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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46 comments

  1. Kimberly Minard says:

    I learned about the rule of three at a retreat almost 20 years ago. And just last night I was wistful for a third piece before going to a meeting. Most of the time I’m not conscious of choosing a third or fourth piece I’ve practiced it for so long. Winter is the best time for me to layer pieces: scarves, vests, hats. I do feel more put together when the third piece comes into play.

  2. Guest says:

    We took a long (loonnnggg) road trip this summer and my daily uniform was usually a solid knit shirt and print shorts/pants (or the opposite – print top and solid shorts) and always a necklace and/or bracelets and of course earrings. Perhaps I’m getting too philosophical about personality and clothes but I’m an ENTJ and I want to look polished but not fussy. I have standard colors I wear with the occasional pop of a different color and focus on accessories and lip color. 🙂

  3. Beth says:

    Oh, yes! What a great tip. I meant to grab a wide belt this morning, but in my rush I forgot it, and all morning I’ve felt “un-put together”. I couldn’t put my finger on why, because I love the outfit I have on.. but it’s the belt that really puts it together. I’m going to pay more attention to this rule of three now that you pointed it out.

  4. Kristine Yahn says:

    As I hurtle towards the age of 70, I figure shoes count as #3. On a more sincere note, I heard the rule of 3 in the 1970s, when planning to landscape a yard. Grouping 3 trees (or shrubs etc) is much more effective than 2.

    • Kathryn Hemstead says:

      Kristine, I’m so tickled to know there are others in our age bracket that enjoy Anne’s blog. I too learned the rule of three in gardening in the 70s and have always been one to put on a bracelet with most outfits. Shoes are great fun, too especially now since the styles that are good for our feet and good balance have gotten much more stylish.

  5. I am glad to see the Stella and Dot Rebel necklace in the side bar line-up. I am a Stella and Dot Stylist.

    Folks who are not all that comfortable with a “statement necklace” might really like the Rebel.

    Your Fan,
    Sarah F. Johnson

  6. Brandyn says:

    I love the rule of three even though I rarely get that third piece added (although evidently when I pull on my fuchsia or animal print flats I am). One fashion blogger I follow does “Rule of Three” posts, but always takes it to at least 5. My favorite look is always 3.
    I read a lot about decision fatigue and a statement “uniform” is appealing, but there’s nothing allowed in my work dress code that I like enough to be a uniform.

  7. Leah says:

    As a mom of tiny ones, I struggle to feel put together and this could help give me something quick and concrete to be less of a frump. One other rule I follow is that one thing on me has to be great… either my hair, nails, makeup, or clothes. If one thing is great, people give you the benefit of the doubt and assume you are a stylish person but just in a rush or feeling casual that day.

    • Totally agree. I have a 3-year-old and 1-year-old, so fussy outfits or things that aren’t machine washable aren’t really practical. I figure that I can get away with having more casual clothes if I’m at least wearing a bit of makeup and my hair doesn’t look like I just rolled out of bed.

  8. Debbie says:

    I almost always wear a matching sweater or jacket with my outfit! For one, it’s always freezing cold in my office, and for two, I feel like it covers a multitude of sins around my mid-section!

  9. Patti Smith says:

    I think I might have unconsciously realized this but have never really heard of the rule. I’m 48 so in the last few years I’ve realized that a sparkly necklace or sassy pair of shoes can really brighten up my introvert “uniform” ;P And, I’m comfortable with that one little extra something to brighten my face or show off my legs, etc. Just a tad though 🙂

  10. Allison says:

    It never dawned on me that my book bag (which I ALWAYS have with me 🙂, could count as my third piece. During the summer time, it gets so hot and humid, that even the thought of a necklace is more than I can handle (forget a scarf; ugh!). But I will lug my overweight, but lovely, bag filled with my books and journal, anywhere I need to go!! Voila’ My third item!!!

  11. Judie Dingbaum says:

    I love a white shirt with anything, but no matter if I’m staying in or going out, my statement pieces are always lipstick 💄 and a colorful silk scarf!

  12. My recent rule of three “go to” is a belt with a half tuck in front. it takes a top and shorts or t-shirt and shorts or pants into an outfit. I actually feel put together with that little addition.

  13. Ann Marie says:

    Are you familiar with the flower called The Naked Lady? It’s a long, graceful stalk topped with a burst of lovely pink flowers. Alas, the stalk has NO LEAVES. She simply doesn’t look as complete next to the other beauties in the garden 🙂

  14. Elizabeth says:

    I started working in retail (including Nordstom!) in the 1970’s and we had to wear 3 pieces or a dress. Not a problem for me because I loved fashion then as much as I love it now!

  15. Connie says:

    My rule of three this summer pretty consistently includes a light sweater or light jacket. I love summer and love sleeveless shirts, but often find myself chilly in the evening or in an air conditioned building. But what makes me feel a bit more put together is when I remember to put on my three Alex & Ani bracelets. Like you said, I just feel a little more put together when I remember to grab them. So does that mean I have a rule of six?

  16. Lisa says:

    JCrew also requires/strongly-encourages a third piece, although jewelry and belts don’t typically count. It’s often a cardigan or something of that nature. And you’re right – it definitely helps me feel more put together.

  17. Cindi Brumpton says:

    That is a fabulous tip! It is immediately so simple and doable.

    A fabulous scarf is always a great addition! Jewelry too. If the studs are diamonds, their twinkle factor may make the list!

  18. I never thought of it as ‘the rule of three’ but that is perfect. When my kids were in elementary school, there was this one one mom who always looked so glamorous and put together. One day when I was feeling particularly slovenly, I asked how she had to time to get fancy every morning. She said, “It’s just a necklace.” Another mom had told her the same thing – putting on a necklace makes it look like an outfit. I started paying closer attention and sure enough we were usually dressed alike – t-shirt and jeans. But she always wore a statement necklace, and it made her look grown-up and polished. I still dress very casually, but I always try to find one extra thing – red lipstick, a tangle of bracelets, a statement necklace. It does make a difference, if only in my attitude.

  19. Stephanie says:

    My rule of three for the very hot and humid summers of the south are a necklace or cute sandals; something better than your average flip flop. This rule also applies to home decor. Arrange photos, knick knacks or books in groups of negative numbers…1,3, 5 ect.. and three of anything always looks pulled together.

  20. Ally says:

    OK so I definitely love the rule of three, it’s super simple and doable, but sometimes it can be tricky like you said: little earrings and flats don’t count.
    So I loved a tip I got from Reachel of the Cardigan Empire. It’s the “3 out of 5” Formula… The 5 categories are color, pattern, texture, shape and shine. And you just make sure you have something in 3 of the 5 categories, and bam, you look awesome! She has a youtube video that describes the categories and gives examples.

  21. Chelsey says:

    My mom instilled this rule in me in regards to gift giving (though my uniform follows the same. I wear a skirt, top, and cardigan nearly every day for teaching). Whenever we buy gifts, we either give one larger item or three smaller items, but I love giving and receiving three smaller! It looks much more put together and thoughtful, and what started as a slight compulsion is now my go-to rule. Examples include a fun notepad, a mug, and some fancy tea. A journal, a set of nice pens, and a pair of earrings. The gifts don’t have to be a “set” — just by finding things that fit the receiver’s style, the three items become a curated collection of fun.

  22. Claire the Bear says:

    I often count my earrings as my third piece. Mostly because I’m not a fan of things around my neck. I have some real statement earrings and mid length hair, so the can really make a statement. I have been buying many from Novica which works with National Geographic and the earrings are made my artists around the world. Not only am I accenting my look, I am helping artists around the world.

  23. Michelle says:

    I love that you’ve put a name to something that I’ve done for years. I work at home, so I’m normally wear a t-shirt and years, but if I’m going out for any reason even if it’s to the post office or coffee shop, I do tend to add a third item such as a necklace or my big faux leather tote bag.

  24. Melinda Malaspino says:

    My favorite third piece is usually a colorful scarf to pull my outfit together, whether a t-shirt and jeans or a blouse and pencil skirt.

  25. 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.

  26. 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!

  27. 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.

  28. 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!

  29. 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.

  30. 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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