There is one cardinal rule when it comes to deciding on what to wear for a portrait: keep it simple. 

Clothes that draw attention away from you make an otherwise good photo fall flatter than the paper it is printed on. A good portrait makes you the focus – you shouldn’t have to compete for attention with your Incredible Hulk novelty necktie. Good wardrobe should either make very little impression or give a visual hint about your personality. 

And then there is this – if your clothing choices make you feel strong and confident, it will show. If you are uncomfortable, good luck producing an engaging expression. That’s why wardrobe is a make-or-break element of a great portrait. 

There are exceptions. Some people may have a piece of clothing that is a personal trademark (like Iris Apfel’s oversized specs). For a cosplayer, fashionista, or someone going for personal branding, clothing may play a role, but for portraits it shouldn’t be more than a co-star.

The Basics

What qualifies as simple? Anything that won’t compete for attention. The safest choices for what to wear for a portrait are clothes in neutral tones – greys, tans, black or white (although white can create a lighting challenge). These choices can visually co-exist with just about any background.

Pastels can work, but require you to consider how they will correspond to the backdrop. Consult with your photographer in advance.

Avoid ruffles, frills, fussy details, ornamental buttons, and other flourishes that are likely to become dated. Something as simple as a white tank top is timeless and can be stunning.

white tank top as an example of what to wear for a portrait
A white tank top and jeans is enough for a stunning portrait | Portrait by Roy Furchgott

Avoid logos unless you are looking for a sponsorship. Likewise, skip loud patterns, unless they are part of the shoot’s theme or aesthetic. Take stripes on stripes on stripes, for instance.

Model poses in stripes for an example of what to wear for portraits
Breaking the rules: when it fits a theme or aesthetic — like stripes on stripes — deviate from simplicity | Portrait by Roy Furchgott


Not everyone wants to be photographed in a plain white tee, however. You can add visual interest without creating distraction by layering jackets, overshirts, unique vintage items on top of your basic layer.

Safe bets on what to wear for a portrait: anything denim, casual sweaters, classic jackets, even overcoats. Again, it’s probably best to use subtle patterns, muted, and solid colors, unless you have a specific reason not to. Go-to items include jeans jackets, leather jackets, well-tailored blazers, and classic overcoats.

Man poses in a leather jacket
A leather jacket with a popped collar adds a bit of sophistication and polish | Portrait by Roy Furchgott

What to Wear for a Portrait: Embellishments

If you are looking for more polish than the basics offer, break the rules with the occasional curveball. Solid jewel-colored pieces, a colorful scarf, tie or neckerchief, and absolutely anything that makes you feel like a million bucks when you slip it on. That confidence will show your photos.

For women, scarves can work well, especially if there is a wind machine or breeze to flutter their hair. A little complimentary motion from a chiffon scarf can make a shot more dynamic.

A woman wears a scarf.
A scarf in the tone and style of the shoot adds texture without distraction | Portrait by Roy Furchgott

For men it can be tougher to carry off a little dash, but you might experiment with popping a jacket collar, draping a coat over the shoulders, loosening a tie, or – if you have that rare elan – add a scarf.

Be aware as you add items that they need to fit the color palette, tone, and style of the shoot. For instance, that Incredible Hulk novelty tie? You might get away with it if you are dressed in green and purple, but otherwise, steer clear.

Props for Panache

If you are confident in your style chops, you can hazard leveling up with hats, glasses, jewelry, and props.

As always, keep it in line with who you are and the style of the shoot when deciding what to wear for a portrait. Should you wear glasses? Sure! Dark glasses? Maybe. Novelty nose and glasses? Probably not.

model wears glasses as an example of what to wear for a portrait or not
If you live in your glasses, wear them. Dark glasses? If they are a personal trademark, sure | Portrait by Roy Furchgott

Items like a martini glass, cigar, or musical instrument can give you something to do, and sometimes the distractions of handling a familiar object can loosen you up, leading to more engaging shots.

man smokes a cigar in a suit as an example of what to wear for a portrait.
The stogie says something about who the subject is | Portrait by Roy Furchgott

More Pro Tips on What to Wear for a Portrait

Mentioning Unmentionables

Wear undergarments that approximate your skin tone. Bright studio lights sometimes render wardrobe more sheer than it looks in daylight, and flowery undergarments will show right through a light colored top. That goes for men too – a white undershirt will show right through an oxford shirt. Light heathered grey won’t show through even white shirts. And make sure nothing bunches or bulges.

Tools of the Trade

Have clothes pins, safety pins, and elastic dress clips on hand to tweak fit. Empty your pockets. Beforehand: iron, iron, iron. Have an iron and/or a steamer on hand for touch ups.

Ask an Aesthetic Authority

If you are not a style maven yourself, consider hiring a wardrobe stylist. These are people who photographers rely on for their ability to assemble a striking wardrobe. Some have relationships with retailers and can get high-end garments on loan. If your photographer doesn’t have a stylist to recommend, look in the fashion section of your local newspaper or magazine to see who is credited. Or search the web, but keep in mind you are looking for a stylist, not a personal shopper – their job is to help you buy new clothes, which you might not need. At the very least, have a wardrobe consultation with your photographer when deciding what to wear for a portrait.