Ask Allie: What to Wear for Family Portraits

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I have a question regarding family pictures. We have an extended family picture coming up and we have been asked to wear any combination of khaki, white, and jean. Do you have any suggestions that will look hip yet appropriate? Thanks so much!

With a husband who occasionally shoots family portraits, I have seen all sorts of combinations of family ensembles in this color story – some that look fantastic, and some that make relatives all look like employees of Blockbuster. There are ways to make the family look cohesive yet still stylish. Here’s some outfit suggestions for a white/khaki/denim color story:

  • Chambray shirtdress. I love this one from Lands’ End, and you could pull in khaki with a woven belt, or be complementary with brown leather belt and sandals.
  • Khaki boatneck sweater with a denim pencil skirt or denim trousers. Clean, simple lines are always in style; add a bit of personality with a simple necklace (small pendant or strand of pearls).
  • Khaki twinset with pleated chambray skirt. You can do a variation of this with a white tank, or with a weathered blue cardigan and khaki skirt. Flatter the figure by putting a belt over the cardigan – a skinny belt is on trend and looks great with slim figures, a wider belt at the bottom of the ribcage flatters the smallest part of a curvy figure and creates an hourglass shape.
  • White scoop, v-neck or surplice (wrap-style) shell with denim blazer, khaki wide-leg trousers or skirt. A small amount of white will work in such a situation, and the combination of the lower necked shell and the collar of the jacket can be quite flattering. Keep the blazer tailored and free of shoulder pads, puffed sleeves, or dramatic collars so you look slim and classic.
  • White shell with khaki blazer or belted cardigan and jeans. Again, a peek of white is not a problem when you have a lot of other colors in the outfit. This is a combination where you can really show your style – you could do a fitted cargo jacket with the sleeves rolled, a ribbed v-neck cardigan with a khaki patent skinny belt, a cashmere crewneck with your grandmother’s brooch, a Chanel-esque tweed collarless jacket with a strand of pearls. If you do wear traditional denim on the bottom, either have it very dark and crisp, or go the opposite way with a distressed boyfriend jean. Anything in the middle can look dated quite quickly and can also clash with the other denim in the picture. Of course, there are exceptions to this, but stonewashed and novelty denim can come in such a variety of colors, shades, and styles there is much room for bad choices.
  • An atypical chambray shirt with khaki cropped trousers or skirt. This bow blouse from Brooks Brothers (on sale!) will keep with the color story without making you stand out or look like a Blockbuster employee. This chambray top from Gap (also on sale!) also sticks with the color theme but adds some style to your ensemble – it also would look cute with narrow jeans without looking like a Texas Tuxedo.  Pair this chambray tunic from J. Jill with khaki jeggings and a pair of tall boots for a chic casual look.
what to wear family portrait

A color story is a good idea so that no one stands out or distracts. Having a variety of three colors is nice so while the look is cohesive, everyone has more ability to show their personality.
A few tips on flattering photographs:

  • Don’t wear white on top (unless everyone else is). White, black, and very bright colors can create a very strong contrast and make it difficult for the photographer to have a balanced picture. It can also reflect the colors around you. If the group decided to all wear white or all wear black it can work, but if only one or two are wearing such a color they can really throw off the balance of the photograph.
  • Wear sleeves. The eye is drawn to contrast, and a bare arm or leg can be more distracting than a busy print. Even if it’s warm out and you have two tickets to the gun show, a sleeve will be a better choice for a group portrait.
  • Wear stretch. During a photography session you may end up reclining in the sand, kneeling in grass, sitting and standing over and over. Make sure your ensemble looks as great with the first take as with the 50th with a bit of Lycra. While you’re at it, a few strategically placed safety pins inside a button-down can keep your shirt from gaping in various poses.
  • Remember the feet. Group portraits are usually full-length, so put as much thought into your shoes as your ensemble. No ratty worn-down sandals, gym shoes, flip flops, or uber-trendy chunky flatforms or platforms. A simple pump, flat, or boot is your best bet. If the group has decided on being barefoot, be sure you have a fresh pedicure.
  • Up the makeup. Natural light, flash photography, fitting multiple faces into one attractive photograph… all of these can wash your face out, and draw attention to ruddiness and shine. No need to look like Tammy Faye, but consider taking your beauty routine up a notch – if you usually just wear concealer consider adding powder, try a lipstick in a slightly darker or brighter shade, add a second coat of mascara.
  • Steer clear of patterns. Patterns can confuse and distract the eye; even a simple stripe can steal the show in a group photograph. The same holds true for shiny fabrics or bold accessories. This is a photograph displaying a family unit, not individuals – dress to support the team.
  • Test drive your outfit. Does it wrinkle easily? If you bend over is your bra on display? Does the blouse need to be re-tucked after each sitting? It’s best to find out these things at home and not at the shoot.
  • Let your hair down. You wouldn’t believe how many times I see women arrive for photo shoots with their hair in a topknot, ponytail, or some sort of half-updo. While this style may look great while you’re running around town, in a still photograph it can be quite unflattering. When you are photographed head-on in a group, that bit of hair in a bun or ponytail disappears into the background, leaving you with a small exposed skull decorated only by two very visible ears. I find it more important to focus on your hair than your ensemble – your outfit will blend in with your family, but your head is what will be remembered for years to come.
  • Think style, not fashion. This photograph will end up poster size over your Great Aunt’s fireplace for the next two decades, you don’t want to cringe each time you catch a glimpse of yourself with a Katniss braid, oversized glasses, orange lips, a mullet skirt and shooties. Even if your personal style veers towards the avant garde, take it down a notch for this situation to respect your family, and your reputation come five years from now.

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  1. Great tips Allie-I think so many families have questions about this when they get family portraits done so I am sure this will be so helpful. 

  2. Your tips are amazing, Allie! I think they are all very, very helpful. I especially like the “think style, not fashion” tip! I have PLENTY of awful outfits preserved for the benefit of posterity. 

  3. I love the idea of thinking style, not fashion. It made me think: what if we dressed every day as if we were going to have our picture taken and saved in an album? (Personal style bloggers kind of do, don’t we!)

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