Jacket Alchemy

Once upon a time, I felt like a jacket was the magic ingredient that could transform any outfit into gold. I kept at least half a dozen jackets in my rotation, and counted on them to help me look pulled together. I was cautious of the stodgy factor, but felt I could avoid it by either wearing my suit jackets with more dressed-down pieces, or wearing more feminine “novelty” jackets.

Then about four years ago, over a short span of time, it stopped working. My blazer jackets just felt staid and mannish, and the novelty jackets too, well….novel. I thought maybe I needed to upgrade, and tried some designer bridge line jackets, but even Emporio Armani couldn’t cure these blues. I sighed, threw in the towel, and started investing in some nice cardigans.

But a few jackets have recently crept back into my regular rotation, and I’ve tried to isolate what makes these few work when so many do not. This formula continues to evolve, but I’ll share what I’ve sussed out so far.


A longer, softer knit jacket is very easy to wear, and works with pants and skirts. This one is from Eileen Fisher, Fall 2010, I think. But here’s one with a similar silhouette.


The asymmetry keeps it from looking too buttoned up, and when zipped creates a flattering diagonal line. Again, this one is a couple of years old; here’s something similar from Ann Taylor.

Ann Taylor

Blazers with two or more buttons. I can’t explain why, but single button or tuxedo style jackets just look wrong on me, and make me feel like a small Sherman tank. Something about the higher cut of a two- or three-button jacket just seems to feel more flattering and modern.

J.Crew Schoolboy Blazer in Navy

But whatever the style, I’ve learned to look for a fitted silhouette, higher armholes, and solid, soft fabrics. Regardless of how good they look on paper (or on someone else) I’ve learned to avoid any of the following: stiff fabrics, boxy styles, dolman sleeves, tweeds or herringbones (lovely in concept but look mumsy on me), and too much detail (piping, ruffles).

While I no longer rely quite so heavily on my jackets to make an outfit, I’m glad to have a few on hand that I can count on.

Have you found your jacket alchemy? What are the styles and details that make jackets work for you?

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  1. I love jackets – they are the staples of my wardrobe ( and I don’t work in an office). I think sleeve length is key. A 3/4 length sleeve looks younger and less buttoned-up, and suits my small frame. I love them with long gloves in winter. Wrists are pretty and you can show a bit of bare skin when other areas of the body can no longer be revealed.

  2. I’ve been waiting to read your post. It’s what I’m working on now.
    I keep acquiring jackets and then noticing that most are rarely worn. Same problems as you: don’t want to feel mannish, stodgy.
    Also can look too authoritative for a non-office situation. I looked up feminine tweed clothes the other day and found a firm that cut most of its jackets with very rounded bottom edges. Maybe not my preferred design line. I have a now you see it, now you don’t lower belly and I don’t like to think about whether I best be careful today not to accent it.

    Definitely, I have been moving toward knits. I have a similar jacket to the first one you show. Why I like it for me is that it is not only double breasted but has a whole corresponding row of inside buttons, so it can be buttoned every which way, depending on what proportion I am trying to create.

    I’ve also been choosing thin sweaters over jackets. In fact, when I have an outfit I really like I have been hanging it on a rolling rack with the specific purpose of analyzing whether I need traditional jackets.

    I have trouble with the push up the sleeves strategy. I read somewhere that women with short arms don’t benefit from this look. And I do feel like I have even stumpier forearms when I try this. Plus I have weight in my upper arm, so I can really look burly with all that pushed up fabric.

    I am finding that a lot of the jacket problem to me is two things. One is whether I am happier with my clothing moving with me or when I have to move against it. The latter is the boxy trap. Also jackets tend to cover up too much of front bodice,
    unless they are the shrunken style and this won’t be around forever and will go back to my mother’s opinion: it looks outgrown.

    1. Vildy, I hear you! I’m still on the fence about whether I really need traditional jackets anymore. The lightweight knit ones seem to be so much more workable. I don’t like to push up sleeves on woven fabrics as they feel bulky and don’t stay put. That why I’ve always been a sleeve-roller.

  3. For weeks I have been going back to the page of that EF jacket you linked here. I so want to think it would work on me, but I’m pretty sure those flappy pockets are in exactly the wrong spot (i.e., over my hips).

    1. Blume, I’ve found with EF pieces, you just need to try them on. Sometimes things look better on than in the pictures, other times not. I think it really just depends on the fabric and where the details hit.

  4. The 2-buttton (as in the schoolboy) looks so great because the lapel is cut higher, and this flatters and uh, tames a generous bust. Add the nipped in waist and it achieves greatness.

    Just bought a jacket that I wear as a top (nothing beneath, zipped up): boiled wool body, leather sleeves, very close-fitting. This is the only type of jacket that works on me, close to the body without a shirt- otherwise too cluttered and bulky.

    Rose AG- funny and so true about those jackets! Wise to be very wary of anything described as “art to wear”.

  5. Funny, for me jackets are still my go-to item. Wear over wool slacks, and I’m totally comfortable in any business setting. Over jeans, and I feel a bit more put together than throwing on a sweater. I am short-ish and thin-ish, and love the boxy, three-quarter sleeve look. I absolutely adore the 40’s-type stand-up collar style (don’t know exactly what it’s called.) I drown in longer jackets, so what I don’t wear are the blazer-type jackets with 2-3 buttons. They just seem too “manly” for me. Maybe we can trade my unworn for your unworn? 🙂

    And I completely agree with RoseAG too – those puckery / quilted “art” jackets scream: “Middle-aged woman trying to be arty coming!”

    1. Elle, that’s great that you are so comfortable with jackets. I also like those stand-collar styles, and 3/4 sleeves. I’ve pared down my jacket wardrobe to just those pieces that work, otherwise I’d take you up on your trade suggestion!

  6. I too, have felt bored with jackets, and many of them are over-kill, formality wise, for my casual office. But you have re-ignited a spark in me! The asymmetrical jackets would be just the ticket. You look marvelous, by the way, in all these iterations.

  7. I love a softer knit “jacket”. You wear this look so effortlessly.

    The vest is another piece that I love to wear.
    It hides a multitude of sins and adds a bit of warmth.

    You must be thinking about packing and what you’ll be taking to Paris 🙂

  8. It’s moving back to blazer time of year for me — I have two (Smythe) I really like, but find I don’t wear them much once coats are required — requires too much thinking in the morning to plan for a coat they fit well under. I’ve been more likely to wear a long cashmere cardigan for that polish I associate with the jacket layer. Now, though, I’ll be keeping an eye out for one more jacket — yours all look great on you.

  9. I have Parhenopes’ issue – I’ve got short arms, add $15 to $20 plus a trip to the tailors’ to every purchase. Nowdays when I see gals with rolled up sleeves on jackets I don’t think, “style statement”, I think — stopgap fit measure.

    One look I dislike on the middle-aged woman of a certain class is the “art jacket.” It’s the multi-colored, goes with everything, is supposed to look ethnic, might be quilted, jacket. Along with dangy colorful earrings it looks old to me.

    My most often worn non-rain jackets are denim. Otherwise I seem to have mostly sweaters.

    1. RoseAG, fortunately when I buy Petite jackets, the sleeve length is usually good. I’ve always been a sleeve roller though, as I’m just more comfortable having a bit of ventilation at the wrists. It’s a quirk. 😉

  10. I think you look great in all 3 pictured above. The strangest thing I’ve found is that the classic St John jacket, knit with gold buttons (easily bought on consignment to avoid the $1000plus price tag) does work magically to give an aura of authority and even style. I tried this out after reading an article to that effect in the WSJ.

    1. Frugal Scholar, St. John does make some beautiful pieces. Unfortunately they’re usually cut too long for me, but glad you’ve found some that work for you. Yeah, it’s that belief that jackets confer an aura of authority that keeps me trying to fit them into my work wardrobe, but maybe I need to rethink that.

  11. I love jackets because they hide a multitude of bad decisions…but like you, I have added more cardigans in the past year and some softer looks. Right now, I am loving the knits and have one on today that I will feature tomorrow…that Eileen Fisher look is one that I am really attracted to lately. I do have a couple of jackets that give me that boxy look and I hate too..I have been avoiding them. Recently I wore a jacket on my blog…looked at it later and immediately put it in the Goodwill box! It was too manish and not flattering!! I love the first look on you!!

  12. Your face is so pretty and adorable when you smile in your scarf videos. Your smile is the only thing missing in these photos.


    1. Marsi, I’m working on it. 😉 I’m still a bit uncomfortable in front of the camera. I hope that once I get the posing part down, the smile will be less of a grimace.

    2. It’s hard for me, too. When Tish asked me to send her my photo for her blog, frankly, I had to liquor up a bit. It took two separate photo shoots. I used to love mugging for the camera when I was younger, but over the past five years — ugh. Anyway, maybe a coupe de champagne would be just the thing?

  13. Softer, drapier fabrics, and more knits. I love longer cardigans right now. I made the mistake of buying two J.Crew schoolboy blazers, one in a black watch plaid, and the other in a herringbone, and you’re so right – every time I try one with jeans or whatever, instant mumsy. Will be giving those away. I love all the jackets you’ve shown on you.

  14. I liked jackets when they were longer. Not so much the shorter ones. I have switched to long cardigans for the most part. Love the longer blazer look with slacks and I have a couple of jackets with matching skirts for dressy events.

  15. I used to always wear jackets for work. Waisted ones really suit me but now I mostly have some old Armani’s which are very useful for special occasions.

  16. You know I love jackets. I think they are my signature. I doubt there are many jackets that would make you look mumsy! You always look so chic and sherman tank–never ever in a million years!

    1. Debbi, you and jackets seem to be a natural pairing. You’re very kind, but being broad through the shoulders and barrel chested (even without the bustline) I do find certain styles just really emphasize the bulk in my upper body. I look like Lord Grantham!

  17. I could imagine wearing a small jacket without a top or blouse, as an alternative for a sweater, perhaps sometimes. But in general, I don´t need them. I see them as work clothes. Perfect for you though: ).
    A skirt suit is a different thing, something every woman should have in her closet – just in case.

    1. Mette, if I didn’t work in an office environment, I probably wouldn’t wear the blazer-style jackets. But they are a kind of shorthand for business, so I keep trying to make them work.

  18. I agree with your analysis and have had similar issues with jackets in recent years. However, I really would like to find a flattering blazer. Meanwhile I’m very happy with softer knit cardigans.

    It’s funny, we started watching the old BBC show As Times Goes By with Judi Dench and both noticed how unflattering her jacket & skirt outfits look. Too boxy for her figure.

  19. I’m a jacket fan. It is a rare day when I don’t wear a jacket. It seems there are at least three different forces tugging at jacket choices. Changing bodies, changing fashion and changing (casualization) work dress standards. You have found several jackets that flatter your shape, are current and work for the level of formality in your life.

  20. I am back to say (after reflection) that I separated my boardroom and non-boardroom jackets, mentally. I do not think it helps my credibility and authority to stand in front of men in Savile Row tailoring wearing my casual jacket. Even though both the men and women present would probably prefer to wear their jeans and a hip sweater, in *certain settings* you simply suit up for the game. (That’s where Armani shines, elegant yet soft and feminine.) We have to read the setting, at times, more than our own preferences.

    1. Duchesse, fortunately, I’m never in situations anymore where men are wearing actual suits, let alone Saville Row. More often it’s khakis and a blazer, rarely a tie in sight. So anything more than a casual jacket would feel like overkill.

  21. It’s funny, but I have gone through the same process as you in reverse! Throughout my 30s and 40s I wore cardis and twinsets everywhere, including work (with tailored pants or skirts). Now that I’m in my 50s, I find that the exact same sweaters a) no longer flatter my middle and b) make me look like an elderly librarian (nothing wrong with being a librarian – except I’m not one – it’s the elderly part that bothers me.)
    So – I have turned to jackets, especially for work but sometimes for nice casual settings as well. But as you said, the have to be the exact right jackets for my shape, style and workplace. For me , that means soft, fitted, tailored two or three button jackets in flattering (mostly neutral) shades (solid or subtle patterns like herringbone). I found some that were perfection at Max Mara – one was even on sale. I am thrilled! I still like cardis, but longer and looser than before.
    BTW I love that asymmetrical jacket on you.

  22. I totally rely on jackets. Basically I’m always in a black t-shirt, jeans, jacket and interesting shoes. BTW, I think I have the PERFECT jacket for you on my blog right now *wink*

  23. Sigh, I think I’m still in the novelty jacket phase. I wore a new-to-me jacket to work today and one colleague asked where I’d thrifted it. She confided that she work jackets to minimize her generous bust line. My generous bust line is long gone after nursing three babies and like you, I seek some sort of torso definition from a jacket.

  24. I think the reason one button jacket is a no go is because us petite girls have a short torso and that one button in the middle just looks weird, the top and bottom part of the jacket gaping.
    Love your glasses 😀

  25. I agree generally that the boxy jackets don’t work anymore. But, as Duchesse pointed out, in a business setting where the men are suited up, a sweater looks too casual. I remember a MORE magazine feature where a young attorney was returning to work after a stint of child-raising, and Tim Gunn put her in a brightly-colored cardigan with a short print skirt and stiletto heels. Exactly the wrong thing. She looked like the junior assistant.