Accessories are one of the most powerful and versatile elements when you want to define and characterise your style.

Can accessories really make or break an outfit?

I must admit that although I have often heard the statement that accessories can make or break an outfit, it is only quite recently that I have finally begun to understand it fully.

Aside from a particular penchant for quality handbags, in the past I have often underestimated the role of shoes, hats, belts, scarves and scarves, jewellery and costume jewellery… in short, everything that makes up the varied universe of accessories.

I started to change my mind from the moment I got into a simple habit: photographing myself the moment I leave the house. I don’t do it all the time, but very often. The intention is not to rush to post on some social networking site, but to create a photo album on my phone, where I can review the previous days’ clothing and see what worked and what needs revision.

In doing so, I realised that really the success or failure of the whole depends mostly on the accessories. Sometimes there are too many and they compete for the stage, other times they clash with the length of the trousers, the type of neckline, the fabric of the dress or simply with each other.

There are also occasions when even the most trivial of combinations, jeans and t-shirt or trousers and shirt for example, are elevated, or take on a particular declination, a specific character, precisely thanks to accessories. Take a look at the photo gallery below, and it will quickly become clear what I am trying to say. They are all outfits that can be defined as ‘jeans + t-shirt’, but the final effects are very different.

Moreover, accessories are less affected by changes in weight or fitness than actual clothes, so they can go through more seasons, which is why they can be considered one of the elements worth investing in. A good bag will last for years, amortising the initial cost with many uses. Shoes are partly more subject to wear and tear and fashions that change more quickly, but if bought of good quality, kept with care and repaired by a good craftsman whenever required, they too can certainly last several seasons.

But what are the indispensable accessories, the ‘must-haves’ that cannot be missing from every wardrobe? The truth is that there are no lists of absolute rules, and those who draw them up risk imposing their own personal style as if it were instead universal.

By way of suggestion, we can try to make a small list, which each person should then customise according to his or her own way of dressing, taking, leaving and declining each element according to his or her own taste.

Bags

A quality day bag, of medium size, preferably leather, preferably rigid or semi-rigid. The colours to start with can be black or leather, but it all depends on the ensemble. If we dress in very neutral and minimal colours, a bag in a strong colour, such as bright green, or red, yellow or electric blue, can be an option that makes even the most basic outfits stand out. If, on the other hand, we usually wear a lot of colours, perhaps a bag that acts as a ‘neutral’ element and does not clash with the rest is better.

A quality evening/ceremonial bag. A clutch, a shoulder bag, or in any case a small bag with sparkling elements, sequins, crystals, etc. An ingenious solution are gold or silver bags (choose one or the other depending on your jewellery preferences): they go with any colour and do not require nerve-racking searches for the right shade.

A quality work/travel bag: a large, durable, beautiful and possibly not too ‘floppy’ tote. If we can only afford one, we must try to imagine a model that can cope with all occasions of use, from hand luggage on an aeroplane to a professional appointment.

Shoes

A not-so-secret passion of many women, shoes are perhaps the most crucial accessory. If beautiful, they can elevate even black trousers and a tank top, if ugly, there is no dress that is not compromised. Not always easy to choose: too traditional, and there is a risk of over-dating the outfit, too massive, delicate, aggressive, boring, and everything is unbalanced.

Generally speaking, I would say that nice trainers are essential, at least one immaculate white pair (immaculate indeed: if you are not 16 years old, better to avoid ‘worn’ effect shoes) and a more colourful pair. Then essential ‘masculine’ or genderless shoes, such as loafers or lace-ups. A nice pair of over-the-knee boots, a comfortable summer sandal, a ‘party’ shoe, coloured, or with some shiny, or silver detailing. An ankle boot, to be used with trousers or long skirts, and a décolleté not necessarily with a very high heel, but with character (a nice sculptural heel, a special detail, an unusual colour…). Once you’ve covered these pieces, give free rein to your imagination and your own way of being: amphibians, ‘barely there’ sandals, i.e., those with just a pair of laces, or ballet flats, and even slim, round or square toes…

In general, I find myself rather in agreement with what is called the ‘wrong shoe theory’ on Tik Tok. Launched by Allison Bornstein, it is a kind of ‘law’ that says that the right shoe for an outfit is not the one that looks perfectly in line with the style adopted, but the one that is unexpected and almost contrasting. For example, with a long, feminine dress wear chunky trainers or an combat boot, with masculine trousers pair a feminine décolleté, with a rough fabric a delicate ballerina, with an ethereal skirt a strict loafer. In fact, this is an almost foolproof method of bringing even the most classic outfits up to date.

Scarves and foulards

A warm scarf is sometimes necessary. For me, the must-have is a large cashmere scarf, preferably grey. It goes well with all my winter outerwear, is warm, and can also serve as an improvised ‘shawl’ in the milder seasons. It can be chosen in neutral or bright tones, in solid colours, or in stripes, checks or other patterns. It is up to each individual to choose whether to wear it tone-on-tone or contrasting, large or small, in fabric or knitted. The important thing is that it is warm, has no bobbles, seams, holes and, if possible, no label in sight.

Scarves, on the other hand, tend to be a more ‘difficult’ garment, because they can easily set an unfashionable and outdated tone, especially if they are worn in a ‘traditional’ manner, knotted around the neck as the Grace Kelly of the golden age would have done. Worn like this, if one is very young, they give character; five minutes past the ‘very young’ phase, one looks like a granny. Better then to play on creative ways of tying them, on unconventional colours and – above all – avoid the ‘old lady’ mix of the last century: scarf+a string of pearls+a medium heel. OK with the headscarf with the tracksuit and hoodie, or with the men’s suit, not with the knee-length ‘Chanel-style’ suit. At least, not after the age of 20.

Jewellery and Costume Jewellery

Needless to say, this is an item on which one can potentially spend staggering amounts of money. But it is not at all necessary. What is important is that the quality is good: that the metal does not crack, that the details are finished well, that the stones are stones, perhaps not precious but not pieces of plastic, while crystals and resins are fine. Some look great with thin rings, tiny earrings and delicate necklaces. I prefer one or two things at a time, but with a bit more character, like a sculptural bracelet, or rather large earrings, or a necklace that stands out. Of course, this also depends on one’s physicality, as well as personal fashion and personal tastes.

Sunglasses and spectacles

Sunglasses and eyeglasses: if they are used, they must be chosen with care. More than the brand, it is important that they fit perfectly on the face, and that the lenses are of quality. They can be an element that gives character, if chosen in bold colours and very sculptural frames, or they can be more discreet. Personally, if they are there, I prefer that they make themselves known, that they are not too ‘shy’. Be careful with make-up, however: spectacle wearers should adopt make-up that harmonises with their presence.

Hats

Hats: some people love them and some people hate them. They certainly require special study, because not all models look good on all faces. The possibilities are virtually endless, from baseball caps to wide-brimmed straw hats… Then there are the beanies, the cloches, the mackintoshes, the men’s Borsalino or coppola type… somewhere there is surely a hat for every face, it just has to be looked for carefully…

Belts

I love them, because they are able to change the proportions of almost any garment. They allow the waistline to be positioned higher or lower, they give definition to garments that are too shapeless, and they create a surprise effect when used with garments that do not usually include them (such as coats or blazers). The ideal is to have some of good leather, possibly without logos, with a very nice buckle or, on the contrary, almost invisible: a thin pair, a medium pair, a tall one. For colours, choose the ones that best suit your wardrobe, play with analogy (black with black, white with white), or contrast: coloured, metallic, animal…

If I had to start today from scratch to create a small belt collection: I would say that black and silver would be the colours I would focus on.

To conclude

I hope I have illustrated my point, which is that accessories can really make or break an outfit, that it is good to use them to experiment and to give character to the way we dress. Try it, and let me know how it went, or tell me how you use them.