35 In Styling Tips

The power of the third piece to finish an outfit

A swacket as a third piece

A third piece can be a long, loose knit swing cardigan


Just last week a reader asked me for help understanding third pieces as a tool for finishing an outfit. I went through my phone pics today and have rounded up some examples of third pieces. As a bonus, I’m going to share why the third piece is important, relevant, and useful even in casual dressing. ESPECIALLY in casual dressing!

Let’s take a trip down memory lane when third pieces were easy to find in stores and they made getting dressed as easy as eating apple pie and ice cream on July 4th.

Remember the 80’s? Many of you were wearing suits to work. The formula had three pieces: Skirt, blouse, blazer. Or trouser, knit shell, and matching suit jacket. To get more mileage out of your suit you got a coordinating print jacket that worked back to both the skirt and pant that came with it. Simple. Finished. Easy peasy. Done and done and done.

I was talking to a new client yesterday and she was fondly remembering that decade. Oh, I remember that too. I’d get a new Ellen Tracy capsule wardrobe twice a year. There’d be a solid jacket and a novelty jacket to go with a skirt or pant. I’d change the look with different tops. What a delicious, uncomplicated time to be getting dressed.


A vest as a third piece

A third piece can be a vest

That third piece gave everyone reassurance

Those three pieces put us together. We looked present and ready for the day. We looked capable of meeting our responsibilities and getting things done. People could trust us.

Two pieces never stood a chance of conveying all that.

I remember taking my youngest to a new doctor once. The doctor was dressed in two pieces. The lab coat must have been in the closet so my impression was based on black elastic waist polyester pants and a tucked in oversized short-sleeved loud print blouse . She looked like she could have been a clown’s assistant at a child’s birthday party in someone’s backyard. I am not exaggerating. As a mother, I was frantic to find clues that she was a real doctor. I started scanning the walls of her office to find a framed degree from a college I’d heard of. I couldn’t get out of there fast enough and never went back.

I also remember interviewing therapists while I was going through my divorce. One name came highly recommended. I went to meet her at her office at 4 pm in San Anselmo. She met me at the door and ushered me in. She was in violet velour pants with a drawstring waist and a loose-fitting sweatshirt. Really? I didn’t hire her.


Are third pieces just for people who work?

A women wearing a third piece looks like she respects herself, is smart and aware. You wouldn’t need to be employed to want to reap those non-verbal benefits.

The third piece helps you look put together. In these casual times, that’s a real benefit. Looking put together is great for dating, shopping, dining, going to the doctor’s office, advocating for a family member in a health crisis, strutting your stuff, being noticed and visible. Pretty good stuff!

So that’s why I’m a huge fan of the third piece. What’s been so fun career-wise for me is to demonstrate with my clients and readers how third pieces can be anything but a blazer if you so wish. Although Cheryl Tucker (@northwestmountainliving) was wearing a white blazer with her jeans, striped v-neck tee and sandals today on Instagram and it looked divine!

Ready? Let’s look at the parade of third pieces!



Print jackets as third piece

I love print jackets. They’re friendly and engaging. They can be playful or creative or dramatic. They are excellent conversation starters. This tribal jacket from Chico’s always draws a comment. A cute young guy couldn’t stop complimenting me in line at a French pastry shop in Los Gatos.


Chico's tribal jacket

Last year’s tribal jacket by Chico’s


Another Chico’s jacket, this is in a classic navy and white striped knit blazer. It’s gosh darn fun with my striped t-shirt and jeans. Want to go to the movies?


Navy and white striped jacket

A striped knit third piece by Chico’s


This is my Dries Von Noten linen blend jacket that I found at a consignment store in Santa Fe. Another conversation starter! I love wearing this third piece over a column of white but I’ve worn it with jeans as well. It’s such a rich print. I feel like I’m at the sea and in the woods at the same time. It sure adds interest to a column of white!


Dries Von Noten jacket

Safari third piece by Dries Von Noten


This is probably my most splashy third piece. It’s an Etro jacket and originally I bought it to wear with wide-leg satin pants for a summer wedding. Mostly this third piece gets worn over tees and paired with jeans because that’s my lifestyle.


Etro Jacket

Etro jacket and jeans


I saw this jacket five minutes after it had arrived at my girls’ consignment store, SAX in San Anselmo. That’s what happens when Mom stops by delivering treats! It was so me and I insisted on taking it home. I love wearing it over an asymmetrical sleeveless tunic. Russ and I were headed out on a Saturday afternoon for a late lunch at the bar at Oso on the Sonoma Square. The third piece turns this into a casual chic look.


Linen jacket

Linen tie-dye jacket


This black and white bold print collarless jacket with bell sleeves is paired with that same asymmetrical black tunic. Collarless jackets are less formal. I like that. This was on an Office Tuesday with Caitlin, my youngest, who is the boss of me on Tuesdays. I love the playful nature of this patterned piece.


Floral print jacket as third piece

Short cotton floral print jacket


Solid colored jackets as third pieces

If third pieces with print are fun and creative and engaging, solid colored jackets can be more refined and sophisticated even if you’re wearing them with jeans. These next two jackets have sheen to them so that makes them appear more dressy. Sometimes you just want your third piece to be more elegant.

This yellow silk one is by Lilith and I bought it at J.James in Sonoma.


Lilith silk yellow jacket

Dressier third piece by Lilith


This black cropped jacket has been in my closet for y-e-a-r-s! Sometimes it goes dormant for long periods. But I have put it in a few outfits recently that I really like. The sheen makes it a bit dressy but I like how I used a cotton gingham check shirt to tone it down.


BCBG Bolero jacket

BCBG satin cropped bolero style jacket over gingham checks


Modern jackets in classic styles

In these next two jean outfits I’m wearing a blouse. This first jacket is a modern take on a classic style. This light gray jacket with three-quarter sleeves (because I had them altered that way) is so lightweight and great for summer. I love how it “finishes” this Sunday brunch outfit at Boonfly Cafe. Russ and I go there a lot. Always brunch. It’s a casual date with my sweetie and I want to look put together. From Boonfly we went to di Rosa which is a contemporary art gallery with beautiful grounds. It’s on a hill right near Boonfly. It’s such an inspiring place to visit.


Gray linen jacket

Classic looking jacket in gray linen


I love this Chanel-like jacket which is actually by Talbot’s. I had it altered last year and the alterations person kept swooning over it. “It’s so Chanel,” she said. I wore this jacket and a white t-shirt and jeans to a Sunday backyard birthday party for one of Russ’ oldest friends. It makes a simple white t-shirt more chic, that’s for sure! Imagine a t-shirt and jeans without the jacket. Not too special.


Talbot's boucle jacket

Chanel-like charming boucle jacket


Cardigans and shawls as third pieces

Third pieces don’t have to be jackets. They can be shawls like in this picture. I was doing some Saturday shopping for myself. Erin must have been with me because she took the picture! Oh I remember, we had been to the Gem Faire and then we ran over to Nordstrom to play with lipsticks. It’s one of the things we love to do together.

Anyway, I’m wearing a navy sweater but adding this gray shawl creates some uplift to my outfit. Simple. Easy. Finished. Third piece.


Use a shawl as a third piece

Gray Echo shawl as third piece


Here’s another knit third piece. It’s a loosely woven linen cardigan. I’ve used decorative pins as closures. Underneath it is a straight white tee. Not too exciting. But with the third piece, it’s looking like a real outfit.


Linen cardigan as third piece

Linen cardigan is a summer third piece


Here’s another linen knit semi-sheer drapy black cardigan with a wide draped shawl detail. It’s by Eileen Fisher. She does great third pieces that women “our” age find friendly to wear.


Eileen Fisher cardigan as third piece

Eileen Fisher semi-sheer linen cardigan


Jean jackets as third pieces

You knew I’d have to bring up the jean jacket! It’s such a practical third piece for many women. These first two jackets are classic denim. The third one is a “jean” jacket that’s actually a black linen Eileen Fisher piece. I love and wear them all!


Jean jacket over dress and jeans

Adorned jean jacket over jeans and dress


Jean jackets are fun to accessorize. In both these examples of denim jackets I’ve decorated them with pins. The pins personalize them and add flavor to the outfit.


Denim distressed jacket

Medium shade distressed denim jacket


This Eileen Fisher linen jacket in black is my most used summer-month third piece. It goes over everything. It’s so lightweight. I roll up the sleeves, leave it open so it stays all breezy. It protects my arms from the sun but also covers them which I still prefer. I brought it with me on one of my trips last summer to visit Dad in Minnesota. This is in Perham at a building that was once the library. They built a modern version with the same materials right next door.


Eileen Fisher linen jacket

Eileen Fisher black linen jean style third piece


Shirt as third piece

I could go on and probably will in another post in a couple of months but I had to end with the shirt. This is a loose, long, big shirt by Oska. I love using shirts as third pieces. This was a Saturday afternoon outfit. It was an Open Studios weekend in Marin County and we were visiting one of our artist friends. I bought a watercolor from her that you see first walk in the house. We hung out with her and her husband that day and had wine and strawberries. When we left, we decided to have an early dinner at a thai restaurant in Larkspur before heading back to Sonoma. This shirt/third piece added a little somethin’ somethin’ to this simple outfit.


Using a shirt as a third piece

Blue-gray cotton shirt by Oska


The parade of third pieces is coming to a close. Time to disperse to your closets and pull out great candidates for third pieces. How does it look in there? Are you spotting some pieces that you could turn into outfits? Do share your thoughts on third pieces!


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  • Reply
    May 3, 2018 at 12:27 am

    I love third pieces but I have a problem in the middle of summer when it is to hot for one.

    • Reply
      May 3, 2018 at 6:06 am

      I would like more ideas for summer weather too!

      • Reply
        May 3, 2018 at 4:56 pm

        Me three. It gets so beastly hot and humid in the DC area it’s hard to wear even the lightest of jackets. I sometimes use cotton scarves as a third piece but I never feel quite finished.

        • Reply
          May 3, 2018 at 5:06 pm

          Maybe I need to buy bigger scarves?

          • Sharon
            May 3, 2018 at 6:15 pm

            I find that linen shirts do the trick in hot weather. Worn with a cotton tank underneath and a long necklace elevates the style regardless if you’re wearing jeans or dressier pants.

  • Reply
    May 3, 2018 at 4:12 am

    And here I thought I had a problem with my addiction to lightweight jackets! My husband finds it mystifying.

  • Reply
    May 3, 2018 at 5:05 am

    I agree that the third piece really completes an outfit and your choices look fabulous! However, living in the south, I mostly wear the third piece in the cool fall and spring months. Last spring I bought three long linen sweaters and like how they pull together an outfit of a sleeveless top and jeans.

  • Reply
    Trinnie Q
    May 3, 2018 at 5:11 am

    Oh my goodness, if I wasn’t already sold on the third piece idea, I certainly am now ! what gorgeous outfits ! Every single one. A look to suit everyone . Well, lots of new ideas are rummaging around . What lovely dreams I will have tonight, thinking about what I can put together , especially as we are finally getting to have Autumn here, of some sort. Brenda , you are beautiful, inside and out ! Sending much love from Oz .

  • Reply
    Bobbi A Mouzon
    May 3, 2018 at 5:14 am

    I think I first learned about the 3rd piece from your 40 over 40 book!!!!! It was my handbook for years and years…well, actually it was very much a part of my (finally) learning to dress!!!

  • Reply
    May 3, 2018 at 5:46 am

    Love the third piece! Currently packing for a three week vacation and my third pieces collection is going to help minimize the clothes I need to take by considering the mix and match possible combinations. I also like that layer to help hide the arm wings, lol!

  • Reply
    May 3, 2018 at 5:51 am

    You are so right! The third piece really makes an oufit. I love little jackets and have lots of them. I now feel vindicated!

  • Reply
    Ramona Puckett
    May 3, 2018 at 5:58 am

    Thank you so much for this information! I have been incorporating a third piece and you’re right! It does make you feel more stylish and put together. It’s getting warm here in Oklahoma but it just takes planning. Sunday I wore a casual blouse with jeans and a medium wash denim jacket and was comfortable at church services. Monday saw a white sleeveless cotton blouse with the same denim jacket and a different pair of jeans. I was comfortable all day! I’m still working on finding a “nothing ” pair of earrings but I usually wear my signature silver hoops for jewelry. Anyway, thank you again!

  • Reply
    May 3, 2018 at 6:11 am

    Even at 90 degrees today, my air conditioned office practically forces me to wear a covering of some kind. Yes, you are right, Brenda. So many options in linen and cotton jackets and sweaters that it’s just a matter of finding the right pieces. That 3rd piece finishes a look for sure.
    You need candles to make a cake a celebration!

  • Reply
    May 3, 2018 at 6:15 am

    I love all those looks and ideas. I used to easily incorporate a third piece when I lived in a more temperate climate. How do you incorporate a third piece in an outfit when you live in a colder climate and have to wear your down coat over everything?

  • Reply
    May 3, 2018 at 6:36 am

    This is right up my alley, Brenda!! For some reason I always want to portray smart and modern, and I love my jackets and even vests!! Sure, there are times in the summer when I only wear two pieces, but I usually want one of them to be more interesting than just a t-shirt.
    I always tell my stepmom (the 60+ model on my blog) that people of visual—it’s human nature. So even if you don’t care what you’re wearing, others take that cue, and treat you different.
    I always love seeing your pieces and the rationale behind them, Brenda!!

  • Reply
    May 3, 2018 at 7:04 am

    My collection of unique jackets and blazers is growing thanks to you Brenda. Just recently I wore a linen jacket on a plane and felt so much more put together than just throwing on a sweater. Same amount of effort for more pulled together look. As usual your ideas are spot on. And, as Bobbi stated, ever since your first book came out it has been a re-read often as well as the makeover one which is a constant in the bedside table. Just throwing on a bit of bling is also an instant upgrade with very little effort. Thanks again.

  • Reply
    May 3, 2018 at 7:07 am

    I love the look of outfits with a third piece. But I struggle with how to make it work outside in the hot, humid spring/summer months.

  • Reply
    May 3, 2018 at 8:40 am

    Another great article, Brenda! That Etro jacket is to die for! Thanks for inspiring me.

  • Reply
    Mary Ann Doerzbacher
    May 3, 2018 at 8:53 am

    Funny, but I never even thought about the “third piece” yet I have been adding that extra piece for many years! I always thought it added a finishing touch, covered my bare older arms and/or pulled the outfit together. Now it has a name! Breezy linen or gauzy shirts work here in northern CA even when we hit the 100’s. Thank you, Brenda. As always, you are very enlightening!

  • Reply
    May 3, 2018 at 9:19 am

    This was so helpful. I am a jackets kind of person – love all my third-piece jackets but one of them (a vintage riding jacket) I am finding hard to style. I think the length makes it tricky – and it looks wrong with everything except skinny jeans. I refuse to to a) wear jodhpurs or b) get rid of it!

  • Reply
    Elaine @ Following Augustine
    May 3, 2018 at 9:58 am

    I’m like Mary Ann… I’ve been instinctually adding a “third piece” to almost every outfit for years without realizing that it was a thing! Until recently, I thought that a gal could never have too many light jackets. Then I discovered that I have at least 23 of them! Add to that numerous cardigans and several shirts that can be worn as third pieces. I was planning on paring down my jacket collection this season, but after reading this I will have to look at each one very carefully before deciding to let it go!

  • Reply
    Cindy Scurry
    May 3, 2018 at 10:25 am

    I totally agree on the 3rd piece. I feel better when I’m styled that way. I love your recap of so many 3rd pieces – informative and creative!

  • Reply
    Briar Gregory
    May 3, 2018 at 11:49 am

    As always, you’ve given us a new, inspiring way of viewing our clothing choices. I had always wanted a leather jacket, but didn’t get brave enough to buy one until I was 67! I love it and it works well in most situations.

  • Reply
    Erika Alvarez
    May 3, 2018 at 12:39 pm

    Great post, Brenda! Love all of the examples. Am realizing that it’s the lack of a third piece that leaves me feeling “undone” on certain days. I couldn’t put my finger on it and now I know why. Off to make some more 3-piece outfits…

  • Reply
    May 3, 2018 at 12:43 pm

    My summer third pieces are statement necklace or group of necklaces, or statement earrings, or notable shoes. Summer cashmere is an oxymoron, but really any sort of jacket, sweater etc. doesn’t work for me in the warm months. Because hot and cranky isn’t any more attractive than just two pieces.

  • Reply
    Cathy D.
    May 3, 2018 at 12:57 pm

    Brenda, I love all of your outfits. The third piece really makes a huge difference! I don’t have nearly enough of them, but am working on it. The hot, humid summer problem mentioned several times in the comments is a big problem for me. I’m looking for lightweight gauze and sheer knit jackets, and this post is a real inspiration. Thank you!

  • Reply
    Sandi Mcdougall
    May 4, 2018 at 6:33 am

    I loved this article Brenda! It gave me inspiration and also a great giggle. I read the part of taking your daughter to the doctor out loud to Paul as he wondered what I was laughing at when I read it to myself. I love to get a good laugh every morning to start my day and you did it for me today. Have an awesome weekend & thanks.

  • Reply
    May 4, 2018 at 12:10 pm

    Hi Brenda! Great post, as always! I have always instinctively added that third piece, I don’t feel all the way put-together without it, whatever it is. I guess I learned that from my mother, who never left home without looking fabulous, no matter what her task for the day! I’m not dressed until I add my scarf or shawl, or jean or linen jacket, and of course lipstick, (which is the last thing I put on, after my perfume choice of the day!) I do envy your vast collection of jackets though! I’m busty but have a small back, sometimes jackets can be a problem – a bit confining, or they don’t hang right. What is the solution for this problem? I’m always pulling the fronts of my softer jackets back down to the front, they tend to slide to the back of my shoulders. As do some of my shirts/blouses. Which is why I prefer soft sweaters/tees with a scarf, shawl, or necklace as the third piece. Anyway, your outfits always inspire me to try a new combination from my own wardrobe, or to try something on when I’m shopping that I might not have considered otherwise! Thank you!

  • Reply
    May 6, 2018 at 10:12 am

    Love all oh the third piece recommendations! I live in Florida where it is hot and humid, with the exception of maybe two months of the year! I use lightweight blouses over sleeveless tops that work well for our constant air conditioning! Loose sweaters work well also! Our heat here really forced us to be creative!!
    Great information!!

  • Reply
    Laurice Gilbert
    May 7, 2018 at 2:27 pm

    Aha! I didn’t consciously realise it, but I have always been a third piece dresser. It probably goes back to childhood and never going out without a coat or jacket, but as a gardener and writer I instinctively know that threes are better than twos. I don’t feel fully dressed until I’ve put the third piece on, whatever it is – jacket, vest, cardigan, duster. On blistering hot summer days I only wear one piece (odd numbers are better), and have a variety of dresses that are comfortable without extra layers. Otherwise it’s 3 pieces all the way. Thanks for pointing out something about myself I didn’t know!

  • Reply
    May 10, 2018 at 5:33 am

    As usual, an interesting and informative post, Brenda!
    I, too, live in humid SFL and a third piece is difficult most of the year unless I’m going to be inside where people keep AC at ungodly cold temps, and then I NEED a third piece or I’ll be very uncomfortable. I keep a jean jacket or cardigan in the car. We have a house built when AC didn’t exist, and live without it quite comfortably, but out and about, sleeveless, without a jacket is much more comfortable, so it’s a trade-off.

    • Reply
      May 10, 2018 at 8:50 am

      I’ve spent time in Florida and that’s what I noticed too. If you’re outside, you need to be in next to nothing and indoors is like walking into a freezer! I had a colleague here in SF who came from Florida. We were in Florida together at a conference and she was so comfortable maneuvering the temperatures. “I’m a Florida girl,” she’d say. I’m sure one adjusts and hats off to you for not having AC in your house. I love the natural air, myself! Thanks for sharing with us, Cara!! xx

  • Reply
    Kathe Hughes
    October 24, 2018 at 8:57 am

    The linen tie dye jacket really calls to me. If you ever decide to sell it please email me.

  • Reply
    December 9, 2018 at 9:45 am

    Can you tell me where that black vest is form? I love it and need something like that.
    You have greatbstyle!

    • Reply
      December 11, 2018 at 6:46 am

      I looked through that post but don’t see a vest. If it’s the swing cardigan over the white shirt with the Indian print pant, that is Eileen Fisher. Thanks!

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