In Which We Investigate The Fine Sartorial Art Of Reference Dressing

And how to do it without ending up in fancy dress…

In Which We Investigate The Fine  Sartorial Art Of Reference Dressing

by Tabi Jackson Gee |
Published on

Reference dressing is one of Those Fashun Things that as soon as you become aware of it, you’ll start seeing everywhere. And I mean everywhere. Particularly if you follow lots of fashion peeps on Instagram. In fact, you've probably even done it yourself at some point. Unwittingly, maybe. But it still counts.

It kind of does what it says on the tin - it’s when one, two, maybe three accessories or details in your look reference a period, or a theme, or sometimes even a person. Anymore than two or three though and you’re entering fancy dress territory. Which is to be avoided, unless you're actually going to a fancy dress party.

The royal family are some of the most notorious reference dressers around. K-Mid often dabbles on important royal visits, like when she wore a dress the colour of grass to Chelsea Flower show, or wore a maple leaf hat on Canada Day.


K-Mid follows in the footsteps of Princess Di, who make subtle and not so subtle references in her choice of clothing. Like when she wore a rock star tuxedo to meet Bryan Adams, or dressed as the actual Canadian flag.

And reference dressing ain’t just for royals. Disney Bounders indulge in a specific type of reference dressing by making a nod to their favourite disney characters in the colours they wear or their accessories (blue, red and white for Snow White, a felt fedora and a belt for Peter Pan). Alexa Chung’s shopping app Villoid is basically built around the idea of reference dressing. On Instagram they reward users who make moodboards of clothes that reference a famous movie character (one great recent one features Patricia Arquette from her True Romance days…)


Anyway, without further ado: here are a few of the looks that get cited the most by the fash-pack.

The Urban Cowgirl


This is quite an extreme version of the urban cowgirl but it sums it up perfectly. Double denim, cow-print tassled jacket AND a cowboy hat. If a Normal wore this they’d 100% look like they were in fancy dress, but because it’s Patricia Manfield on the streets of New York during fashion week it just seems to work. Please don’t try this at home.

The Little House on the Prairie


Billowing sleeves, a high neckline and a seriously strong print game equals all the ingredients you need to reference The Little House On The Prairie. You can easily recreate this on a budget too; there’s heaps of beautiful long-sleeved, low-hemline dresses on the high street at the moment.

The 90s, Obvs


Bucket hats, bunches, chokers, jeans (bootcut or baggy), high-neck strappy tops, strappy tops, baby pink, kohl: this is just a small sample of the clothes and accessories that have made a resurgence in the last couple of years. Where once having a 90s themed fancy dress party involved actually buying new clothes, now it’s just a matter of wearing all your 90s-reference clothing, all at once. Hence crossing that invisible line.

The 19th Century Dandy, Not So Obvs


The reference dressing de rigeur, favoured by the fashion elite. Alexa, Pandora...they’ve all donned a high lace collar and a velvet jacket at some point and in doing so have made a subtle nod to the days of Oscar Wilde and late nineteenth century dandies. Extra marks for pointy boots and if you pull all of the above off without looking like Puss In Boots.

The Clueless Thing


If you’ve ever worn yellow tartan, or any tartan for that matter, and you’re a fan of Clueless (let’s be fair, who isn’t) then you probably thought about Clueless at some point while you were wearing it. So well done, you’ve already nailed reference dressing without even realising it.

Sometimes, Fashion People Even Reference Their Pals. Cute.

Cast your mind back to the Met Ball 2016 wen Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner dressed up as Jenny Lyons, the famously suited and bespectacled Creative Director of J Crew. Now this isn’t so much reference dressing as directly copying a look, but they pulled it off with real aplomb and it’s a look that should be referenced more IMO.

Fashion favourites Caroline Vreeland and Shea Marie often get snapped dressed in similar or matching outfits - or ‘twinning’ as it’s known in some very very niche fashion circles. Yes, it takes a lot of planning to dress in similar outfits to your friends IRL but it will be well worth the effort when those Likes hit treble figures..

**Like this? You might also be interested in: **

7 Slogan Jumpers To Keep You Feeling Warm And Looking Cool

How Do I Break The Endless Cycle Of Shopping

You Have To See This New WAH LONDON x ASOS Collab

Follow Tabi on Twitter @tabijgee

This article originally appeared on The Debrief.

Just so you know, whilst we may receive a commission or other compensation from the links on this website, we never allow this to influence product selections - read why you should trust us