The Art of Layering: Adding Additional Elements

Layered fabrics in yellow, red, brown, and grey

Layering is an art, but it doesn’t have to be complex. While we here at H|M specialize in suits and more formal wear, we want to be a resource for you no matter what you’re wearing. So today we’re going to discuss the art of layering. Here’s how to achieve a comfortable, versatile style that looks as great as it feels. Layering is most beneficial in Spring and Fall, when different parts of the day can vary in temperature. In such weather, layering allows you to stay comfortable all day long, while still looking great.

Layering Basics

There are three main rules you want to follow, which we will discuss below. We include some tips and tricks to make sure that all the individual pieces of your outfit work. Specifically, we want to make sure the pieces work for you and work together. Before we get into that, though, let’s talk about the different layers that make up a put-together layered look.

David Manly in bold blue suit with black overcoat

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Layering 101: The Different Layers

Innermost Layer

The absolute innermost layer – your undershirt or tank – should not be showing at all. It lies against the skin and is a protective layer. Because it is never visible, we’re not going to worry about what you wear for it. That’s completely up to you.

Shirt Layer

The next layer is the shirt layer. An outer layer typically covers up your shirt layer. However unless you’re wearing a sweater or vest, your shirt is partially visible at the center of your torso, and sometimes the collar is visible at at your neck. The shirt layer can act as a solid visual anchor – contrasting with the layers above if you so choose. More on this is discussed below in Rule #1.

Layering Formal Shirts

For your shirt layer, a dress shirt is always a good bet. It’s definitely the most commonly used shirt layer, especially in more formal settings. But dress shirts are also not your only option. Polos and Henleys are common as well, depending on if you want to go more sporty or more casual.

Layering Casual Shirts

If you’re heading out to hang with the guys or going to a casual party and want a bit more edge to your look, you can even wear a tee. That being said, be very careful when picking the tee you are going to wear. The goal of layering is to look polished, so a raggedy old sports team tee is not the way you want to go. A well-kept solid color, or a more neutral graphic tee can work if you do it right.

Middle Layer

Above the shirt layer you have the middle/jacket layer. This is most often a blazer or a sport-coat, but can also be a sweater or vest. This will be your outermost layer when you are inside. You can wear a sports jacket or a blazer, which is more traditional, but there are other options, too, like a sweater or a waistcoat. There are even more options within the sweater category: thin sweaters, thick woolen sweaters, and the sweater-vest. Sweaters are also versatile: depending on the style, they can be a middle layer or an outer layer. A thin cotton sweater can be worn under a jacket, but a thick woolen sweater can be worn as an outer layer in lieu of a jacket.

Outer Layer

The outermost layer is known as the coat layer, or simply the outer layer. This can be a peacoat, trenchcoat, long woolen overcoat … whatever type of coat you feel best in. Your coat layer should be long enough to cover all the other layers, and loose enough to fit over them yet still appear fitted. There are so many options for coat styles, and they can be one of the hardest parts of a layered look to figure out. So take some time to try things out. And when you find a style you like, invest in it and stick with it.

Optional: Shell Layer

Depending on the weather where you are, you can use an optional shell layer, which serves more as a function piece. For instance, a thin, weather-proof raincoat is a good example of a shell layer.

man with maroon overcoat and scarf

Accent Layers

If you’ve gone quite simple with your look and you still want to add another layer of style, consider accent pieces. Accent layers like hats, scarves, gloves, or jewelry can add a lot of style if done correctly. A well-made watch is a stand out piece against a custom suit. However , if you already have some very bright colors or complex patterns, avoid any extraneous pieces. If your look does have bright or complex patterns, keep accents on the subtle side. As a general rule, you want your clothing to do most of the work for you. That is, let your accent pieces be small touches that give just a bit more panache to your look.

Some Rules on Layering

Layering doesn’t have to be a pain. You can look great in a layered outfit by keeping these tips in mind and being careful about what you put together. A well-done layered outfit looks amazing and serves you well in rapidly changing weather. These tips should help you be on your way to putting together amazing ensembles in no time.

Rule #1: Patterns should be scaled by intensity

In order to have a cohesive look, avoid having patterns or fabrics of different intensities on randomly placed layers. You want to make your patterns progressive: lightest to strongest. There is no hard set rule on whether light goes on the inside or the outside – you can wear it either way. Make sure that no matter which layer your light pattern goes, the farthest layer from it has the strongest pattern, with medium intensity patterns going in the middle. 

For example, if you’re wearing a solid color shirt in a more neutral hue, you will want your outer layer to be either a brighter color or a pattern other than solid. In the middle, you could use a slightly brighter hue of the shirt’s color, so that your look gets progressively more bold, from the inner to the outer layers.

Rule #2: Use one or two bright colors as accents

This rule is quite simple: part of the art of layering is learning how to balance. Having a bright color for every layer will look loud and obnoxious. You can absolutely use bright colors when layering, but keep it to one or two of these shades and keep everything else more neutral.

Rule #3: Each visible layer should be something you can wear on its own

The core purpose of layering is to allow the wearer to shed or don the layers throughout the day to maximize comfort. Because of this, you don’t want any of your layers to be something you wouldn’t wear on its own. That’s because if you decide you don’t want that layer shown because you don’t like the way it looks by itself, it defeats the purpose. When putting on a layered outfit, stop in front of your mirror after you’ve put on each layer, analyze the look, and determine if you would feel comfortable going out in the look as it is just then. Once you’ve determined it works, add another layer, then stop again and survey the look. Do this until you have your last layer on and take one last look. Make sure everything looks great all together, and then you are ready to go tackle the day.

Layering doesn’t have to be a pain. You can look great in a layered outfit by keeping these tips in mind and being careful about what you put together. A well-done layered outfit looks amazing and serves you well in rapidly changing weather. These tips should help you be on your way to putting together amazing ensembles in no time.

Love these tips? Want more?

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Ezra Lambert

Ezra Lambert is a barber and freelance writer. In addition to his work in men’s grooming and lifestyle, he has also written numerous fiction pieces: two screenplays and a YA novel. He lives in San Diego, CA, with his dog, Toni. 

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