Levels of Refinement


Question regarding DRESSING UP/DOWN: I have many cardigans – cotton, colourful, not v structured, they are pretty but casual. If I was to wear any of these with something elegant, such as a top and a skirt, both made of satin, the cardigan would not dress the top and skirt down, it would simply look out of place and the outfit wouldn’t look v harmonious. I have similar trouble with a highly elegant jacket and a simple cotton T-shirt/dress underneath. The jump from causal/comfy to dressy seems just too great. I’ve always had trouble regarding this, I do like ‘elegant’ : my style/personality is undoubtedly dramatic but somehow I am also drawn to anything beautiful and feminine. The impression I would usually like to create is stylish and classy. But I generally need to tone down most outfits, as wearing something that is perfect for the theatre is too dressy for every-day life, even at work.

In short, the biggest problem I’ve had concerning dressing up and down is which materials really go together. Any tips most welcome, thanks so much in advance, as always.

As soon as I read this question I realised that it has to do with the concept we call Levels of Refinement.  It relates to fabrics as well as accessories and style of clothing.


levels of refinement

There are 3 levels of refinement:

Level 1

More formal wear – from business formal clothing to evening wear.  Fabrics that need special care (dry cleaning is a clue)!   Jewellery that is very sparkly or formal.  For example: silk, satin, superfine wool suiting, fabric with sheen or shine or that are see-through.  Diamonds, pearls, fine bejewelled sandals.

Level 2

Everyday smart clothing that isn’t too bulky.  Fabrics that can be laundered easily at home.  Jewellery that is appropriate for every day wear.  For example: stretch dark denim, high quality cotton, cotton/elastane, viscose, merino wool, ballet flats, pumps, Gucci style loafers.

Level 3

Outdoor leisure – fabrics that are bulkier or chunkier or very informal.  For example: Polar fleece, corduroy, distressed denim, lower quality cottons,  gym wear, sneakers, birkenstocks, crocs.


level of refinement

You can wear Level 2 with either Level 1 or Level 3 items, but you can’t mix Levels 1 and 3 (unless you have a creative or rebellious personality style).  This is why your less formal cotton items don’t work with your more formal satins or fine jackets.   This is why sneakers don’t work with suits, and pearls and a full face of makeup look silly at the gym.

getting your levels of refinement right

To upgrade the level of your t-shirts – go for a cotton/elastane mix rather than just a pure cotton, and ensure they they are very fine in their texture.  Look for tops with some detail at the neckline as this will give them top a more formal appearance and so work better with your jackets.

A fabric like grey marle (bottom row of the pic above 2nd from the left) is associated with sporting clothes, so is a lower level of refinement than the grey top on the right which has a slight sheen and a smooth surface.

With your satin skirts – think about finding a viscose or cashmere cardigan rather than a lower level more casual cotton one so that you more closely match your level of refinement.


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  • Of all of your work, this article is among the information that is helping me the most. It’s proving to be a big key to solving wardrobe confusion for me, helping making a lot more sense out of what I have and what I’m trying to do (be comfortable, express myself through and get enjoyment from my clothes). Such a simple concept and yet massively helpful, thank you.

  • This is so helpful! I can see that I have level 2 and 3 clothing, but I want to dress more in level 2 (having *always* dressed in level 3).

  • Great post. This helped me identify that most of my wardrobe is level 1and 2. Level 2 being my daily wear outfits, which is fine for the city I live in. However from this I determined that the reason I struggle when packing for a beach or casual holiday is because I do not have the appropriate level 3 clothing. Although I would wear these only infrequently I still need to fill this gap to make holiday packing easier. Thanks again Imogen for a really useful post.

  • When dressing up or dressing down an outfit (Level 2), should all accessories at once (shoes, bags, etc.) belong to the same level of refinement?

  • Very helpful. I will try and keep to level 2, to make most items versatile. The exceptions are pearl or diamond stud earrings which I believe can be worn at all levels.

    • It’s the same concept for me (but I don’t write for men here), black tie and formal suits – level 1. Smart jeans, collared shirts to polo shirts – level 2. Outdoor leisure – track suits, sportswear, sneakers, polar fleece, flannel shirts – level 3.

  • Good morning Imogen. Would you say a Polo Shirt for a woman is still level 3 or could it be level 2?
    Thank you so much for all the work you do here.

  • Thank you, Imogen. I love to travel light, and this post is helping me to wrap my head around my packing list. I use “travel” bottoms, normal tops, and accessories. I don’t want to look like a tourist, and styling “travel” clothing for level 2 can be a challenge, but careful shopping and tailoring are a big help. This post has helped me work out the reason why my choices click or dont’t work. This will help me with planning and shopping! Your posts on balancing Yin and Yang are key, too.

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