When summer turns to autumn and when winter weather is in full force, it’s time to layer up. Layering–with knits, vests, scarves or undershirts–is not only a practical way to keep warm; it also gives you the opportunity to experiment creatively with different looks, adding complexity to your tailored style. In this article, we’ll provide tips on layering when wearing a suit or sport coat.
When we think of layering for the purposes of style, we usually picture visible articles of clothing, but if insulation is your main reason for layering, and you want to look like you normally do when the weather is warmer, an undershirt is the way to go. As discussed in our Undershirt Guide, you’ll find a number of sellers–Collected Threads, NVSBL, Sloane Men, Shirtless, and Ribbed Tee, to name a few–that promote the invisibility of their products: this is the one layer you never want to show.
With this in mind, the usual plain white undershirt is not the ideal choice because it usually does show through, even under a white dress shirt. Fortunately, most of the above companies sell undershirts in multiple colors to help solve this problem. Gray is supposed to be less noticeable, though you can also try to get one in a color that comes close to your skin tone. Versions with various deep-v or scoop necks are also available, so you can still wear them unseen if you go tieless with your top one or two buttons open.
Keep in mind that layering under your shirt will add bulk, which will tend to make you look less sleek even if you have a thin build. It will likely lead to some bunching at the belly area, especially with slim-fit shirts, or make your shirt ride up, as you now have two layers of fabric moving around under your waistband as you walk, get up and down, and perform your daily activities. An undershirt also doesn’t leave you with the ability to take off layers easily if you get too warm. Still, if you are wearing tailored clothes and want a regular shirt and tie look under a jacket when it’s cold, an undershirt can be a good choice.
Six Techniques for Visible Layering Classic Men’s Clothing
Before you begin layering above your shirt (instead of under it), it’s essential to define what a layer is and how each layer interacts with the others. First off, layering is really about what you wear on your torso, where any individual item that goes on top of another one makes up a layer, whether or not it covers you. So, in visual terms, a scarf, a tie, and a pocket square count as layers just as much as a sweater and sports coat. Knowing this helps you envision how to style your layers effectively.
1. Monochrome Layers are Easy
Perhaps the easiest layering you can ever do is to create a monochrome look using all the same solid colors, such as a three-piece suit with a matching color tie and overcoat. This requires very little skill provided the colors in your layers harmonize with one another, but the end result can be eye-catching. Note that this is best accomplished with a color that isn’t too dark; dark navy and black will not offer enough interest or contrast to make this look polished.
2. Layer with Contrasting Colors
A good beginner’s principle that you can always follow is to contrast your layers by alternating between colors. You can use either complementary colors or those in the same family. Think chocolate layer cake with mocha or hazelnut cream. Let’s say that you have a blue necktie on. The layer above it, a knit cardigan, could be gray, brown, beige, rust, yellow or any other color that complements blue. Following the rule of alternation, you could go back to blue for the jacket above your cardigan.
Alternatively, you could choose a third color that coordinates with your other layers, like a tonal variation. For example, you could wear your blue tie with a taupe cardigan and then a brown jacket. This enables you to select your layering colors from a similar palette or family, like various gradations of blue or all earth tones for autumn as shown in the images below.
3. Alternate Solids and Patterns
Similar to using colors, you can contrast your layers by alternating between patterns and solids. So, if your shirt has a pattern (stripes or checks, for example), your tie would be a solid color. You can then use a patterned waistcoat above it and finish with a solid suit jacket or sports coat. The alternation is therefore pattern (shirt), solid (tie), pattern (waistcoat), solid (jacket). Another possibility would be a solid shirt, then a patterned tie on top of it, like a glen check, a solid knit sweater over that, and, finally, a patterned jacket: solid, pattern, solid, pattern, always alternating.
4. Try Two (or Three) Patterns in a Row
Of course, it is possible for those with an advanced sense of style to go pattern-on-pattern, such as a checked shirt with a windowpane necktie or a striped shirt with a geometric tie, but layering with more than two patterns is risky. If you also add a patterned vest, for example, your look becomes busy and visually cluttered, making it difficult for anyone to focus on any single aspect of your clothes. So, when involving patterns, start first with the thought of alternating and perhaps expand to two patterns in a row, followed by a solid.
With that said, one way to experiment with three pattern layering is to use variants of the same fairly subdued pattern, especially stripes.
5. Create a Bridge Between Layers with Shared Colors
When you use layers, you have a chance to coordinate colors in a sophisticated way, such as wearing an article of clothing that contains a small bit of the same color present in another layer, as discussed in the last example. In the first image below, the waistcoat contains both the orange of the tie and the blue of the jacket, creating a kind of transition between the two. In the second image, blue is repeated subtly in the double-breasted waistcoat while still maintaining some contrast. The subtle repetition of a color connects layers and unifies your look.
6. Pay Attention to How Layer Colors Interact
When choosing layer colors, always keep in mind that the perception of a hue is most affected by the color directly next to it, so check how the color you select for each layer reads when adjacent to the next one. A royal blue tie might look good alone with a white shirt and brown jacket, but adding a rust waistcoat above it might make that tie suddenly appear too electric.
The good news is that the interaction of colors across layers can often help alleviate one of the sins of style: wearing two solid colors that are similar but different enough for the difference to be noticeable. For instance, it might not look great to wear a copper tie with rust pants because the two colors are similar but just a little “off,” but the minute you throw a beige cardigan on, the visual separation created by the added layer can harmonize the two colors. If you want to wear a solid blue tie that is just a shade different from your suit jacket, separating them with a grey waistcoat tricks the eye into ignoring the dissimilarity.
What Garments to Use for Layering
Assuming a shirt and jacket, with or without a tie, to be your starting point, we can turn our attention to options for what to wear above or between these base layers.
1. A Waistcoat or Vest
Historically the first additional layer worn by gentlemen would be a waistcoat. In fact, this was originally not optional because today’s shirts were originally considered undergarments to be hidden. A vest was necessary to cover the wrinkles, dirt and inevitable dishevelment of a shirt as it is worn during the course of a day, smoothing out the wearer’s appearance. The odd vest can do the same for you today by creating a more refined visual layer while also adding color or pattern to an otherwise staid outfit. In fact, even the most formal of get-ups, morning wear, admits a splash of color via buff yellow and cornflower blue waistcoats. Plus, you don’t need to worry about getting your tie blades the same length; just keep them under your vest.
2. A Cardigan
The look of a light cardigan under a suit jacket or sports coat is similar to that of a waistcoat but provides the added benefit of long sleeves for extra insulation. Cardigans are probably the most common layering choice today. They’re easy to pack for travel and can be taken off and put on easily as the weather changes. When sizing a cardigan, it is usually better to get one that fits close to your body because cardigan knits tend to be softer in construction than the odd vest. Otherwise, a loose fitting cardigan tends to bunch around your midsection and look make you look paunchy by emphasizing your belly area. As with a waistcoat, cardigans look best if you also leave a button or two open at the bottom. Some gents open one or two top buttons as well, which can either come across as sprezzatura indifference or sloppy depending on your point of view.
3. A Sweater
For a more sporty look, some men prefer to layer under a sports coat with sweaters or synthetic quilted vests like those made of nylon. They present more of an outdoorsman or après ski style and definitely add warmth in winter but are better with casual outerwear, such as a bomber jacket, peacoat, quilted jacket or waxed cotton jacket, than as a layer with tailored clothes.
4. A Scarf
European men, especially Italians, know the power of a scarf to add depth and complexity to an outfit, and Italians will be the first to tell you they don’t wear scarves primarily for warmth. A scarf gives you layering versatility for three seasons. In spring, fall, or winter, it can be worn on top of an overcoat, between a jacket and an overcoat, under a jacket, and even under a shirt if it’s thin enough, without adding too much bulk to your torso. Available in a huge range of colors and patterns, in silks and cashmere, a scarf is the most flexible tool to achieve levels of contrast while layering.
5. An Ascot or Cravat
Cravats and ascots, like those sold by Fort Belvedere, are unique among layering items since they represent a visible layer beneath your collar-line. This can make them useful to set up a particular sequence of contrasting patterns and colors. Since cravats can be any cloth worn directly around the neck, light silk scarves are also a popular choice to be worn this way. Certainly, these forms of neckwear deserve more widespread use, offering the beauty of a tie in a more unusual form. For advice on how to wear them check out our guide.
6. A Pocket Square
As small as they are, pocket squares count as a level when you’re layering because, like a tie, they present a visual plane with color and/or pattern above the level of your jacket. They also pack a lot of visual punch because they are actually your “top layer” unless you wear an overcoat or scarf. They provide a chance to pick a tone from your other layers and represent it subtly again. Or they enable you to add further contrast or a complementary color. Read our guide on how to combine a pocket square with your tie, suit, and shirt.
When it truly is cold out, a wool or cashmere overcoat will represent your topmost layer, unless you put a pocket square or pair of gloves in your coat pocket. Coats are unique because their effect varies depending on how you wear them. If you wear them open for the most part, they should coordinate with your other layers following the techniques presented earlier. If you wear your coats closed, however, you can choose to coordinate with just your tie or whatever shows in the open V at your chest, like a scarf; you control which layers to show. This can open the door for variations, including overcoats in a brighter color or stronger patterns like a Casentino.
Even though it is just a little lapel flower, it creates visual interest and therefore constitutes a layer in the the sense of this guide. With an otherwise tonal outfit, you can create a bold contrast with a carnation or just tie something together with an Edelweiss. To learn more about these buttonhole style enhancers check out:
Whether we notice it or not, layering takes place quite often on a casual level: it happens whenever someone puts on a hoodie or a sweater and a coat. However, layering with tailored clothing requires conscious thought and greater aesthetic consideration. You need to make use of your coordination skills but take them up a notch or two because you have to achieve an effect with a larger number of garments, each of which has an effect on the others. It’s an opportunity to up your game and experiment stylistically, with the reward of creating a more complex outfit that also keeps you warm in inclement weather.
What are some of your favorite layering combinations? Tell us in the comments below.