July 13th, 2012

How To: Dress Up Casual.

If you’re anything like me then you find casual dressing harder than corporate or cocktail. I spend my weekends in over-sized jumpers, jeans or workout gear. Fine on the couch. Not so fine at the shops. I found the answer flipping through a tabloid magazine at the doctor’s office. The story was “Celebrities at Airports” and full of pictures of Jennifer Ansiton et al lugging suitcases through exotic ports. I realised that all the women featured were wearing a version of the same six pieces and looked pulled-together despite multi-hours in the air.

It is the ultimate casual uniform. Simple, classic, doesn’t wrinkle … here’s what you need.

1. Sunglasses.

Think of every chic woman you know and you’ll notice two things: 1) they don’t wear a lot of make-up and 2) they always wear sunglasses. Always. Black sunglasses are a casual wear must-have because they dress everything up. You need an over-sized, glossy, slick style that suits your face shape – no tortoise shell, no colours and then you need to wear them everywhere – even when it’s overcast.

2. Blazer.

Blazers pull all and any outfit together. Instantly. Even tracksuit pants (don’t knock it until you’ve tried it). The sharp lines that work so well at work can also take the scruffy out of casual. Every woman should own three blazers – basic black, neutral camel or cream, and navy blue. Invest in quality and cut and then put them on high rotation in your wardrobe. On the weekends, start thinking of them the same way you think about an overcoat: throw one over the top of whatever you’re wearing as you walk out the door. Just try it. You’ll be amazed by how much better you feel running into your boss/ex/old school friend at the supermarket wearing a blazer over your yoga pants.

3. Ballet Flats.

It took me years to start wearing ballet flats and I regret the decades without them. Not only are they comfortable and practical but they’re perennially chic. They are the perfect in-between shoe – dressier than a sneaker but not in any way over-dressed. The trick with ballet flats is keeping them tonal. Dark denim with navy, grey or black. Cream with tan, camel etc. Not rocket science but a game changer.

4. Dress Jeans.

We all have a favourite pair of jeans and they usually have holes in the knee or run two sizes too big. These are fine for home but you need some dress jeans. Denim that looks as good as trousers. Add a blazer to dressy denim and a t-shirt and you can go anywhere and look appropriate. Opt for good quality denim in dark blue, classic pale wash or clean grey. Choose a style that can be worn with both flats and a heel. No cuff rolling please – the line on this type of jean should be absolutely classic.

5. Scarf.

If you haven’t hopped on this movement yet then I’m not sure where you’ve been? We can thank Nicole Richie and Kate Moss for taking the over-sized scarf to dizzy fashion heights and anointing them a casual essential. The style, size and colour is completely personal but the message is this: wear them all the time and with everything. Just like sunglasses, they will dress a weekend outfit up, make a t-shirt more interesting and, on a practical level, they’re snug and warm.

6. Statement Bag.

Think about a bag in the same way you think about sunglasses. This is the icing on a classic cake. The shape is less important than the quality and the size. On the weekend you don’t want little – go big or stay home. Colour looks great against neutrals and black but my favourite weekend look is cream against dark denim. It’s like wearing a white T-shirt – instant polish.

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Every Wednesday and Friday I write for FairFax Media at Life & Style please come and join me the conversation there

  • Stefanie

    Hi Paula, sent this post to everyone I knew when I first saw it on SMH. Very useful and practical advice. Loved your recent piece on death of the dress code, couldn’t agree more…. We have dressed up to go to the opera only to sit next to someone in jeans and a t shirt, just seemed very out of place. I’m all for casual but I believe in dressing according to the occasion.

  • Ck

    Yay ! Love this post – thank you! Would love to see more casual stuff for mums working from home or who have young babies / toddlers and haven’t returned to work a yet but still want to feel good. Maybe a where to shop type thing – bassike for your t’s etc etc and other stuff. Thanks!

  • Cat

    Awesome post – thanks so much! 

  • AJ

    Yes, more casual looks please!

    I love the Alexander Wang quote -  “Anyone can get dressed up and glamorous, but it is how people dress in their days off that are the most intriguing.” 

  • Bhanky

    I have also taken lots of fash-spiration from celebs at airports…I wore my dark jeans, white singlet, white blazer, flats with navy scarf and burnt orange bag today…blazers are definately my guilty pleasure!!!

  • AJ

    Great post Paula. On the jeans front, skinny jeans perplex me – I guess because it was all about bootleg cuts in my late 20/30s – I’d like to wear a current/modern style and they all seem to be skinny cuts that would fit my arms better.Would welcome any tips please on what to look out for & how to wear best?! Thank you

  • Brownnkat

    I agree!  I never know how to dress as a stay at home mum.  I always feel so daggy but this post and these tips have given me a few ideas. I’d also love to see at the bottom of each tip a “we like…..” link to a few of your fav finds in scarves/ballet flats etc which could range in price from cheap and cheerful to high end.  Just a thought :)

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  • Caity

    I think straight leg jeans are the way to go – especially if you don’t have pin thin pins (I have athletic legs). They’re really flattering with boots, flats or heels.

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