[source: wikimedia] Sometimes you want to dress up, but sometimes you just want to wear your favorite pullover.
In any discussion of how to look older in casual clothes I always start out by linking to the OG Extra Petite blog post How to Look Older in Casual Attire. She did an excellent job laying out concepts.
Her examples are still super helpful for getting the point across, but as the post was made in 2010 the styles are a bit dated and specific to her relatively preppy personal style. In this post I’d like to share my own examples with outfits that are still casual even in the “after” version and delve more into how variables of hair, makeup, outerwear, and shoes can individually affect a look. I’m sure there are many other people who are happy to still keep wearing jeans and tees or love poofy sleeves and bright colors but still want to come across in a first visual impression as having more authority than a random high schooler.
I’m focusing more on the details of casual looks here rather than toning down or maturing the Rainbow Brite area of the kids look. I think most people understand that wearing an outfit like a t-shirt with a sequined unicorn on it with a tulle skirt over striped leggings with frill socks and sneakers is a youthful look, or likewise that a school branded sweatshirt with jeans, sneakers, and a backpack will make you look like a student.
Do I need to look older??
If this wasn’t something you were already concerned about, then no! This post isn’t about dumping on any outfit that feels immature or saying you should never dress that way.
But if you are feeling like your wardrobe doesn’t match who you are anymore or maybe you just want to be confident in your ability to break out a slightly more mature outfit for an interview or something when it’s called for, then you are the target audience. Of course it’s impossible to cover all the ways you could look older for all styles and contexts, but the idea is that a couple of examples should be helpful to get you thinking about what you can tweak using your own items when you’re iterating on an outfit.
I’ve been in the tech startup world for my career so a lot of the common advice of “upgrade to casual biz caz!” is not really applicable and depending on the startup, going full business could be overkill even for an interview. I have coworkers who dress in the casual end of bizcaz regularly so even though I could dress more formally without seeming out of touch, that’s not where I’d like to take my wardrobe. I like to be able to exercise my casual-company-culture privilege and wear my t-shirts and frippery any time, but while also having a distinguishing look from the interns.
Ask yourself, “If scaled down, would you literally dress a five year old in this?” and “Is this a typical high school/college student’s outfit for an 8:00 AM class?”
If the answer to either of those is yes, then add or change things about your outfit until the answer is no. Remember to adjust your images of the older student for macrotrends if you’re basing your stereotype on memories of what you and your friends wore.
I know, that is super obvious. But I think having a litmus test question laid out that you can come back to allows us to feel grounded and provide a framework for iteration while ultimately allowing for more flexibility than just “upgrade your jeans to trousers” style of mappings.
So with that said, what are some of the variables that affect how youthful or mature something in the fashion realm seems?
At least from my own experience, when you’re in elementary school or in the midst of finals, you just want to be comfortable and looking put-together isn’t a priority.
- Stretchy fabrics, sporty footwear, and softer non-fussy outerwear are staples.
- Hair and makeup aren’t done (at most, hair is pulled out of the way).
- Outfits are simpler and/or thrown together without much coordination.
- Stuff might not fit (because you’re growing out of or into something, or because you’re just too young to have thought about fit).
Of course, we can still be comfortable and wear supportive footwear and all that even with a more polished look. But we want to avoid a head to toe look that screams all of these things at once.
And yes, #NOTALLKIDS dress like this… standard disclaimer that this is just from my own experiences and is a generalization and there are always exceptions. Also yes, you can have an outfit that is both youthful and very put-together/cool/charismatic. I am assuming that if you’ve read this far you are probably in the same boat as me where you were not a put-together youth 🙃
Some things to consider:
- Structure – look for things with more body to them which can have a more defined shape. This doesn’t mean you have to wear suiting. Details like a square neckline or pleats or just anything with more construction to it like a funnel neck sweater or a belt or cable-knitting or pointier toes on shoes.
- Fabric – I find that visually richer fabrics tend to feel more mature. For example, thicker knit sweaters vs athletic hoodie material. Even denim is a step up from leggings (how many five year olds do you know who’d put up with 100% cotton jeans?).
- Formality – I’m sure you know this, but ISO stock photo person office job clothing from Ann Taylor is always going to feel more adult than a t-shirt and leggings all other things being equal.
- I think it’s worth pointing out that just because it’s a dress/skirt doesn’t mean it’s formal. Fabric and structure contribute more to that than just whether something has a skirt. I have definitely been that person who’d wear a jersey fabric dress to a semi formal event and wonder why I felt like such a schlub compared to everyone else.
- Outfit formality is a different thing from whether an outfit is well put together. You can still put together, say, an athleisure outfit that is visually interesting and balanced. You could be “well-dressed” in athleisure but not “dressed up”.
- Intentionality – Even if you are wearing loud items, you’re wearing a thought-out outfit which is overall balanced in visual interest. Think the opposite of a kid who is wearing their favorite sparkle skirt to death over all their outfits or a high school kid who thinks that adding a trench coat or leather jacket over the tee and ill-fitting jeans they pulled out of the hamper makes them look cool and badass.
- You can give a major bump up to any look through “finished” looking hair, makeup, and nails. What this means is pretty dependent on your own features and context and is out of scope of this article. Though if you’ve got very light or sparse eyebrows, lightly filling them in with a brow pencil or brow pomade will probably do a lot to make your face look more mature.
- Being on-trend can also help, particularly with high-impact pieces like eyeglasses. Doesn’t need to be up-to-the-minute, but looking “with it” is one way to visually communicate that you have at least some of your shit together.
- Sexiness – this one is more applicable when you’re trying to move away from the little kiddie look. I’m not getting into this one too much here cause I think it’s more generally known.
- Fit – obviously, as the opposite of the bullet point in the previous list, your stuff should fit. If you’re not sure how something should fit, see where similar items hit on stock photos on models and you can also always google it and ask people (I have generally had a good experience on r/femalefashionadvice’s Daily Questions thread).
For any given outfit you certainly don’t need to change all of these aspects in order to cross the threshold of “definitely not looking for their parents”. They are options to consider adjusting. For example, I discuss purses in one of the later sections, but on weekdays I usually just wear an ergonomic laptop backpack that was provided by my employer. Sure, that doesn’t look great, but swapping it out for a nice leather tote isn’t a priority for me in the context of commuting since it’s going to come off as soon as I get to the office anyway and most of the other commuters are wearing backpacks too, even if they’re in suits.
Instead of copying down a list of item mappings “instead of X wear Y” that I could provide here, I suggest just doing a round of people-watching (if you live near somewhere where most people don’t dress super casually all the time), or else browsing some online lookbooks and catalogs of a couple of different brands and seeing how they style the models. Think about which outfits seem more mature and try and identify what makes feel that way. Heck, if you have a TV show or some media with a casual contemporary setting that you like, you could take notes on that too.
To help with that, spend like 20 minutes to expand your fashion vocabulary so you have words for all the different types of clothing features you see. If you don’t know what it’s called or aren’t aware of distinctions between pieces, it’ll be hard to think about using it in an outfit! Do an image search for “types of jackets”, “types of women’s shoes” (or men’s shoes), “types of pants for women” (same), etc to find infographics and articles. Also when you are shopping online, start paying attention to the item descriptions.
Anyway, on to some actual photos to demonstrate how much of a difference some of these things can make.
I didn’t do a full photo set of changing a single variable against all the other variables for every example because I was trying on a bunch of different stuff just to get a variety of outfits, but I hope this will still demonstrate how any of the things discussed above can affect a look.
Most of these looks aren’t super on point / trendy / maximally flattering, but the point was to look into changes you might be able to make without going full Instagram-worthy styling for any random casual day.
I also acknowledge that my face and build aren’t as youthful as many out there even if I am 5’1″, but I don’t exactly have access to a team of wardrobe assistants and models so you’re stuck with me.
T-shirt and Jeans: Changing pants and shoes
Here I wear the same BB-8 embroidered patch pocket tee with styled hair and my usual glasses and makeup, but I go from more of a normcore thing to a more polished and currently trendy look. I think the heavy lifting here is being done by the sleek boots, as the wrinkly canvas pants are almost as casual as old jeans. However the wide-leg cropped pants are closer to chinos/trousers so they do elevate the outfit some. While they are a very modest cut, the wide leg pants create a more curvy figure by making my silhouette more hip heavy.
Yellow top and whimsical tulle skirt
Here’s a more colorful and fanciful look. (Apologies for the photo quality on this one.)
The outfit on the left feels a bit childish. It’s a nice happy casual outfit overall, but I wouldn’t wear it if I was trying to look older. I have a post-pubescent figure so obviously no one is going to literally think I’m 5 or 14, but it does give off a more youthful vibe. On the right side version, which uses the same skirt, I look more mature. I don’t think all the changes were needed to cross into “not literally something you’d dress a five year old in” but some points to consider:
- The wooden clogs are still pretty casual but imo are more hardcore than you’d expect a kid to put up with.
- The top is still a stretchy yellow t-shirt! But it’s more tailored and has a more structured feel from the neckline (also there’s just the fact that it’s more low-cut, though it’s not at Reformation levels of dramatic square-neck).
- Of course, there is also the bright lipstick.
- While unstyled ponytails can look fine from an “overall looks like an adult” metric with more elevated clothes (like officewear), here I don’t think it’s doing the look a favor from that perspective because the other items and general styling are all also more low-key.
In case you thought I only had one outfit with a yellow top and whimsical tulle skirt, you were mistaken because I have a collection of mustard/gold clothing and tulle midi skirts 😛
This outfit has a lot of whimsical elements (embroidered sunflowers! a galaxy of sequins! colorful headband!) but I don’t feel like a kindergartner in it. The pointed toe, block heeled, patent leather, higher shafted ankle boots are definitely carrying this when it comes to elevating it, but the fancier materials and generally balanced distribution of shiny elements also help to make the whole thing feel like An Outfit and not like I just pulled some stuff out of the dress-up bin. Admittedly not a casual casual look (especially with the heeled boots instead of docs or sneakers) but it’s something I don’t think would be out of place in many startup or tech offices in SF on a random day.
T-shirt and Jeans: accessorizing
Free t-shirt from a children’s television show + blue jeans. Even that can be dressed up a level by adding some leather accessories and substantial shoes. I didn’t go totally matchy-matchy with the belt to make it all feel a little more natural.
Similarly to how I used to think any dress was a fancy item, I used to think that any purse (subbed in for a backpack) would make an outfit look more grown up. But generally I find that leather/pleather is usually more of a mature vibe than fabric bags, even if the fabric is in a neutral color.
Not specific to looking older, but from just a proportions standpoint, I usually don’t like belting these jeans because the inch cut off by the belt makes them feel like midrise jeans instead of high-rise. But since here the top is more of an older style crew neck that’s almost a mock neck, the longer overall proportion created by the entire light colored base outfit doesn’t make me feel as cut off.
(This is an outfit where I’m not keen on the harsher bangs (I feel like they don’t suit relaxed styles), but that’s what my hair looked like at the time. And either way that’s quibbling, I do like the look overall.)
I’m not planning to stop wearing themed accessories or kitschy bags anytime, but personally I also prefer to strike a balance between the ~child at heart~*~* vibe and looking a bit too carefree, yaknow?
Here I have a Disney Loungefly bag from the 2019 collection which I styled with a sleek miniskirt and Dr Martens as neither of those is something I generally associate with little kids fashion but also aren’t too grown-up-stuffy, which wouldn’t vibe with the bag. I could see an argument that this feels like a teenager outfit, but if it’s a day where I feel like wearing an extremely loud orange Mickey Mouse pumpkin on my back, I’m not going to insist that it can be styled in a Mature Professional™ manner. Also, if you asked me how the average teenager would most likely style this, I’d probably go with jeans or leggings and a sweatshirt or tee rather than a fine-knit embroidered sweater and pleather skirt.
Compare here with a yellow knee-length gathered skirt that fits into the ‘would you literally dress a five year old in this’ item category. Still cute in its own way, but a softer look that reads younger in style than the mini for sure.
I LOVE a colorful monochrome/tonal outfit! But for a while I definitely remember being concerned that I was going to look like a Wiggle or generally have a children’s television show character vibe in outfits like that. Regardless of the fact that if you aren’t walking around singing to inanimate objects no one is going to think you’ve escaped from a show taping, swapping out shoes or including a structured piece can totally change the look.
Here we have the same golden yellow top and skirt from the last section, but I changed the pastel round-toed boots to woven leather derby flats. Just swapping out the one thing moves it to “probably went through a modcloth phase but nevertheless is an adult” from an elementary school look. Other details that help with that now that the mickey bag isn’t included:
- Fine-knit sweater instead of jersey long sleeve tee or sweatshirt
- Softened french braid instead of ponytail
- dunno how much it shows up here, but I’m wearing moderately heavy blush, brown/gold eyeshadow, and lipstick
Here’s a red and pink outfit with a long sleeve top in a casual thermal waffle knit fabric. I needed a haircut here and the sandals are arguably too much of a formality mismatch, but overall I think this reads “adult who just enjoys colorful fashion” mainly because the pants are full on trouser style pants rather than leggings. This cut of pants is also more line with the trends the last few years than superskinny jeggings or chinos which helps it read more as an intentional fashion choice for the day rather than the result of generally shopping in the kids section and then throwing on some random pieces.
T-shirt and Leggings: Changing peripheral details
This photoset is brought to you by “Grunge Expansion Pack no. 1”: Beat up field jacket / utility jacket, dark muted lipstick, and Dr Martens 1460s 😂. Of course some distressed black jeans would really make this look, but it was fun to see what effects I could get while keeping the basic no-brand cotton leggings.
Another thing I changed in some of these was wearing glasses ill-suited to my face and not in style vs ones that work better for my hairstyle and are more of an updated style. Personally I associate random slightly awkward glasses with being a kid whose parents only let you pick glasses from the same optometrist shop for 15 years that had a limited selection and non trendy frames, but that may be more specific to my personal peeves due to my own experience 🙃. To elaborate on what makes one pair less suitable regardless of eyewear macrotrends: since I have shorter bangs in these photos, having a half-frame pair with heavy black plastic makes the top half of my head look disproportionately heavy since it has bangs + eyebrows + glasses.
To be fair, I think docs and field jackets and the whole grunge thing can still lean pretty youthful, but it does have less of a “does your mother know where you are” vibe, i.e. college student vs high school freshman.
Fewer changes: lipstick and shoes only. I generally like the outfit on the right as a casual sporty weekend sort of look, but the boots just give it a more distinct distinct feel. Having the socks as an additional accessory also makes the outfit on the left feel more like an outfit and adds some visual interest to the bottom part of the look.
While often times I feel that sneakers + more structured outerwear like blazers or trench coats can feel disjointed, I’m a fan of field jackets and moto jackets as a pairing for a sportier base. I think it’s because they have more active origins even if they’re used mostly in a fashion context for most people.
Depending on the rest of your styling, a ponytail is generally a more youthful look, but if having your hair up makes the outfit look better from a design standpoint, then the more put-together result I think can make you feel more mature in a good way. I prefer the ponytail look here because then my face isn’t getting engulfed by all the black of the jacket + hair + bangs. I added lipstick to add more definition to the middle of my head though.
Bonus: Fanciful Formal
Dressier outfits for fun occasions don’t have to be all sheath dress all the time to feel put-together. Here’s an outfit I wore recently – just at home because 2020, but I think it’d be really cute for a fancy dinner or going to watch a ballet or something (bay area peeps – if you’re age 21-39 you can get $29 SF Ballet tickets by signing up for this newsletter, great excuse to dress up). It’s pastel, got puff sleeves, a short flared skirt, and generally princess movie vibes which are all youthful clothing characteristics. Of course, it’s a fairly figure-emphasizing cut so on its own I don’t think it will read as from the kids section, but when going for more layered or experimental looks with short dresses I try to be more mindful of how coordinated the whole ensemble is to feel more NYFW than living room fashion show.
The sheer black long sleeve top is a tried-and-true layering piece, and the pointed toe patent leather boots are basically ol’ reliable for elevating any outfit, but with the bare legs it still feels a tad more old-timey child than when it includes the sheer black tights. In addition to making the look’s lines more sleek by creating a longer area of continuous color, it also adds an element that’s further away from little kid fashion. At least, I don’t remember wearing sheer black tights until at least high school. To feel more “this is fashion” and less “mom made me cover up” I go for slightly offbeat fishnet tights like these herringbone patterned ones.
Misc tips and notes
In no particular order:
🕰 This takes a lot of work and time. It will get easier and more intuitive the more you practice it. In that, vein, expect that your success at making polished outfits will not be monotonically increasing. Especially if you’re experimenting with new types of items (i.e. not just trying to find a slightly different version of something you’re already comfortable with), it might take a while to figure out the right cut, fabric, color, etc for you. Even if your outfit experiment doesn’t work, out it’s okay! You can learn something from it. It’s a long term process.
🤔 Repeating this from earlier because it’s important: Not sure if it fits? Ask for some advice from a friend. Doesn’t even need to be someone super fashionable or trendy, just someone who seems to have a general sense of how standard items should fit. You can also ask for feedback by posting a photo to the Daily Questions thread on r/femalefashionadvice. For specific types of items you can also see how things fit on models in the stock photos on web shops.
🧵 If you’re not a standard size (e.g. petite), there are a lot of items where you’re probably better off just getting things tailored than trying to find all your items perfectly fitted off the rack. Uniqlo will hem pants you bought from them for free. Nordstroms usually have on-site tailoring. Dry cleaners often have alterations services for simpler fixes. Getting pants and sleeves hemmed or taking in the waist are usually pretty straightforward requests for a tailor.
🔭 All the t-shirts I used here were heavier types of t-shirts and not super fitted. I strongly associate fitted cap sleeve “girly tees” with what was popular circa 2002-2012 and I also often feel like a sausage in them even if they fit correctly. If/when they ever come back I’m sure this post will look just as dated as the Extra Petite one seems now.
📺 While I did use a graphic tee in a lot of the examples here, there are a whole range of graphic tees and I find that the ones with cartoon drawings that you can get from redbubble or teespring are a lot more difficult to shift into a more grown up look than one with a more abstract print, a fine art print, or even a souvenir shirt from a national park or something. Even text-based graphic tees can work, though ones that advertise a band or place are usually more all-ages than one with a snarky comment or cute pun on them. It’s not impossible to style these in a more grown up way and it’s certainly not intrinsically bad to wear them, but if your goal is to look older then just be aware that these likely require more finesse to pull off in that context than if your base is a plain t-shirt.
👞 Still hoping for a “just do this” list? If you’re not about to replace pieces from every category in your wardrobe, I’d recommend finding some shoes and a bag that go with the majority of your everyday clothes which are a step up in smartness than your current go-tos. These don’t have to be heels and designer bags – shoes like loafers, chelsea boots, oxfords, and pointed toe flats all work with a t-shirt and jeans, and a structured bag or backpack in a Serious Fabric (leather/pleather, suede, or high quality canvas) can be paired with a variety of looks. 2 pairs of shoes and 1 bag later, bam, you’re good for the workweek. After that if you’re still more of a zip hoodie or sweatshirt person, look for just-chuck-it-on outerwear (if it’s fancy but you’re not going to wear it regularly, that’s useless) that’s a little bit more structured like a wool(-blend) overcoat, field jacket, or denim jacket.
💃🏻 Grandma-level advice right here, but good posture and speaking confidently and clearly can do more to make you come off more like an adult than any clothes. What’s more stereotypical for a surly teenager look than idgaf bad posture and mumbling into your shoes when answering a question?
🎀 I tend to be a bit more minimalist in my outfits than some of the louder examples here on the regular, but if you’re looking for inspiration for outfits including lots of bright colors, whimsical prints, and pop culture graphics that don’t rely on Blogger Hair for looking cool, definitely check out @stufflucywore, @frisky_gatos, and @bcrladinaj. If you have any suggestions for outfit bloggers in the same vein, share in the comments!
I hope that these examples give you some ideas of some things you can play around with in your own outfits to create the vibe you want! For more reading (both things by me and other people), check out the Style Resources page.
Have any of y’all spent some time stewing on what clothes and details make your outfits feel more grown up? What have been the most impactful things for you? Do you have any other examples you’ve seen that you liked? I’m always interested to see how different people implement a fashion concept with their own lifestyle and wardrobe.
Update Nov 2020: I ended up cutting out one of the t-shirt examples because looking back, the haircut I had in them really did not suit me, to the point where I think it was taking away from the rest of the example. But the rest of the post and the general advice still stand!
Update Jan 2021: More examples