What Makes a Look...and How to Copy It

Believe it or not, I don’t have a single issue with the idea of copying a look. If you are early in your style journey, or just want a change, dressing like your favorite celebs or influencers or even people you know can help inspire you on the way to understanding your own personal style ideal. That said, I have a bit of a bone to pick with the many “is it a(n) (out)’fit or is she just skinny?” videos that seem to be taking over my TikTok For You Page. While I do believe skinniness is still an unfortunate standard, not just for being “in fashion” but also for being considered stylish, and I won’t deny that many thin people use their bodies as accessories to their looks in a way that even a slightly bigger woman couldn’t, I think the sentiment misses the mark, and represents a misunderstanding of what makes an outfit into a look, and how to interpret someone else’s look for yourself. 

By simply putting the same or similar pieces on in the same way and calling it the same look, a lot can be lost in the lack of translation. There’s a reason celebrities can wear certain garments and even style them the exact same as they were on the runway, yet still look completely different than the model—as well as vice versa—and it has nothing to do with body size. When it comes to building an outfit, there are four factors to consider in order to achieve success:  fit, proportion, texture, and details. When recreating an outfit, those same four factors must be adapted in order to suit the person doing the recreation while still capturing the spirit of the original. 

WHAT DOESN’T MATTER

Let’s look at Rihanna.

One of her many iconic looks from Paris Fashion Week way back in 2014, the individual elements of this outfit are fairly simple: a long, but not overly-oversized, bright fur coat; an sleek, black low-cut dress with a short A-line skirt; garters, stockings, and ankle strapped heels; sunglasses, gloves, and the tiniest peek of a bracelet that matches the necklace.

Those elements are what matters. Now let’s talk about what doesn’t.

The color of the coat doesn’t matter unless you’re wearing this as a costume and want to be instantly recognizable, but the color of the dress does, because the dress in black with all black stockings and shoes serves as a background to the contrast of the coat. You could do another bright color, or even white for the coat, so long as it’s not black, because, again, the contrast is what we’re going for.

The actual dress doesn’t matter, but this look would be quite different if you went with a tighter silhouette: the A-line lends a sort of innocent femininity to the outfit, while something more bodycon would lean too overly-sexy in a way this does not. You could replace the dress with a top and skirt, but the pop of skin at both the chest and thigh level are integral to making this look work. A higher neck or a longer hemline wouldn’t be the same. However, for practical reasons, you may choose to go with something with thicker straps to hide a bra, or take the plunge even lower if you’re not too busty.

You don’t need such a dramatic (and most likely expensive) necklace, either. But, the simplicity of the individual pieces and openness of the décolletage makes jewelry an absolute necessity, while the gloves add to the sort of luxury fashion spy vibes that make this look so intriguing to begin with, with an emphasis on the luxurious look of a bracelet worn over said gloves.

Breaking a look down to its most basic elements and determining why it works is the key. Here, it’s the femininity of the cut of the skirt, the sexiness of the neckline and garters, the sleekness of the all black and the contrast of the coat with the added luxury of the necklace and intrigue of the gloves. Once you’ve decided what’s most important, you can begin to change and shape the actual pieces to suit you.

FIT

Denise Mercedes has what is perhaps one of my favorite series on TikTok where she and her less curvy friend put on the exact same outfits to promote a message of “Style, not Size.” And I fully agree, your body has nothing to do with how good your personal style is, and shouldn’t serve as a hindrance when putting together an outfit. However, fit—i.e. the way a garment hangs and moves on your body—is important, and while a different fit doesn’t necessarily help—or hurt—a look, it can certainly change it.

For example, both of these outfits are effective, and look great on each girl, but they aren’t the same look.

On the left, I’d say this is perfect for around the house, and looks almost pajama-like due to the bagginess, while the right would be perfectly fine for a day out and about, or even on a casual date because of how each piece contours to her body. The vast difference can be attributed to the very different ways these individual pieces fit each girl wearing them.

It’s not enough to just grab a white T-shirt and the same pants to recreate a look. If the top is loose on the original wearer, it needs to be loose on you to achieve the same vibe. If the pants are baggy, they need to be baggy on you, as well, otherwise, you’re simply wearing the same pieces, but not really capturing the same spirit.

Now, this can be difficult as a woman with curves. Many things become inherently body-conscious on an hourglass or apple-shape simply because the designers didn’t size up properly to accommodate our unique frames. This is where you’re gonna want to swap out pieces rather than just wearing the exact same garments, as this is where many of us, especially when shopping online based on pictures of thin models, can start to feel like a look doesn’t “work” for us when, in fact, it’s not because it doesn’t fit our bodies, but because it doesn’t fit us in the same way.

When copying a look, pay close attention to the way the clothes hang on the body, where they cling and what they skim. If you want the exact same look, you’ll have to replicate this as closely as possible. However, if you’re only looking to copy the general vibe, you can have a bit more fun and explore what makes you comfortable, whether that means a different cut, going up a size, or an entirely new silhouette that’s closer to your own personal idea of flattering.

PROPORTION

Proportion is something that’s easily taken for granted. It doesn’t matter if two pieces fit perfectly and work amazingly on their own, their relationship to one another can make them entirely incompatible. Let’s look at two looks from one burgeoning fashion icon—Hailey Bieber (née Baldwin)—and why one of them works…and why the other one doesn’t.

The T-shirt dress + jacket look is, I think, one of the most accessible ensembles across body type, size, setting, occasion, and any other factor you can think of. It’s just a classic, and with so many options in terms of silhouette and even fabrics, you’re guaranteed to find the combo that works for you.

If you’re looking for where to start, though, start here: with a super short, loose T-shirt dress; a slightly boxy but not-too-oversized leather jacket with a hem slightly past that of the dress; and a boot that goes no higher than the knee.

Everything about this look is quintessential “model off duty,” which is to say, it’s casual, yet still incredibly flattering. The jacket being just longer than the dress and the boots stopping below the knee take a look that could easily lean too “sexy” and make it relaxed and easy. The boxiness and leather of the jacket also add a masculine flare that wouldn’t be achieved with say, a tweed or cotton one, or one that’s more tailored.

The individual elements mesh together perfectly, and while each piece could be styled wildly differently and also work, a shorter jacket or a taller boot wouldn’t quite create the same mood that the proportions here do. It’s just easy.

Now, I can see what this particular outfit was trying to do. The masculine structure of the jacket with the feminine silhouette of the skirt and the edgy boots are all great ideas, but, here, every single piece falls flat because of the way they interact with each other.

The jacket hits the skirt in such a way that it hides the exaggerated silhouette of the latter, and the height and bagginess of the boots, along with everything else, swallows her whole.

If I was attempting a better, more successful version of this look, I would instead pick a different, more cropped jacket, or hem this one to hit right at the top of the waist of the skirt, and pick a slimmer thigh high or sleek ankle boot to play up the contrast without each piece competing with another.

While playing with proportion can open up a whole new world of outfits, remember: a few inches extra on a hem can truly make or break whether a look works or needs work.

TEXTURE

Mastering the art of mixing textures/fabrics is one of the best ways to take any outfit to the next level while still looking effortless. Especially in monochromatic looks, creating contrast and depth can be as simple as switching out a denim pant for a leather one, or a chunky knit sweater over a more lightweight one.

Once you’ve gotten the basics down, you can really start to have fun with mixing wildly different textures to amazing effect, like Fashion Queen Tracee Ellis-Ross does here.

There’s something so satisfying about layering such gorgeous layers of chiffon over such a sleek and simple knit. I also give a nod to the perfect proportions of the turtleneck with the ruffled collar of the dress. But where this look knocks it out of the park for me is the metallic boot.

Think about how different the vibe would be if she’d just gone for a simple strappy sandal or a pump. The unexpected pop of a metallic leather gives an edgy floatiness that perfectly balances the dress, without overshadowing anything else.

When experimenting with texture, something like this look is a great place to start. Once you’re ready to get started creating your own multi-textural ensembles, think about where you can add that pop (like with an unconventional boot) and where to pull back in order to let the “pop,” you know, pop (like with a basic knit turtleneck).

Quick note: Layering sweaters under or over summer dresses is also a great way to get more mileage out of your wardrobe, year round (one I mention in episode 1 of the True Style Podcast).

DETAILS

One of my absolute favorite people and fellow stylist on TikTok Payton Dale once said “four pieces is an outfit, six pieces is a look.” When I repeat this, the first question I get in return is “well, what counts as a piece?”

I’m going to be controversial and say…I don’t count shoes. But I do count everything else. So, let’s get into our fourth and final lesson:

This gorgeous dress by Temperley London lends itself to a variety of looks, and would look amazing on plenty of people. Of course, this is just a photo meant to sell the dress, so it’s obviously not styled to its full potential, but, this is a great example of a lack of details almost making a beautiful garment fall flat.

Here, on Beyoncé, it’s almost a completely different dress. The edgy, unique shoe choice—much better than a basic strappy sandal—along with the chunky jewelry and the very unexpected black lipstick (of course lipstick is a part of your outfit) give this very dainty dress a bit of a cool factor.

Details like accessories, shoe choice, even makeup and hair are integral not just to building an effective look, but to building an effective wardrobe. Adding and subtracting, switching things out, choosing between contrast (like boho jewels with a classic dress) or coordination (like punk accessories with a punk outfit) are all ways to not just take an outfit up a notch but to get more wear out of what you have. Not to mention, it’s these little things that make you look more “complete,” like you got dressed, instead of just putting on clothes.

For a look like Beyoncé’s above, don’t be afraid to pile it on. Coco Chanel (who, I cannot stress enough, was a Nazi), famously advised women to look in the mirror and take one thing off before leaving. I say: screw that. While fashion is full of rules—many tried and true, many nonsensical and useless—good fashion lies in breaking the rules the right way, while still honoring your personal style and body in the way you see most fit. Feel free to build whatever house you want, just remember your foundation.