Wardrobe Staples Series: Styling a Sheath Dress

how to style a sheath dress

I started this blog several years ago to document my journey of building up a wardrobe. There was plenty of trial and error along the way, but I've ended up with a fairly robust collection of items. Although I continuously update and "edit" this wardrobe, there are certain things I reach for time after time. These pieces aren’t exciting, but are functional, versatile, and especially great for packing on trips. I’ve been meaning to do a series spotlighting my closet staples, and how each piece can serve as a foundation for all sorts of outfits. Naturally I wanted to start with my most often-worn garment type – the classic sheath dress!


tweed dress standalone What to look for

Style: Sleeveless dress with classic neckline, fitted waist, tapered skirt shape and back vent. If you work in a professional environment, a concealed zipper is best and length should hit no higher than 2” above the knees. A lightly-textured neutral fabric makes for a great starter piece, and there's so many fun colors to expand into.

Fit: Should be close to the body throughout but not tight, nipping in at your natural waist. For a staple piece that can be worn for years to come, consider spending a little more for good quality and any alterations needed for a perfect fit. 

The dress in this post is from Banana Republic Factory and has been hemmed + tapered in at the bottom opening. They carried this dress 2 years in a row so perhaps will bring it back for a third!


How to style it

For quick packing as well as getting dressed in a hurry, I follow this very basic formula:

1) Know the occasion: Will you be in a business formal, business casual, or just plain casual setting? Business formal often means a blazer plus closed-toe shoes no higher than 3.5," but could be more conservative or laid back depending on the setting. Will you be walking around lots (flats needed) or mostly sitting down? Will there be drastic temperature changes (layering therefore a must) or wet weather?

2) Plan the palette: Weekday dressing for me is mostly about whipping together a safe, work-appropriate outfit and less about creating revolutionary pairings. I start with a neutral base, then add up to 2 different colors (more may be fine if in a similar color family) plus something of interest. "Interest" could mean a pop of color or print, a mix of textures, or a statement accessory.

3) Layer (if necessary): Some pieces look great as-is, but layering may be necessary to meet certain dress codes or to stay warm. If that’s the case, choose a combination of 1-2 layers from the "under” and “over” categories below.

4) Accessorize: Finish your look with shoes, bag, and 1-2 other items from the accessorize category below.

staple series tweed dress chart

Pairing Ideas

Now for some examples following these four steps! First up, a casual weekend or touristy outfit. If I were rolling out of bed on a Sunday morning at home, I would most likely not be reaching for a sheath dress. However, if I were packing for a work trip that involved some downtime for exploring, this would be a very welcome pairing. I've frequently worn sheath dresses with just this long-sleeved turtleneck underneath and some colorful pumps for the office. Adding cropped denim, tall flat boots (or booties!), and a hands-free bag transitions a more formal look into a comfy, casual ensemble.
Staple series tweed dress9 resized
H&M turtleneck and kids denim jacket, Clare Vivier bag (giveaway soon!), Stuart Weitzman boots

The next two outfits are for a less conservative business formal dress code. Remove the jackets on either of these looks and they'd be everyday business casual. My most worn pairing with this particular dress is simply a striped long-sleeve tee underneath + waist belt.
Staple series tweed dress1 resized
Ann Taylor striped tee (similar), Banana Republic jacket, thrifted Talbots belt, Louboutin simple 85 heels

Instead of a blouse layered underneath (could be too hot or stuffy for some), the below outfit would also look great with a floral print scarf that can easily be taken off to accommodate temperature changes. Please note that as much as I love bright colors like this neon yellow, I wouldn't suggest breaking them out at more conservative offices or meetings!
Staple series tweed dress6 resized
H&M blazer (similar in other colors), thrifted silk blouse, Ann Taylor patent heels (similar)

The next two are examples of business casual pairings in which a simple color palette change can switch up the seasonal feel. When layering a blouse over, use an opaque one so the color or print of the dress won't show through.  
Staple series tweed dress 2 resized
Gap button-up shirt (similar), Talbots necklace c/o, Louboutin heels (similar in a pretty d'orsay style)

This pairing below is a great way to make use of blouses that are a little loose but not too long. A peplum cut top is a bonus as it will keep your waistline defined. If the dress and blouse necklines don't match up completely, an easy way to conceal that is with a deliberately-placed necklace. I also don't experiment much with colored tights (except for tried and true navy), but keeping hosiery color in the same family as your shoes makes it less jarring. 
Staple series tweed dress8 resized
Ann Taylor peplum top (similar fun ones here or here), H&M tights, Manolo Blahnik bow heels (similar for less)

I wouldn't wear this particular dress "as a top" since that trick is usually reserved for showing off pieces with interesting torso details. It is an option, though, if you have limited items in your closet and really want to stretch out the number of wears for each piece. Make sure to choose skirts with fuller, flared bottoms long enough to conceal your dress hem with ease.
Staple series tweed dress3 resized
H&M pleated skirt (similar), Talbots necklace, Valentino heels

And lastly, for drinks or a night out, this monochromatic example uses a mix of textures and fun prints to keep the outfit from looking too austere. As with the floral peplum blouse above, I had sized up on this top, which conveniently also makes it easier to layer with.
Staple series tweed dress5 resized
AA crop turtleneck tank (in sz M, runs small), Blank NYC jacket, AT belt, Adrienne Vittadini boots

100 comments:

  1. Besides the cute outfits (daytime is my favorite!), I love what you did with the graphics!

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  2. Beautiful post and especially adore the business formal yellow/gray outfit. You always have such sophisticated style. Absolutely love this, great work!

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    1. I can't agree more with u. Jean is stunning and talented as always. I especially fall in love with her yellow blazer pairings!

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  3. I really love this series, it is so nice to see how a wardrobe staple can be used in so many ways. I also love the simple graphics on each image. I think my favorite outfit is the client lunch. Awesome post, looking forward to more!

    Lauren / www.casualglamstyle.com

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  4. I love how you showed how to layer everything to make so many different looks just from one dress, what a great idea! Thanks for sharing
    xo,
    Dana Kay
    http://danakay16.blogspot.com/

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  5. Absolutely love your choices. I started blogging last year. I cleaned out my closet and was trying to build a wardrobe from scratch. I love pieces that are so functional. Thanks for the post. Will be pinning this!

    Tosin AK
    http://mystylepad.com/

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  6. Great ideas, Jean! I agree, the good quality, perfect fitting, classic dress is key to making it work with multiple looks. Awesome post!

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  7. Great idea and nice ensemble. But probably won't work for me as layering these pieces may be too hot except for winter. I am looking for a sheath dress and a lot of them don't work as the neck line is too high. I will look for the ones you recommended.

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  8. what size is the H&M jacket?

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  9. It is amazing! It inspired me so much!!! Thank you! Jean!

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  10. Great post Jean! Love the colour palette and all the ideas. You give me hope I can keep my mostly office wardrobe for my new adventures ;)

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  11. One of my favorite posts of yours ever! Love these ideas...so many great new ideas for how to wear a shift! Thanks for sharing!

    xoxo,
    Andrea

    www.andreaeveryday.com

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  12. Wow, I love the variety of looks with just one dress! AWESOME styling! :)
    -Alex of http://snippetswithalex.com

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  13. Awesome post! Love how different each outfit is and yet all built using one common piece! Can't wait to read your next staple series post!

    Choo Choo
    http://choochooli.blogpost.com

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  14. Jean, I LOVE, LOVE, just LOVE this post! ^_^ Especially because it's coming at a time when I'm trimming my wardrobe and embracing and enjoying a minimalist lifestyle. Recently I took the time to figure out my base colors (thanks to an old post from your fellow blogger at Alterations Needed), and the similar and complementary colors to my base colors. That's made shopping for and putting together outfits so much easier - and fun! It turns out the color combos you used in this post are right in line with what works best for me. So you just gave me some neat new ideas. Thanks for continually creating practical posts for the young adult professional woman. That, and I have been so happy to find fashion bloggers who are petite and slim - and classic - like myself. Thank you! ^_^

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  15. This is a great post all together. From the images to the content and the pairing of all your colors, designs and occasions. I love it! If you don't mind me asking, exactly how many years did it take for you to create this post?

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    1. Haha...it took a while but is all worth it if you enjoyed it! Thank you!

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  16. One sheath...so any looks. Impressive. Can't believe the a line pleated skirt layered over. Would of never thought of it. Genius!

    NEW POST:: TIED in GINGHAM
    www.eyelikefashion.com
    www.eyelikefashion.com
    www.eyelikefashion.com

    xo

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  17. Great post. I always learn things from your blog. Thank you!!!

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  18. This post is AMAZING. You're so good at breaking down the way a wardrobe does/should work and presenting it in an engaging and helpful format. When are you going to write a book??

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  19. This was incredible, because I wear mostly sheath dresses to work, but I only do it one way--with a cardigan. I can't wait to try some of these ideas!

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  20. Great post, Jean! My favourite is the last look, which is a look I often put together with different dresses/skirts. : ) I have the same dress and sometimes find it uncomfortable to layer a fitted shirt on top because the dress is so thick. Did adding the peplum top feel bulky for you at all?

    jessydust.com

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    1. I mean both the peplum and the AA turtleneck (which seems very fitted)

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    2. Hi Jessy, I sized up in both tops (several sizes for the AA) so it's less bulky. The AA I probably would not wear over a thick tweed dress if I wanted to be really comfortable, but the peplum blouse is pretty loose on as-is which made it perfect over a layer.

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  21. Thanks for doing this series. The info is very helpful. I agree with you that a couple of the options (like using the sheath dress as a top) are not ones I will go with simply because they seem too cumbersome to wear (to me anyway). One of the other details I would be interested in knowing is the preferred fabrics of the layering pieces. When you mentioned silk blouse to layer under the dress, it's very straightforward. I would be interested in knowing from your experience, what type of blouse will fit the best when being used to layer over the dress. In my mind, this will help me understand what piece I need to buy for or if I might already have that piece in my closet. I know that until I put the pieces on, I might not then realize how the different fabrics might not work (e.g. an oxford shirt over the sheath might not work because of the thickness of the shirt). Thanks!

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    1. Sue, thanks for the feedback and I'll try to incorporate it in future posts. For layering over, I definitely prefer thicker cotton, twill, chambray, and slightly looser materials to help conceal color and lines underneath. Oxford sounds like it would work if you have a thin sheath and a decent weighted oxford. Silk I prefer under just because it's delicate and may show lines if being layered over something not perfectly flat/smooth.

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  22. What a creative and helpful post! I'm amazed at all the different outfits you put together based on a neutral coloured sheath dress. My favourite is the business formal outfit with the pop of yellow. You look stunning in that ensemble.

    This is a fantastic series you've come up with and I'm looking forward to reading the other ones you have planned.

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  23. This is a very well made post, congratulations! Is so helpful and self explained, love the pairings.
    Greetings form México
    Jaqueline Gracia

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  24. The academic in me loves how you've organized the information in this post. I'm looking forward to future editions of this series! I actually have this dress in my closet and have strictly stuck to the business formal formula you illustrate simply because I've been stuck on how else to wear it. I think I'll give the business casual spring and night out looks a try. BTW, for the business casual spring look, would you usually tie the blouse and leave the knot visible, or could you tuck it in as well? If you tuck the knot inwards, is there a particular way of tying the knot so that it doesn't look bulky/bumpy across the torso?

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    1. I have been wearing it with the knot visible...I've tried to tuck it in but unless the shirt is a thin jersey, there will probably be a little protruding lump that makes it not worth it to try and conceal. I know the resulting look is more on the casual "beach day" side but it hasn't been an issue for my less formal office : )

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  25. That was an amazing post Jean! Learned so much. I think that belts are a great accessory and I love your use for them. But I still have trouble with using a belt to accentuate my waistline. I always feel my tummy sticks out. Also, I can never seem to get them to stay where i want them to without loops. Advise? Have a great weekend!
    -Kristine

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  26. Amazing post, LOVE all the outfits!

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  27. Great post! It was so informative!

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  28. Jean, this is very impressive! You have put in so much work for the content and the quality is just beyond! If you ever write a book on fashion, I will be first on the line to buy it. Or if you ever want to start charging a subscription fee to your blog, I will gladly pay the fee. Love your work. Thank you for helping me dress better. x

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    1. That is sweet of you belle - thank you, but there will never be a fee. Writing this is my hobby and I'm flattered that you and others enjoyed reading it!

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  29. Jean, I love love love this post! It's so informative and I love all your examples. can't wait to see the rest of this series!

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  30. Jean, this is amazing! I think this very smart and well-thought out post is what differentiates you from other bloggers! Keep up the great work!
    xoxoxo

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  31. Really like the style of this post, Jean! My favourites are the client lunch and business formal outfits.

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  32. I have so many shift dresses and used to do exactly the business formal outfit a lot in my former role as a lawyer (but with a more conservative coloured jacket). However, since leaving that life behind and now working from home I no longer need to do that look but this post has given me lots of ideas for how to re-work those dresses! Fantastic post as always.

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  33. Such fabulous pairings!! I love them all!

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  34. This was so helpful!!! Love the format of this post too. Great blog!

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  35. What an amazing post! All of the time and effort that you put into this creative, quality post series really shine through. :) My favorite is the daytime party, I absolutely love the lilac skirt! Is that from this season from H&M?

    Suzie Q
    www.StyleCueBySuzieQ.com

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  36. Incredible post Jean, thank you for taking the time to do it :-) Probably one of your best posts along with building confidence, and looking more mature!

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  37. love all the looks!! :)

    http://sbr-fashion-fashion.blogspot.com/

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  38. I'm fascinated by the layering you can do for under and over the dress! How do you keep the fabric from bunching up or causing weird lumps?

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    1. General rule of thumb to avoid lumps is to use finer, thinner and silkier materials in the 'under' layer and sturdier, more opaque layers on top.

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    2. Awesome, thanks for the tip Jean. This opens up a whole new dimension for wardrobes I've been too scared to try before! :)

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  39. Great post, do more posts like these! :)

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  40. Oooh I love your sense of creativity, I would have never thought of wearing a dress with a skirt. The best part yet, your clothes are common stufff, things i can actually related to, consider buying..........well may be not Louboutin but Banana Republic and Anne Taylor.......Keep it up

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  41. This is a great post! The graphics are wonderful and all the outfits are fabulous!

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  42. Jean your blog is so beautiful and inspiring! I'm amazed that you keep up with it and your job too! I have wanted to start a blog too for petite women but boy, working takes a lot as it is! Love how you mix high end pieces with the more affordable ones and even some low ones, like old navy! Your creativity is amazing! I'm only 5' 3/4" and 98 lbs sometimes 99lbs and is so hard to find clothing that doesn't need alterations even out of petite places and forget high end pieces they never come in petite! Sooooo, keep up the good work and by the way, Nick looks like Ben Affleck! The much younger version of Ben Affleck!

    www.graciellabredehoeft.etsy.com

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  43. Jean, this is definitely my favorite post of yours lately. It is very informative and inspiring. Great job!!

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  44. The outfits that use the dress as a dress are great, but the outfits that treat the dress as a skirt are a bit strange for me. Love the concept of the page though especially the palette circles....

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  45. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  46. I love everything about this: the outfits, the design, the photos, the written details... Delightful!

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  47. This is a really great post. I really don't need to be buying more things so the idea of using current pieces in different ways is great. Many of the commenters here seem to be streamlining their closets and going towards minimalism so it's refreshing to see a post that doesn't urge readers to "buy, buy, buy!" Really great job on this one, from the layout, to the styling and the tips! Can't wait to see your next one!

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  48. Hi Jean, you are just amazing. I love your style. I am very impressed by your creativity and ability to come up with stylish yet sophisticated outfits without being all about expensive, high end brands so that your readers can relate to. You are very classy and graceful.

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  49. Very helpful and creative!

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  50. You have great style. Thank u for the suggestions. Everything looks beautiful and wearable and consists of items most of us ladies already have in our closets. Please keep posting.

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  51. Wow!!! I can't wait to see more! I'm discovering for myself that you never go wrong investing in "staples".

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  52. Jean - Love the styling but also this is an impeccably written blog post. :) Amazing!

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  53. Love this post, Jean! What great ideas!

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  54. This post is amazing!

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  55. Very very practical post! Thank you very much for it!

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  56. This is an excellent post. Its helping me thing outside the box. Thanks. Would love more posts like these. Keep up the great postings.

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  57. A must have in every girls's closet.

    www.whattowearwheretobuy.tumblr.com

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  58. Love it!! Great ideas and budget- friendly… would love to see more posts like this. Thank you for the post. :)

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  59. This is a great post - I love the versatility of a sheath dress!

    Alice
    www.happinessatmidlife.com

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  60. What an amazing guide! I've bookmarked it for later. I have a couple of sheaths that I love, but I feel like I wear them in the same way every time, so your advice will come in handy.

    Thank you!
    Anne
    Rays of Rossi

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  61. I really love how thorough you were with all of this. Great post! I'm actually lacking a good sheath dress in my wardrobe, but I'm definitely convinced I should get one now. I really love the bright yellow blazer look!

    Style by Joules

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  62. Great post. I really like the patterned tights in the last outfit... where are they from?

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    1. Thanks! They are from Banana Republic but are old.

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  63. Amazing post and so incredibly helpful! Thanks so much. I remember reading about how you strive to keep a relatively streamlined wardrobe... Do you have any tips on closet organization? I'm sure we'd benefit from seeing how you organize things!

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    1. Hi Winny - I try to keep my closet color coordinated and also hang a few pieces (if possible) on each hanger, like pants / skirt / dress plus a blazer to maximize the space. I hope to do a few closet posts after moving...right now it's a bit of a packing mess : )

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  64. Fantastic post! I'm not an intuitively fashionable person, so I've been meaning to take pictures of myself in various stylish outfits to help cue my dressing in the morning. This post really provides some great ideas for my private photo spread.

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  65. wow! That was lovely. Thanks for sharing the different styles.

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  66. Jean, I think this is one of your best posts to date. Keep up the great work! I got a lot of ideas from your post. Thanks!

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  67. Did you get the color palette idea from janelle's nail videos? If so you should credit.. Just saying..

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    1. I did not - it's a common way to show coordinating colors, like paint swatches or a tray of watercolors.

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  68. You are so amazing. Thank you for these creative ideas :)

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  69. This is great! I have so many sheath dresses, and now I know different ways to style them when I look in my closet thinking I have nothing to wear. Thanks for sharing!

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  70. This is an excellent post - fun and informative at once! I love your ideas. I notice that you use a lot of belts for accessorizing, as do I. I haven't figured out a good way of storing or organizing them. Any suggestions?

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    1. http://www.extrapetite.com/2011/09/accessory-storage-belt-ring-hanger.html

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  71. Great post Jean . Hopefully I can incorporate some of these ideas. I sometimes get bored wearing the same pieces to work and this might help extend it. Re-using may also help in staying on budget.

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  72. Amazing post! I can definitely see that you put in a lot of time and effort in these. I love that the graphic sense of this blog has been continuously improving. I will definitely incorporate these ideas into my wardrobe.

    charactersandcarryons.com

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  73. I like how your make up is done in these photos. Which lipstick are you using for the last photo?

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    1. Thank you! It's MAC lipstick in Charismatic

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  74. I would love to do all these pairings but i'm afraid ill look bulky. How do you do it? lol

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  75. Hi Jean! I remember a post where you asked for suggestions for boots with a narrow opening for slim calves. I couldn't find the post, but if you're still looking, check out Enzo Angiolini Women's Deanja Riding Boot. Amazon.com has a pretty good price. They are bit on the cheapy-side but they are slim!

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    1. Thank you for the recommendation, Wendy!

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  76. I loved this post ; very inspiring! So well explained and presented as well :)

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  77. The outfits are great and the post is sensationally put together. Thanks for the read.

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  78. This is one of your best posts! Love the many options this dress gives you and how such a simple dress has so much potential

    Join me for Spring Style Challenge over at HAPPY MEDLEY

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  79. Thank you for this! I have this exact sheath dress but it's been sitting in my closet for the longest time bc I just don't know how to style it up. One dress but multiple outfits is such a bargain! :)

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  80. I really loved this post. I hope you will continue the series once you are fully settled into your new house.

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