Reader Request: Versatile Layered Outfits

Reader Susannah sent me this request via e-mail:

I thought it might be interesting to do a post on layering, with a focus on making every layer look coherent and intentional … I put together an intentionally layered look, but if it gets hot during the day, the bottom layer may look strange by itself, might be too sheer or tight of a tank top, or balance awkwardly with the pants or skirt. For hot days when you know you’ll be going in and out of air-conditioned buildings, for example. It’s challenging to make layered outfits that work both with and without that outer layer that you need indoors.

I realized as I hashed out the details of her request, that Susannah had stumped me. I love to layer, but my layering is typically done with the idea in mind that everything is going to stay on my body all day. And since I’m cold more often than not, I’m ADDING layers instead of removing them! But here are a few ideas for versatile layered outfits that might allow for layer removal.

Printed dress and blazer


Both dresses and blazers constitute shortcuts to feeling pulled-together. But a dress can typically stand alone and feel complete, and a PRINTED dress often feels like more of a statement or stand-alone. Adding a belt or statement necklace to this mix is a great idea, as even sans blazer the dress will look fully accessorized.

Most outfits involving scarves


I love scarves for their ability to tie outfits together, but they can be superfluous. Scarves are fabulous for keeping you warm on cool mornings, but are easy to remove from the equation without disturbing the overall ensemble. If you go this route, be sure to include other eye-catching accents: Bracelets, a watch, interesting earrings, fun shoes, possibly a belt. Again, once an element is removed, you want to look finished and accessories will help make that possible. This strategy will NOT work if the scarf is the focus of the outfit or sole colorful/patterned element.

Sweater/button-front shirt combos


A pretty warm layering choice for the summer months, but still one that gets made by the occasional person working in an office environment with overenthusiastic A/C! Button-fronts can be layered beneath crew- and v-neck sweaters, cardigans, and even sweater vests. But remove that top layer and you’re still wearing a pretty polished piece on its own.

Originally posted 2013-07-08 06:56:19.

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13 Responses to “Reader Request: Versatile Layered Outfits”

  1. Alex

    This is so timely! I leave on Friday for a 10-day trip to two different countries I’ve never been to with two quite different climates, and I’m packing a carryon only… layering is key! This was very helpful, and I’m going to go make a few adjustments to what I’ve packed…

  2. Cynthia

    I am a Northerner relocated to the South and this has been a challenge for me for the last 8 years. November through May, we probably wear things like what y’all wear in your warm season. May through October or later is rough going for those of us who like to layer. Usually what I’m doing is taking off the layer when I’m outside and putting it on in the chilly indoors. If you want layers to last all day, they need to be made of very lightweight breathable materials. I have a fully lined white linen jacket and right now it’s too hot here for that; it’s also too hot for “lightweight” viscose jersey cardigans and other common items that might be thought of as “summery”. I am gradually accumulating sleeveless dresses that I’m willing to be seen in without a cover, linen knits, open crochet sweaters etc. Today I am wearing a sleeveless cowl tee under a short-sleeved linen knit cardigan. I will probably be a little hot outdoors and a little cold when I’m inside.

  3. Emily

    I like a variation of “long over lean,” which is a long/loose printed tank, skinny pants/leggings, and a light, fairly billow-ey cardigan.

    Another go to for me is a cute, short sundress (the short is crucial for me) and a big sweater. Ideally, the sweater should be long enough that it covers my rear and leaves only the bottom few inches of the skirt exposed. With the sweater on it’s a play on proportions and school-girlish-ness, without it I’m wearing a cute dress.

  4. Lynn

    Living in the south layering is more important in the summer than in the winter. It may be 105 degrees outside, but it 65 – 70 inside. I have found that something like a linen tee shirt or cotton sleeveless blouse coupled with an unlined linen or cotton blazer or cardigan works best or the same fabric in a dress. No tanks because they are too informal when walking outside between meetings with colleagues and no polyester because it is too hot. Only washable silk because everything needs to be washed at the end of the day. No tight belts since air flow is needed outside. Shoes are difficult because feet swell and sweat in the heat and then shrink indoors (no boots here!) so flexible, good quality leather is necessary. I often tie a scarf to my purse handle and put it on inside.

  5. GingerR

    I’d distinguish between layering for look and layering for comfort.
    We’ve all seen Sally’s post about stretching a too small dress or skirt by covering up the signs of poor fit with a top or jacket. When you’ve got something like that on then you’re committing to keeping the entire outfit on all day. So don’t wear it when you’re headed for an airport unless you don’t care if the TSA sees you looking poorly fit!
    Layering for comfort/climate is a different story. Since you may appear in part or all of the outfit then you have to pick elements that can stand alone. You may bare your arms if it’s warm, but you don’t wear the tank that’s backless.

  6. shebolt

    My office may be frigid, or it may be too hot. Sometimes it varies throughout the day. I’ve learned to layer effectively, and I think the key is the base layer.

    I used to have a bunch of camis that I would layer under my cardigans and blazers, until I realized that I was stuck with my top layer on all day. I certainly can’t get away with just a camisole if I get too warm.

    Now, when I shop for base layers, I look for thin but flattering tops that are polished and modest enough to wear on their own. Most of mine are sleeveless, but with thick enough straps to hide my bra straps. I have a few with sleeves, but they need to be thin enough to work under a cardigan without being lumpy. The fit also has to be right. Too tight and they won’t look good alone.

    Same with dresses – I don’t buy dresses with spaghetti straps because they aren’t professional enough to wear without a top layer.

  7. Anne

    I live in the hot southern plains. I have been acquiring quite a few unlined cotton blazers with either short or three quarter sleeves. These layer comfortably over tanks and camis. I often use necklaces in the summer instead of scarves or I slip my scarf under the jacket collar to keep it off my neck. I also use short sleeve cotton poplin blouses as ” jackets” over tanks and camis. The poplin has enough body to hold up in the heat. The other things I wear a lof are structured vests made out of linen or cotton over short sleeve tops. I can also slip a scarf under the vest collar just like I do under the jacket collar.

    I have found most of my jackets and vests at thrift shops or on eBay. This summer I got brave and turned a long sleeve, unlined jacket into a short sleeved one. It was pretty simple and required only basic sewing skills. The hardest part was deciding on the length of the sleeves! Hope these ideas help keep you cool.

  8. Erika A

    Ah, timely for me too! I run hot, all year, so summer is challenging for me on the days I’m in the office. I tend to just go for the shirt+skirt or pretty dress, and then add a wrap or a cardigan. I have these wonderful solid color cotton cardigans from Talbots, and I have one in five colors. I keep them at the office or in the car, so I almost always have something to put on that looks put-together. I like the idea of a lightweight blazer though – I’ll have to keep my eyes open for summerweight and linen ones!

  9. Molly

    Thanks, Sal! This is so helpful! But where is the article about three pieces that will make you feel pulled-together that you reference? The link appears to be broken.

  10. No fear of fashion

    Usually I don’t have to layer that much. So a matching cardigan or jacket is enough. And yes I will bear in mind what the outfit will look like when I take the jacket off. Your outfit with the printed dress and the mintgreen jacket is sooooo lovely. I must layer more often…

  11. Claire

    ah, this is my kind of layering! i overheat in a split second. gotta be able to take it off, and fast! good suggestions. my great-gran actually died of heat stroke. i’m from the fairly deep south, and now i live in the desert. having experienced both heat extremes first hand as a living situation, i prefer humid heat to dry heat. it’s just awful here. anyway – finding wearable layers boils down to a lot of shopping work – paying attention at the purchase point and finding those pieces that balance “can be worn alone” with “will layer nicely with most things”. for both inner and outer pieces. helps to try things at home w/ your own stuff and return if necessary. not a simple task, but it can be done! shopping this way is second nature to me now. if i ever moved to a cooler climate, i might finally get to change up my techniques a bit! oh but maybe not, i suppose in cooler climates they might crank up the heat indoors. i guess wearable layers are always useful.

  12. hollyml

    When a scarf gets too hot to be worn wrapped around your neck, simply unwrap it and let the ends hang down (exposing the skin above your shirt’s neckline), or tie it around your waist as a belt, or even tie it around the handle of your purse. It stays a part of your outfit without overheating you.