Troubleshooting tips for when your outfit just feels off

Sometimes you don’t have any big plans or style whims for the day, but your clothes just feel meh. Off. Blah. Slightly awkward somehow. In today’s post, I’ll go over some things you can play around with if you just want to make your outfit better and don’t have time to go on a whole-ass personal style discovery ~journey~. These will primarily be tips that can be applied to outfits in any style or aesthetic in different situations. In this context “better” is in the vein of an art basics class where it’s assumed that you want some kind of generally eye-pleasing visual interest and composition, even if you aren’t necessarily looking for the most conventionally flattering or dressed up style.

How to troubleshoot

Short term

🎲 The first step I usually recommend in improving any outfit is identifying where you want it to be, whether you want to suit an occasion or just feel like it’s more your personal style. Don’t know what you want or have no strong opinions today? Just pick two items and try to arrange everything else to make those work together. If you’ve tried a couple of iterations and those two things are just not happening, move on to something else or just call it. This is the way I start most of my outfits nowadays since I’m more limited in the pieces that fit and am in “just wear the clothes” mode and not active wardrobe/style curation mode.

🏎 That takes me to my other top recommendation which is to move quickly! You’ll be able to tell right way if something really clicks. Don’t waste your time dwelling on each option. Try it on, take a good look in the mirror / at your photo, and take it or leave it. If you’re considering a lot of options, try on ones that are more different from each other and see if any of those catches your fancy and then narrow it down once you have a better idea of the silhouette or color scheme or whatever that you want to try.

🤳🏼 TAKE PICTURES. That way you can directly compare options. It’s also literally a third-party view of yourself which can make it easier to evaluate outfits more objectively vs looking in the mirror. They don’t have to be good enough to post anywhere, just clear enough to show the clothes. Mirror pics are fine. Approach it like a friend sent you some outfit options – you wanna take them seriously and also you wouldn’t be mean about anything or critique based on their body instead of the clothes. If you have a tendency to get too caught up in photo quality, try short videos instead. Don’t feel like you need to keep these around clogging your phone, either. If you’re not into tracking daily outfits, you can just keep a few you really love for reference, or maybe a few that you wanna try later but didn’t work for that day’s weather.

🤷🏻‍♀️ Sometimes you just need to wear something or see yourself in it for a while for it to grow on you. If there’s some new combo you’re on the fence about, just wear it if there isn’t some important thing happening today. Worst case you at least can confirm it didn’t work for you, and you got on with your day.

♻️ On the other hand, it’s totally okay to just give up and rewear what you wore yesterday or an old favorite outfit. I really like having a few go-to combos for different formality levels for when my brain just isn’t gonna come up with anything good.

Long term

💇🏻‍♀️ I always hate saying it because I always enjoy outfit styling more than dealing with hair, but head styling can often carry a mediocre outfit. IMO if your head styling is on point and you like your shoes, then there’s very little (in the range of average sorts of combos) that will make an outfit suck. You know how all those celebrities and influencers look so cool in their t-shirts and sweatpants? Hairstylists. I’m not saying you need curtain bangs with loose waves and a balayage or to live a militant curly girl lifestyle. You just have to like it. Because your head styling is the part of your outfit that is literally, physically, you, it’ll have a halo effect on everything else. For example, someone who has betty bangs or a buzz cut and sharply styled brows is going to look fairly hard/edgy even if they’re in a basic tee and jeans, or will have an alt vibe even in the most boring business suit. In the longer term, spend some time thinking about your hair / glasses / everyday makeup look (if you wear makeup) so you can let that carry more of your outfit.

🌈 The less varied your wardrobe is the more limited you’re going to be. You don’t need to have a huge wardrobe, but like, if you only own dark jewel tone clothing in the same silhouettes and necklines, then you’ve got fewer options. If you’ve found you enjoy being able to wear the same look daily then of course that’s awesome, but I’m guessing if you’ve read this far you’re still experimenting with things even if later you may end up doing a personal uniform (or rotating through a few). Try stuff out! Whether that’s heading to a department store and just seeing how you feel trying on some different styles or item combos (when stuff’s open safely again) or rotating through stuff from thrift/consignment, you’re not going to find out what you enjoy wearing if you always stick with the same types of things that are currently not clicking with you. If you’re not sure where to start, I recommend trying combos where there are different values (light/mid/dark) in different parts of the outfit, e.g. light pants and light shirt and midtone layering piece if you’ve always worn dark wash jeans.

Okay, that’s how to work on things, but what do I try?

This is obviously a non-exhaustive list, but these are tweaks that I’ll personally run through when iterating on a look. I’ve split them into two categories based on higher level concepts. I talk a lot about rules of thumb, and while yeah, unless you’re dressing for an interview or something there are no real rules in fashion, but I find these helpful as a framework to start from for those days when I don’t know exactly what I want. After you’ve spent enough time evaluate your outfits, you’ll get a better sense of what works for you and develop more personalized habits, but if you’re still figuring things out I think these can be a helpful lens to evaluate outfits from any style.

Visual rhythm

I’m not aware of any universally accepted definition for visual rhythm, but that’s what I call anything involved with shape and composition like negative space, color blocking, silhouettes, line of motion. Maybe the right word is just “composition”, but “visual rhythm” is a lot more evocative.

Rather than thinking too hard about placement of negative space, whether I’m under- or over-accessorizing, or proportions, one easy rule-of-thumb I use is including a mix of small, medium, and large shapes throughout the outfit.

They don’t correspond just to clothing items, but any chunks you’d break up the outfit into when drawing it. For example, if you have really long hair and wear it down, that would probably be a medium shape, but if you wear them in two braids then they’d be small shapes. Matching black pants and shoes would likely be a large shape, but swapping to shoes in a contrasting color would bring in a small shape to the bottom of the look. Another classic example of this is using a large pendant necklace to “break up” a long solid colored shift dress. If you feel like your outfits are chronically too plain, this can help you remember to add in bits of contrast or accessories. Or on the flip side a reminder to look for ways to add breathing space in an outfit if it’s starting to feel like too much for you.

Demo doodles by animator Mark Kennedy

For example, personally I generally don’t like how v-neck sweaters look over turtlenecks. It feels too stuffy around the face. But eis4extra styled this oversized sweater with a deeper V creates more space around the neck and the colorblocking balances out the neckline area, which I really like! YMMV on this one, maybe you like more dense visual interest or more minimal looks, but the idea is to play around with spacing of things until it makes your brain happy.

Here’s another example of small, medium, and large shapes in thekatieedition’s layered outfit, with a crop top breaking up the button-down shirt and creating more of a geometric detail.

I first started thinking about stuff as “rhythmic composition” after reading about the concept from an animator’s perspective on Mark Kennedy’s blog

Here are some even more specific things you can try as you’re poking at your outfit

  • Put your hair up or down (add/subtract negative space around your head)
  • Pushing/rolling sleeves up (add contrast to top/middle of outfit)
  • Cuffing/uncuffing jackets, pants, shirts (cutting adds visual interest to that area + draws attention to wherever the cuff is).
  • Tuck/untuck/half tuck for your top (change the proportion of the top/bottom so that one of them becomes a clear focal point as a larger shape)
  • Adding small shapes (basically, accessories): Add a belt, hat, socks, larger jewelry, hair accessories. I have a whole post just on how you can use socks!
  • Swapping out an item to one in a higher or lower contrast color or print.

I know a lot of these are basic tips, but for me the thing that really helps is to have the compositional concepts in mind while I’m screwing around with those changes, so while you might be throwing stuff at the wall to see what sticks, you at least have some idea of what general splatter pattern you’re looking for, rather than like, tucking in your top because you always tuck in your top.

Cohesion

Again, there is no wrong in personal style. Wholy eclectic outfits can be fun and freeing. But I think this is still something that most people are drawn to partly because when there’s a level of coordination in an outfit, it feels more intentional and less haphazard, no matter what the aesthetic. And this is all relative – what might feel “too disjointed” to one person might be perfect to someone else. The point is to adjust these things until the outfit falls somewhere you’re comfortable with.

  • Statement pieces: Does one item stand out awkwardly in style, season, or visual weight from the rest of your outfit? Try adding at least one other item that’s more extra. If you try to further downplay the rest of the outfit, the awkward item will stand out even more in contrast. (By the same coin, if you want a piece to stand out more, you can wear muted or high contrast items near it).
  • We’ve all heard to add a third piece to fill that missing something in an outfit, but what kind of third piece? If the outfit feels too disjointed, I’ll try and find something that coordinates with at least one other item in the existing outfit. If it feels a little too flat or matchy, then I’ll add something in a different color/texture.
  • Does your head styling feel out of sync with the outfit? It doesn’t have to be that obvious or dramatic as doing pin-curls to match a 100% vintage style look, but for example, if your outfit is really chill but your ponytail is tightly gathered, maybe a looser side ponytail would feel more cohesive. Are you going for a more quirky style? Add in a playful themed hair clip, an oversized accessory like a giant scrunchie, or put your hair into a style more off the beaten path like crown braids or space buns.
  • It’s not just about coordinating color. Some other dimensions you can consider are textures, seasonality (i.e. winter or summer items), style, formality, structure/drape, masculine/feminine elements, playfulness/seriousness, and era.

I’m sure there are a lot more things that I’ve modified at some point or another in the name of tuning visual rhythm or cohesion, but hopefully that gives you an idea of the way that I approach creating a look.

Examples

This section contains affiliate links, which I make a small commission from when clicked.

Here are three examples of recent casual outfits using the same dress (Free People “I’m still obsessed” mini dress – to find similar, search for “sleeveless smock dress”).

Vaguely grunge

I wanted to pair the dress with this chambray button-down shirt. Originally (rightmost) I had my hair up and I tried it with white high top sneakers, but I felt slightly like I was swimming in fabric. I switched to a chunkier option, platform combat boots, and also put my hair down so my head was a stronger presence in the outfit. For practical purposes I added a baseball hat for outside, but I didn’t feel like the outfit strictly needed it in terms of visual balance.

Boots: Dr Marten’s Leona Combat Boots
Shirt: Vintage Jurassic Park patch chambray shirt, via eBay
Sneakers: Converse Chuck Taylor 70s in Parchment

Slightly dressy

I wanted to try layering this lace blouse underneath the dress, which is a gauzy textured stretch cotton. The fabrics are rather far apart in formality, so I figured I should add something to coordinate with the dressier element and went with suede pointed toe flats. After seeing them on, I felt that against both items the dress now stuck out as too casual. I ended up switching to derby flats which better split the difference in formality. I still felt like the lace would look better with some coordinating item, so I added a bat pendant necklace to add another dark feminine element.

I did think that the original combo would have worked if the dress was color coordinated so it only stuck out in texture. I tried a monochromatic version and I think objectively it’s a more cohesive outfit than the one on the far left, but I was feeling more casual/earthy that day so I stayed with the rust dress.

Blouse: H&M (old season)
Shoes: Trotters “Lizzie” Derby Flat
Flats: Halogen “Kali” suede flats (old season)

What season is it

It’s early spring, but I felt like doing a fall look so I wore this mustard sweater over the dress. It’s a wider silhouette, so I went with chunky boots to ground it and added a headband to add visual weight to my head and tie the look together with a coordintaed color.

I was pretty happy with that already, but I was curious to see how adding tights would affect it. I felt it made the whole outfit feel heavier here because it drew attention to how the top/skirt/leg proportions were very even and visually competed with them, vs the top/bottom being more of a focal point in the bare leg version. I ended up going with the no-tights outfit.

If I wanted to make the whole look more sleek, I would have gone with a pair of pointed toe boots for a less sudden end to the leg line and probably left out the headband for an overall lighter feel. With chunky outfits I think daintier shoes like the derby flats from earlier can feel too anemic in comparison, but here even though the toe is slim, the higher shaft and punchier patent leather still give the boots a good presence.

Sweater: Madewell Flower Embroidered Sweater
Boots: Dr Martens Museum Collection Hieronymus Bosch 1460s (old season, view latest from collection here)
Headband: Anthropologie (similar)
Pointed toe boots: Marc Fisher “Bowie” boot

For more examples of how outfit choices you make can affect how you feel about the final look, check out my hashtag #OOTDinDepth on Instagram. There are a bunch of people in addition to me who use it now, so you can get a sense of how people with a variety of style preferences approach putting together a look.

What are your go-to adjustments when putting together an outfit?

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I love feedback! Please feel free to leave a comment on whether this post was helpful or interesting even if you don’t elaborate 🙂

6 Comments

  1. I found this article very interesting. Especially the part about visual rhythm. I’m going to think about that some more. I really enjoy your analysis and the tone in which you write. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. hey! longtime lurker here, I found your blog around May/June of last year via the jeans comparison post and pretty much devoured the whole thing in one sitting. I really enjoyed this post and the way you break down basic concepts with visual aids (another one of my favorites is the one you did on skirts+shoe proportions). my style definitely isn’t as feminine/romantic as yours but I always appreciate how much thought you put into your outfits and how cogently you write about that process. anyway tl;dr this blog has been a big inspiration for me to mess around with my own wardrobe during quarantine and your posts about proportion are a big part of what got me hooked in the first place, so thank you! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi J! Sorry for the late reply, I’ve just moved apartments, but I really appreciate you taking time to comment! That’s awesome that you’ve found the posts helpful even if your style is different. I hope you continue to enjoy the blog 😊

      Like

  3. Great real life examples! I love how you articulate how and why certain combinations don’t work. I think to some degree many of us recognize that an outfit feels off, but don’t know why. So helpful to be able to break it down and know what direction to try instead (rather than starting from scratch with other items).

    Liked by 1 person

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