in the daytime. Though I’m a bit of an underdresser when pressed, so I have worn a brown wool crepe wrap sheath to a dressy banquet. Maybe I’m not an evening dresser at all? I don’t like anything so remarkable or twinkling that it takes away from looking at my face. (no discomfort with body at all, either)

    I don’t tend to own denim beyond a couple pair of jeans I wear when I definitely want what I wear to go unremarked and just be one of a crowd. But I don’t wear denim shirts, skirts, vests, jackets, dresses. I do, though, like utilitarian styles made up in more luxurious fabrics. – wear a marigold colored cashmere cable knit zip hoodie. I would wear an anorak in evening fabric over a going out outfit. I’m a pattern mixer and a texture mixer but just not level of formality/dressiness, I guess. I had never seen that before. And while I will wear just about any style made non-utilitarian and in dressier/finer fabric, I don’t seem to like to go the other way and have basic garments made in work fabric (denim). I’m still one who doesn’t prefer to think of jeans as part of a dressy outfit.