If Voltaire was right and perfect is the enemy of good, then perfect is definitely also the enemy of good style. Women who famously dress well (Alexa Chung, Sienna Miller, Chloë Sevigny) rarely look immaculate, and at fashion week, editors and industry insiders are usually distinguishable from rich designer clients by their chunky boots or extra-large coats.
The concept of wearing one wrong thing every day was initially applied to shoes and coined by American stylist Allison Bornstein. Her advice was to pick the most unexpected shoe to finish off a look, thereby giving the entire outfit more personality. Think ballet flats with a long formal dress or chunky sandals with tailored trousers.
“In working with clients and breaking down the style of our favourite celebrities, I realised what makes a look feel interesting and personal is the addition of accessories that feel slightly ‘off’ or mismatched with the vibe of the rest of the look,” she said in an interview.
Now, Vogue has taken Bornstein’s idea one step further, arguing that this is the winter of “the wrong coat”. Led by designer brands – at Prada, frayed jackets were paired with pencil skirts while at Altuzarra see-through dresses were worn with woven coats – the magazine is calling for us all to cover glitzy outfits with outerwear you’d be more likely to walk the dog in.
“I love this sort of dressing,” says stylist Arabella Greenhill. “It plays to that masculine-feminine look that is very stylish and it has the bonus of making you feel more at ease if – like so many people – you’re slightly out of your comfort zone in party clothes.”
The wrong coat also helps formalwear look edgier. “Glitzy outfits can look overthought or even twee,” says Sadie Mantovani, a stylist who also works in fashion PR. “To combat this, I often pair a silk ankle-length dress with outerwear, like a Barbour or a puffa jacket. It works because it shows a little individuality rather than following a top-to-toe look.”
The best news? The wrong coat isn’t just for event dressing (see below for a casual look that might also be Princess Diana’s most lasting style legacy) but it is far more likely to keep you warm than anything else this winter. And there’s a good chance that all these pieces already exist in your wardrobe – just don’t forget to take the dog biscuits out the pocket of your parka before you leave for that black-tie dinner.
The silk slip and Barbour
Toffs have long mastered the art of getting it slightly wrong: think Debo Devonshire feeding her chickens at Chatsworth in high-necked couture and flat shoes, and groups of aristocrats wearing black-tie with thick jumpers on shooting weekends in icy family houses.
Equally stylish is their propensity to throw ancient Barbours over embroidered gowns – a look that It girl Alexa Chung later made her own, and popularised for the masses. And happily it’s a style that works as well with long silk dresses as it does with barely-there minis.
“I use the same Barbour in town as I do in the countryside,” says stylist and Tatler regular Olivia Buckingham. “People used to have trademark country coats and city coats but it’s got much more relaxed – and I think it’s a lot more stylish to let both looks blend into each other. The key is for your Barbour not to be too shiny and new – you want it to look a bit weather-borne and beaten-up.”
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The sparkle dress and leather jacket
Play with texture by mixing your fabrics because the last thing a sequin or metallic dress needs is more glitz in the form of a party coat. Instead, opt for the unexpected and throw a tailored biker jacket over an undeniably after-dark, ultra-feminine dress. The clash in both shape and texture will make both items look better, and the entire outfit more modern.
“It’s also about cost per wear – if you have a lovely warm jacket already, why can’t that go over your party dress instead of an especially bought coat you only wear in December?” asks Greenhill.
And if you want to tone-down a high-wattage dress at the party and not just on your way to it, try a leather shirt instead. “I would never wear head to toe glitz, but I do often throw a leather shirt over a camisole dress or a sequin skirt to give the entire outfit more edge,” says Greenhill.
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The tight pencil skirt and parka
Experiment with proportions this winter by throwing an oversized parka or puffer jacket over a very fitted pencil skirt. Similarly, a maxi-hemline dress also looks great with a thigh-skimming casual coat, as the contrast between the two will bring out the glamour of the former.
“My personal style is pretty casual, so when it comes to wearing something quite dressy, like a silky skirt or slip dress, I have to add something wrong to feel right,” agrees fashion historian Hannah Rochell. “For me, that’s often a chunky shoe (I have a pair of black Grenson loafers that I often reach for) but increasingly at the moment it’s a big parka and it just tones everything down.”
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The jumper and velvet coat
Wearing the wrong coat isn’t just reserved for casual outerwear and stylish dresses – the inverse can work just as well. Most of us have, at some point, bought an embroidered or velvet coat to wear to a wedding or a black-tie party, but most of us also leave them languishing at the back of the wardrobe for much of the year.
Instead of waiting for the right high-wattage event, try pairing it with jeans, a chunky jumper and loafers for Sunday lunch. Wear a shirt underneath and keep the coat on through the meal if you want to retain a bit of oomph.
“I think the key, whatever you’re doing, is to not look like everyone else,” says Greenhill. “Give your look that twist to make it more unusual – anything so long as it’s not generic. As you can probably tell, I’ve never been very good with the obvious.”
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The sweatshirt and tailored jacket
Star-struck millennials can debate for hours over which of Princess Diana’s many heavily studied looks was the most era-defining – but the award for the most trend-setting must go to the time she wore jeans, cowboy boots, a sweatshirt and a cap with an oversized and chunky formal-looking blazer.
Nobody else was doing this at the time, but it is now emulated everywhere from Los Angeles to Paris, with influencers pairing long tailored coats with cycling shorts, leggings or jeans for an up-to-date take on weekend dressing.