In her latest column, Rebecca Willis examines the ins and outs of layering, otherwise known as getting dressed in reverse order ...
From INTELLIGENT LIFE Magazine, Autumn 2010
Can you remember when it was a bad thing to have your shirt hanging out? When women worried that their slip was showing or that their skirt was longer than their coat? If so, getting to grips with fashion’s infatuation with layering will require a paradigm shift—which isn’t a garment, though perhaps it should be.
Layering involves turning what our mothers taught us on its head. Or inside out, because in essence layering means getting dressed in reverse order. Vests and T-shirts used to be hidden under dresses and jackets to create a smooth silhouette. Now they’re worn on top instead, to give a choppy, broken silhouette that is modern and—literally—edgy. This idea should not be pursued to its logical conclusion. Bras and pants stay next to your skin: wearing them on the outside looks plain silly, even on Madonna. But layering does mean embracing the showing of straps, the clashing of necklines and the non-matching of colours. So take a deep breath, blow out what were once the rules of dressing, and let them float away on the 21st-century breeze.
There are practical advantages to layering. Notably, temperature control—useful for in-between seasons like autumn, and in countries with unpredictable weather, which now seems to be all of them. It also makes sense for lives that, to choose a real and sweaty example from my own, take you in a day from air-conditioned office to children’s swimming lesson. The ability to shed bits of clothing and still appear dressed is a modern survival skill.
You don’t need to meet many winter-sports addicts to know they’ll wax lyrical about layering just as keenly as they wax their skis. They blather on about thermal insulation, high-tech fabrics and several thin layers being warmer than one thick one (they trap the air, you see). None of that “wicks away moisture” business need concern us here, but their point about modern fabrics holds good on the flat. I’m sure even medieval peasants grasped that more layers = greater warmth, but today’s fabrics allow us to avoid the bulk of the yes-my-liege look. Drapey viscose, gossamer knits, and especially Lycra, elastane and all that clings, are the sine qua non of millefeuille dressing.
At its simplest, layering involves putting a tunic—the dress of our times, which can be anything from a long jumper to a crisp shift—over something long-sleeved; and then adding, depending on the occasion, either tights, leggings or trousers. The result can be a bit sci-fi—every time I wear a favourite Uniqlo tunic, a friend of mine says “Beam me up, Scotty.” Alternatively, there’s the ballerina-at-a-rehearsal look, with lots of thin, clingy layers that owe something to the elastic bandage, while an altogether looser approach—usually involving boots of some kind—creates a louche, druggy vibe, the kind peddled by, say, Zadig & Voltaire. These last two in particular give the impression of being thrown together: “I’ve just pulled on what was lying on the floor.” Don’t you believe it—layering may not have rigorous rules, but it does demand some thought.
Shop assistants are taught from birth to chant the mantra, “You can dress it up or wear it over jeans”. Nice idea, but the truth is that jeans have flies and belt loops that create bumps under all but the most smock-like layers. Layering, like white sauce, should be lump-free. That’s why body-skimming underlayers—leggings or pared-down trousers, thin-as-skin vests and t-shirts in fine-gauge silk and cashmere—are what the fashion world is fond of calling, with a straight face, “important pieces”.
This is a style of dressing that gives you the outline of a jagged conifer rather than a linear poplar. And there are a few things to bear in mind if you decide to bark up that tree. I’ve found that loose works better over tight, rather than the other way round—I mean, who needs extra bulges? Also that dark goes over light, to avoid the bottom layer showing through like a five o’clock shadow.
Layering also affects how you arrange your wardrobe. The division between winter and summer clothes gets blurry when a sleeveless tunic can be worn over a polo-neck and tights, or a thin print dress under a gilet. Looking at my cupboards in the light of this sartorial climate change, it dawns on me that some of my most cherished possessions are good layers. And not so long ago only a poultry farmer would have said that.
Illustration: Sandra Suy