The Rule of Three

The Rule of Three

Earlier this summer, I dropped a tiny reference in a blog post to a personal guideline I rely on practically every day. Apparently, it spurred an aha! moment for many of you—my inbox has been full all summer of messages saying what a big difference this tiny rule of thumb has made to your mornings and your outfits.

Some of you do this intuitively (yay, you!), but some of us need to have our fashion tips spelled out for us (here here), so here goes.

When I’m getting dressed in the morning, I almost always grab a top and a bottom—two pieces. But if I take the time to add a third piece, I can turn my articles of clothing into an actual outfit. Three pieces look more complete than just a top and a bottom. It constantly surprises me how adding a simple third piece changes the look, making it feel more stylish and more put-together. It looks like I tried. And while some days I might not care much about how I look, I actually feel better when I know I tried.

The rule of three gives you a lot of bang for the buck: that third piece is an easy addition, and an easy habit to form, but it can make a big difference in the way you look and feel throughout the day. (Evidence of the rule’s effectiveness: rumor has it that some of my favorite stores, like Nordstrom and Banana Republic, either require or strongly encourage their employees to always wear a third piece while at work.)

You’ll notice style bloggers and fashion mags often add fourth and fifth pieces to take outfits to the next level. (I leave this to the experts—five pieces and I don’t look put together; I look like I’m trying too hard. That’s not the effect I’m going for.)

If you’d like to look and feel nice without a lot of extra effort, your options for that third piece are extensive. You could add another layer, like a sweater, blazer, vest, or jacket. You could add an all-day accessory, like a belt or a great piece of jewelry. (Tiny studs don’t count as a third piece, but a statement piece sure does. Everyday flats don’t count, but fuschia Hunters absolutely do.)

Some effective third pieces won’t be immediately obvious: this woman considers her long blonde hair her main accessory. (I love her uniform.)

Have you noticed that people often look more put-together on their way out the door than they do at home, or in the office? It’s not just mood—it’s the extra pieces. When you’re carrying a tote or handbag, or a cute umbrella, or wearing a well-fitting coat or bright wellies you’re not just braving the elements; you’re adding pieces to your outfit. This is one reason street style photos are so eye-catching.

Weather matters, of course. If you’re in the midst of a heat wave, try adding a statement necklace to a tank top and shorts, or a big cuff, or a straw tote. Layering it up is easier in the winter—go wild with the scarves and sweaters to feel cozy and fashionable.

Is the rule of three unbreakable? Absolutely not. But if you, like me, appreciate a shortcut to looking and feeling put together, it’s a good one to keep in your pocket.

Maybe you already do this. Tell us your third piece in comments? Maybe you’re giving it a try for the first time. If that’s you, tell us what you’re thinking, and how it goes, if you try it? Maybe you have an everyday uniform. Whether it’s one piece or seven, we’d love to hear all about it. 

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  1. J. Hall says:

    I’m a collector of cardigan sweaters, every color, style, season…all solid colors. When I leave the house, summer or winter, I always grab a cardigan to pop whatever I am wearing. Sometimes it is over my arm, over my purse, around my shoulders or I’m wearing it, to stay warm or ward off A/C chills in the summer.

  2. Candace H says:

    My go-to “third piece” is a watch worn with several stretchy bracelets (works with T & shorts as well as dressier outfits). But love the look of jacket or cardigan when it’s cool enough!

  3. Jillian says:

    When I worked at Ann Taylor, this was called the “completer” piece. Yes, all the staff had to wear them. Oftentimes, it was a belt, scarf, or long necklace. They were huge on the skinny belt over dresses and to cinch drapery cardigans. This last year, I’ve been defaulting to a long necklace. For fall, I’m thinking of trying a vest to add polish to my typical jeans and tees.

  4. Jennifer says:

    From 1992-1995 I worked off and on at The Limited. The third piece was a selling strategy, but it really did “up” the look of whatever the customer was purchasing. I need to work on adding my third piece this fall!

  5. Christie says:

    Not sure if someone wrote this yet, but I also think lipstick can really make a person look more put together, especially in a non-neutral tone. I normally just wear a tinted lip balm, but sometimes, especially when I go out or my hair is in a ponytail, adding lipstick really makes me feel more put together.

  6. Annie says:

    My go-to third and sometimes fourth piece is a scarf. I admittedly have more than any one person should probably own in a lifetime, but I love the variety of colors and patterns, and I especially love that it’s a really easy way to make me feel and look like I thought for more than 12 seconds about what I was going to wear that day.

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