Wardrobe Staples: 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 standaloneWhat 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 (s
imilar
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

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Leave a Comment

106 Comments

  1. annie wrote:

    This comment has been removed by the author.

    Posted 3.29.14 Reply
  2. Christina wrote:

    THANK YOU!!!!

    Posted 3.29.14 Reply
  3. Anonymous wrote:

    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….

    Posted 3.29.14 Reply
  4. Kirstin wrote:

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

    Posted 3.29.14 Reply
  5. Graciela wrote:

    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!

    http://www.graciellabredehoeft.etsy.com

    Posted 3.29.14 Reply
  6. kayse wrote:

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

    Posted 3.29.14 Reply
  7. Anonymous wrote:

    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

    Posted 3.29.14 Reply
  8. Anonymous wrote:

    Great post, do more posts like these! 🙂

    Posted 3.29.14 Reply
  9. 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?

    Posted 3.29.14 Reply
  10. ANDYSTYLE wrote:

    love all the looks!! 🙂

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

    Posted 3.29.14 Reply
  11. Anonymous wrote:

    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!

    Posted 3.29.14 Reply
  12. Suzie Q wrote:

    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
    http://www.StyleCueBySuzieQ.com

    Posted 3.29.14 Reply
  13. Anonymous wrote:

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

    Posted 3.28.14 Reply
  14. Ty wrote:

    Such fabulous pairings!! I love them all!

    Posted 3.28.14 Reply
  15. soupdragon wrote:

    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.

    Posted 3.28.14 Reply
  16. Adelia Ng wrote:

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

    Posted 3.28.14 Reply
  17. Elaine wrote:

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

    Posted 3.28.14 Reply
  18. Anonymous wrote:

    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

    Posted 3.28.14 Reply
  19. kimmie wrote:

    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!

    Posted 3.28.14 Reply
  20. belle wrote:

    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

    Posted 3.28.14 Reply
  21. I like the daytime party look.

    Posted 3.28.14 Reply
  22. Anonymous wrote:

    Great post! It was so informative!

    Posted 3.28.14 Reply
  23. Amazing post, LOVE all the outfits!

    Posted 3.28.14 Reply
  24. 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

    Posted 3.28.14 Reply
  25. jannyisms wrote:

    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?

    Posted 3.28.14 Reply
  26. Anonymous wrote:

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

    Posted 3.28.14 Reply
  27. Bela Anzu wrote:

    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.

    Posted 3.28.14 Reply
  28. Sue wrote:

    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!

    Posted 3.28.14 Reply
  29. Jessy T wrote:

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

    Posted 3.28.14 Reply
  30. Jessy T wrote:

    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

    Posted 3.28.14 Reply
  31. 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!

    Posted 3.28.14 Reply
  32. I love the palette graphics too!

    Posted 3.28.14 Reply
  33. Liz Moran wrote:

    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??

    Posted 3.28.14 Reply
  34. Anonymous wrote:

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

    Posted 3.28.14 Reply
  35. 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
    http://www.eyelikefashion.com
    http://www.eyelikefashion.com
    http://www.eyelikefashion.com

    xo

    Posted 3.28.14 Reply
  36. 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?

    Posted 3.28.14 Reply
  37. 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! ^_^

    Posted 3.28.14 Reply
  38. 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

    Posted 3.28.14 Reply
  39. Wow, I love the variety of looks with just one dress! AWESOME styling! 🙂
    -Alex of http://snippetswithalex.com

    Posted 3.28.14 Reply
  40. andrea wrote:

    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

    http://www.andreaeveryday.com

    Posted 3.28.14 Reply
  41. 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 😉

    Posted 3.28.14 Reply
  42. Anly Beck wrote:

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

    Posted 3.28.14 Reply
  43. Anonymous wrote:

    what size is the H&M; jacket?

    Posted 3.28.14 Reply
  44. sarahp wrote:

    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.

    Posted 3.28.14 Reply
  45. Cher wrote:

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

    Posted 3.28.14 Reply
  46. Tosin AK wrote:

    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/

    Posted 3.28.14 Reply
  47. Dana Kay wrote:

    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/

    Posted 3.28.14 Reply
  48. Lauren wrote:

    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 / http://www.casualglamstyle.com

    Posted 3.28.14 Reply
  49. Petite-ish wrote:

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

    Posted 3.28.14 Reply
  50. Michelle R wrote:

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

    Posted 3.28.14 Reply

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