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

    Posted 7.5.14 Reply
  2. Jean wrote:

    Thank you for the recommendation, Wendy!

    Posted 4.16.14 Reply
  3. Jean wrote:

    Thank you! It's MAC lipstick in Charismatic

    Posted 4.16.14 Reply
  4. 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! 🙂

    Posted 4.11.14 Reply
  5. 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

    Posted 4.9.14 Reply
  6. The outfits are great and the post is sensationally put together. Thanks for the read.

    Posted 4.5.14 Reply
  7. Lili Marie wrote:

    I loved this post ; very inspiring! So well explained and presented as well 🙂

    Posted 4.5.14 Reply
  8. Wendy Min wrote:

    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!

    Posted 4.4.14 Reply
  9. I would love to do all these pairings but i'm afraid ill look bulky. How do you do it? lol

    Posted 4.3.14 Reply
  10. Awesome, thanks for the tip Jean. This opens up a whole new dimension for wardrobes I've been too scared to try before! 🙂

    Posted 4.2.14 Reply
  11. Anonymous wrote:

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

    Posted 4.2.14 Reply
  12. Joyce Pak wrote:

    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

    Posted 4.1.14 Reply
  13. Anonymous wrote:

    thanks so much!!

    Posted 4.1.14 Reply
  14. 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.

    Posted 4.1.14 Reply
  15. Lark47 wrote:

    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?

    Posted 4.1.14 Reply
  16. Lex R wrote:

    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!

    Posted 4.1.14 Reply
  17. You are so amazing. Thank you for these creative ideas 🙂

    Posted 4.1.14 Reply
  18. Jean wrote:

    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.

    Posted 3.31.14 Reply
  19. Jean wrote:

    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!

    Posted 3.31.14 Reply
  20. Jean wrote:

    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 : )

    Posted 3.31.14 Reply
  21. Jean wrote:

    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.

    Posted 3.31.14 Reply
  22. Jean wrote:

    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.

    Posted 3.31.14 Reply
  23. Jean wrote:

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

    Posted 3.31.14 Reply
  24. Jean wrote:

    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 : )

    Posted 3.31.14 Reply
  25. Jean wrote:

    Thanks! They are from Banana Republic but are old.

    Posted 3.31.14 Reply
  26. Jean wrote:

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

    Posted 3.31.14 Reply
  27. Jean wrote:

    It's size 11-12

    Posted 3.31.14 Reply
  28. Anonymous wrote:

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

    Posted 3.31.14 Reply
  29. Anonymous wrote:

    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!

    Posted 3.31.14 Reply
  30. Arts wrote:

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

    Posted 3.31.14 Reply
  31. Anonymous wrote:

    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.

    Posted 3.31.14 Reply
  32. 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!

    Posted 3.31.14 Reply
  33. Anonymous wrote:

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

    Posted 3.31.14 Reply
  34. Joules wrote:

    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

    Posted 3.31.14 Reply
  35. Anne wrote:

    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

    Posted 3.31.14 Reply
  36. This is a great post – I love the versatility of a sheath dress!

    Alice
    http://www.happinessatmidlife.com

    Posted 3.31.14 Reply
  37. Karen wrote:

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

    Posted 3.30.14 Reply
  38. A must have in every girls's closet.

    http://www.whattowearwheretobuy.tumblr.com

    Posted 3.30.14 Reply
  39. This is an excellent post. Its helping me thing outside the box. Thanks. Would love more posts like these. Keep up the great postings.

    Posted 3.30.14 Reply
  40. Anonymous wrote:

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

    Posted 3.30.14 Reply
  41. Ann wrote:

    This post is amazing!

    Posted 3.30.14 Reply
  42. Love this post, Jean! What great ideas!

    Posted 3.30.14 Reply
  43. Jean – Love the styling but also this is an impeccably written blog post. 🙂 Amazing!

    Posted 3.30.14 Reply
  44. Anonymous wrote:

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

    Posted 3.30.14 Reply
  45. Anonymous wrote:

    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.

    Posted 3.29.14 Reply
  46. Anonymous wrote:

    Very helpful and creative!

    Posted 3.29.14 Reply
  47. Anonymous wrote:

    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.

    Posted 3.29.14 Reply
  48. Anonymous wrote:

    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!

    Posted 3.29.14 Reply
  49. I love everything about this: the outfits, the design, the photos, the written details… Delightful!

    Posted 3.29.14 Reply

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