Back To Basics: Silhouettes

Outfit idea with a long-over-lean silhouette featuring Jenni Kayne sweater coat and Wandler Hortensia bag. Details at une femme d'un certain age.

The difference between a wardrobe that works and one that doesn’t often boils down to one word: cohesion.

The Cohesive Wardrobe

Merriam-Webster defines cohesion as “the act or state of sticking together tightly.” I would define a cohesive wardrobe as follows:

  • Most of the tops work with most of the bottoms, so they can be combined in multiple ways.
  • It includes garments that are versatile enough to work for a variety of venues and levels of formality with a change of accessories and accent pieces.

Above: Cardigan | Boots | Sweater | Jeans | Scarf | Bracelet | Bag

Having a capsule of wardrobe basics has been key to helping me build a workable, cohesive wardrobe. It took a while to sort out what my basics were, but I’ve found that focusing on a few key parameters makes selection easier. The first of these is silhouette.

By “silhouette” I mean the overall shape and proportion in an outfit. Length, volume and structure are all components. Being short and short-waisted, I prefer a long-over-lean silhouette which I think helps balance my proportions. And softly-structured pieces which I like best on my curvy shape. When I stick to that silhouette, getting dressed is a breeze.

Examples of a long-over-lean silhouette. More about building a cohesive wardrobe using silhouettes at une femme d'un certain age.

Above: Left | Right

Long-Over-Lean Building Blocks

Examples of fitted-over-full silhouettes with skirt and trousers outfits. More about building a cohesive wardrobe using silhouettes at une femme d'un certain age.

You may prefer a “fitted-over-full” silhouette (examples above: Left | Right). Or “long-over-full”, or “fitted-over-fitted”. Or something completely different. You can choose a silhouette based on what you find most flattering for your proportions, or on what appeals to you emotionally and aesthetically. There are probably dozens of combinations; the idea is to be reasonably consistent so that the pieces work together for you.

Fitted Over Full Building Blocks

You don’t have to stick to a single silhouette. However I find it simpler when rebuilding or refining a wardrobe to focus first on the one you’re most comfortable with, and then experiment. And you can play with lengths and proportions within a silhouette as you update your wardrobe from season to season. Knee length or longer? Long sleeves or bracelet length? Notch collar or shawl collar? Wide through the leg or just flared below the knee?

You may already know what silhouette you prefer, or you may need to do a little experimenting. Even if you wear mostly dresses, silhouettes still come into play. The shape and fullness of the dress will determine which jackets or other toppers work best.

Do you have a preferred silhouette? Has it changed over time?

Stay in touch.

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32 Comments

  1. January 14, 2019 / 1:23 am

    The hardest part is to know what looks good on you. We sometimes are drawn to looks that aren’t at all appropriate for our body types. Wishful thinking, maybe. It helps to have a second opinion from a friend with good taste who isn’t afraid to steer you away from mistakes.

    • Pam
      January 14, 2019 / 11:24 am

      I used to rely on my daughter’s “eyes” to help me since her taste, judgment and honesty are exceptional. Now that she’s living overseas for a few years and not readily available when I need, I’ve found that taking full length “selfies” from different angles on my iphone has been extremely helpful. For me, the photos show reality whereas just viewing myself in the mirror can be deceiving. (My lying eyes, lol…..) It’s enabled me to experiment more successfully with different looks, profiles, colors, etc.

      • Marla
        January 14, 2019 / 12:10 pm

        Great idea!!!

  2. Jeannd
    January 14, 2019 / 4:33 am

    I am fitted over fitted mostly, since I find that most flattering. Your post wearing the column of black with the jcrew camel top over it was inspirational to me for packing for a DC trip this week. I have the jcrew topper with collar and pockets in camel and will pair that with slim Edie trousers and a cashmere black sweater and leopard scarf. This will a work outfit and one I feel totally comfortable in. I am not much for a lot of color and always feel best in neutrals. I struggle with finding dresses. I can’t wear a lot of volume so have mostlysheath styles. I enjoy your post and though you often show very expensive options, they can be a look that is easily achieved for less. I have to say I do tire of the same French jewelry and think a little more creativity would be nice. But I am a jewelry person and not everyone is. Thanks for all the accesible and practical posts. I got a little off topic with this one, but will study your cohesive tips. I have too many clothes since I buy classic for the most part. Hard to cull!

  3. January 14, 2019 / 4:49 am

    I am a fully paid up member of long over lean! Right this second, I am wearing skinny trousers and a long ribbed cardigan almost exactly like the gorgeous one you featured above. I love the pockets on the one you show; that is the only thing missing from mine. In the winter I wear it almost all day every day at home.

    It is really clever to think of wardrobes this way. I only buy black instead of navy for cohesion reasons! Trying to work navy into my closet is too disruptive with all the black I already have. Your shopping choices are alway so so good! xx

    • yvrjanice
      January 15, 2019 / 12:23 pm

      But black and navy is a very sophisticated look together! You can definitely wear them both at once.

  4. January 14, 2019 / 4:57 am

    I wear long over lean – I find it the most flattering and also easiest for my lifestyle. I can’t recommend that Jenni Kayne cardigan highly enough. I have it in every color and wear one almost every single day with jeans and a tee shirt. My uniform.

  5. SuD
    January 14, 2019 / 5:36 am

    I guess my favorite is fitted over full, but I also rock lean over lean and long over lean (mainly with a third piece such as a cardigan).And, I prefer pants except in the hot summer when the dresses and skirts come out to play.

  6. Kristina
    January 14, 2019 / 6:04 am

    But What Would Work for a short feminine and full figure?

    • Susan B
      January 14, 2019 / 6:31 am

      Hi Kristina, it would really depend on your proportions and shape, and your taste. I’m petite and curvy, with a short waist and long legs. My suggestion is to try a bunch of combinations, see what you feel best in. Sometimes the “body type” style rules don’t align with what we like best.

      • Bonnie W Clark
        January 14, 2019 / 8:26 am

        Me too. Short, short legs, long-waisted and ‘curvy’. Took a lot of looking up and catching a glimpse of myself in a shop window! Sometimes I just wanted to run and hide but sometimes I looked ‘good’! The trick was to figure out the what. What looked good and what looked so awful. I still sometime get caught up with trends. Love the long lean look but it is not for me, for the most part. Makes me look short and squat-y!

        • MaryInMD
          January 14, 2019 / 6:56 pm

          Bonnie, what silhouette(s) have you found that work for you? Your body type sounds like mine, so I would appreciate your thoughts.

  7. Lyn
    January 14, 2019 / 7:46 am

    I’m mid-hip cardigans and jeans, pretty much all the time. I have tried the longer toppers, but the extra material feels like it’s in the way, makes my legs feel short, and hides my narrow hips (my only physical asset.) I guess I’d rather feel tidy than stylish.

    I love France with a burning passion, but my wardrobe has an English heart: Cozy and comfortable, with a little dash of dowdy. It works for me!

  8. January 14, 2019 / 8:10 am

    I’m generally long over lean as well, but I’ve been shifting a fair bit lately. Blame it on the boyfriend jeans and cropped ankles 😉
    And I’ve been surprised to find how much I’ve enjoyed wearing a short, loose-boxy sweater over a longer piece — with a full over not-all-that-fitted effect that is probably less flattering than I hope, but seems not so bad and which feels awesome. (Not comfy-awesome, but I’m-me-awesome.) Which counts. imho.
    Your flexible guidelines here are so useful, though — even when I’m playing with, defying, or seeming to ignore them, I think it helps to understand that underlying foundational structure. Thank you!

  9. Barb
    January 14, 2019 / 8:23 am

    I, too, am short-waisted with proportionately longer legs. And at 5’ 3” with narrow shoulders and shorter arms, I almost always need petite sizing. My biggest challenge is dressing to disguise my muffin top! I have to remind myself that clingy knits aren’t my friend, even with my favorite long cardigans and skinny jeans. I want to try some drapey button-down blouses next as my first layer, as I am very comfortable in the woven button-downs left from my teaching days. I want to add that you’re one of my favorite bloggers, as you are most similar to me in age, stature, and style. Thank you for your continued inspiration!

  10. Sally
    January 14, 2019 / 8:28 am

    Fabulous. Another classic. Thank you so much!

  11. Karen
    January 14, 2019 / 10:02 am

    Is there a link to the beautiful teal coat shown under the Silhouettes wording with the cream sweater and black pants. I’d love to know all about them. Thank you.

      • Karen
        January 14, 2019 / 1:20 pm

        Thank you so much, Susan! It is such a beautiful coat and color:)

  12. Rondi
    January 14, 2019 / 10:12 am

    I enjoyed reading the post today very much. It makes me focus on MY preferred silhouette as opposed to the silhouette for a particular outfit. I am 5’3″ with proportionately longer legs. I rarely buy petites except for a few tops. I am right on the line and most petite pants do not work. I prefer fitted over fitted and that is the silhouette I have always worn. I occasionally wear fitted over full. The only time I wear long over lean is a long top over lean pants. But I realize I have never liked a lot of layers and I know that has a lot to do with my decision. And I am always trying to channel my inner Audrey Hepburn. LOL Even though my silhouette has not changed dramatically over time I do keep up with current styles. Your blog helps tremendously and I always look forward to reading it.

  13. Alicia
    January 14, 2019 / 10:56 am

    I like a long over lean sillouette but have a question about outerwear… While I love wearing a long vest or sweater, it seems to me that my coat always needs to be my longest layer so the vest hem doesn’t hang out the bottom. (And if I don’t want to wear that long coat, I’ll often just skip the vest…) Any thoughts on that styling challenge?

    • Susan B
      January 30, 2019 / 3:16 pm

      Hi Alicia, I think many of us have a hard time adjusting our eye to accept a longer layer peeking from underneath our coat or outerwear. But I see it done from time to time in various “street style” images, so I think it’s no longer a rule but a matter of personal preference. I tend to be most comfortable when there’s enough of a length difference that the longer layer below feels intentional. And the cut and proportions of the garments make a difference too…a more voluminous garment underneath a fitted one can create a “stuffed” look. Usually, my longer sweater IS my outerwear, and if it’s cold enough to require a warmer coat, I’ll wear shorter layers underneath. But I have worn a shorter blazer over a longer tunic, and liked the look. That’s my long-winded way of saying it’s mostly a matter of personal preference, so go with what feels right for you.

  14. Pam
    January 14, 2019 / 11:30 am

    Thanks for this refresher. Your blog is always helpful.

  15. Daniella
    January 14, 2019 / 1:09 pm

    I’m not stuck on any silhouette. Sometime, cigarette pants or leggings, other times bouffant ones with the appropriate tops. Same with skirts. As for dresses, the more sculptural and out of the ordinary, the better. RUTI is a company that suits my taste and go to find that special cut or print. Nobel Shoes boutique in SF or British United Nude add the accents that I need to complete the outfit. Rebecca Minkoff makes great handbags, and of course some other greats from Italy or France that I purchase when traveling there. I keep them forever unless my daughter pursenaps them. I try to keep it simple but out of the ordinary. Like everybody else here, I have closetful of things that I need to tame. Curating ones closets are quite a task for me as I love everything I own and have been lucky enough to maintain my frame over time. Still, a cleaning ones in a while is good for the soul and the closet congestion. I lived in New York for a few months recently in the fall -winter time in a charming studio and was amazed how great it was to have only a handful of items to deal with. One becomes very creative under the circumstances and liberated from unnecessary clutter. A lesson to learn.

  16. Ann in Missouri
    January 14, 2019 / 1:33 pm

    Back to basics posts like this are so useful to me. I need grounding, repeatedly, in the things that matter most about dressing and styling myself.

    Thanks, Susan. Don’t ever stop making posts like this one.

  17. Karin
    January 14, 2019 / 7:22 pm

    Thanks for this post, Susan! I’m still learning to deal with my newly menopausal figure…after years of dressing to highlight my waist, I no longer have one. So far I’ve been sticking with “large/long over slim”. It’s been a challenge re-training myself not to buy anything that clings to the midsection.

  18. Jeanne
    January 14, 2019 / 7:59 pm

    I am fitted over fitted mostly, since I find that most flattering. Your post wearing the column of black with the jcrew camel top over it was inspirational to me for packing for a DC trip this week. I have the jcrew topper with collar and pockets in camel and will pair that with slim Edie trousers and a cashmere black sweater and leopard scarf. This will a work outfit and one I feel totally comfortable in. I am not much for a lot of color and always feel best in neutrals. I struggle with finding dresses. I can’t wear a lot of volume so have mostlysheath styles. I enjoy your post and though you often show very expensive options, they can be a look that is easily achieved for less. I have to say I do tire of the same French jewelry and think a little more creativity would be nice. But I am a jewelry person and not everyone is. Thanks for all the accesible and practical posts. I got a little off topic with this one, but will study your cohesive tips. I have too many clothes since I buy classic for the most part. Hard to cull!

  19. Stephanie
    January 15, 2019 / 12:14 am

    Long over lean is a lovely silhouette if you have slender legs and can wear those infernal leggings or skinny pants. Alas, I have thick legs and am probably the last woman on earth who still prefers straight or wide-legged pants. Fortunately I’m fairly tall at 5’8″. My dressy stand-bys are Eileen Fisher rayon stretch crepe trousers (they are pretty old now as most of her new styles are skinny) plus some avant-garde styles from Alembika and the like. All my cardigans, jackets and tunics are long enough to cover my rear. I rely on my extensive collection of scarves and jewelry to shift attention up to my face!

  20. marilyn bornstein
    January 18, 2019 / 5:10 pm

    I just love these types of blogs! Love to constantly re-evaluate my wardrobe.

  21. January 19, 2019 / 8:34 am

    I am still experimenting. I like tight top and wide bottom but I have to be careful with that silhouette. It tends to look very classic or even frumpy on me.
    Coming Sunday you will see wide on (sort of) wide on my blog.
    Greetje

  22. Pat Dickerson
    January 24, 2019 / 5:42 pm

    Susan, I am what’s considered the rectangular shape…just more hippy and busty with additional weight. With all the long cardigans, I find that a shorter top and skinny pants, at 5’4″ with proportionately long legs, are what works for me best. I think that fits the long over lean category, right? Also, on the outfit above, I ordered the blue sweater to wear with jeans and the scarf is sold. Do you have a substitute for the scarf and a different cardigan/jacket to complete the look. I appreciate finding your blog very much. Take care. Pat

  23. Marybeth
    January 30, 2019 / 9:45 am

    Susan, I just love your thoughtfulness about dressing… simplicity, sylishness & Susan! Thank you for your posts… Love ’em! Marybeth

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