1. Coral pants stand in for black ones
Because she works in the garden department of a home improvement store—where she drives a forklift—Juliette Branker, 53, mostly relies on subdued separates. So these coral linen-silk trousers (Tibi, $295) were a revelation. "The color reminds me of my favorite flower, the hibiscus. Since I'm from Barbados, I've got the skin tone to pull it off." There's more than a whiff of whimsy in the ruffled polka-dot blouse (Ann Taylor, $88). A rope belt (Tibi) and sandals (Tory Burch) are a study in nautical chic.
Cuff bangle, Melinda Maria. Ring, Miriam Salat. Chair, Poul Kjærholm, 1957, Suite New York.
2. A white jacket is fresher than black
Button a black jacket over your dress and look like you borrowed your date's—or do the bright thing and opt for a white one (Calvin Klein, $119). To 35-year-old environmentalist and social activist Kate Dillon, style is a reflection of your personality. "Black can make you look funereal. White is so much more joyful," she says. The softly sculpted drape front flatters all shapes and works well with this floral silk-blend dress (Marina Rinaldi, $735).
3. Try a new twist on a trench
It used to be that trenchcoats came in either black or khaki—but cover one with a tattersall pattern (Coach, $798) and you've got a cool, modern classic. Filmmaker Liz Peace, 28, loves how this menswear staple "taps into my English roots" and cinches it over khaki gabardine pants (Piazza Sempione, $595) to achieve a subtle shades-of-gray effect. For maximum impact and an even stronger British accent, pair with white and brown oxfords (Joan & David).
Shirt, Banana Republic, $59. Chair, Poul Kjæholm, 1952, Suite New York.
4. Swap your little black dress for a cool white one
"A lot of women shy away from white because they think it makes them look big, but this suit [Talbots jacket, $249, and dress, $199] totally changed my mind," says acting coach Lisa Masters, 45. "Slim as it is, sitting down in the dress is a breeze," thanks to its stretch. The simplicity of the wool shift is matched by a tailored jacket. Shoes can be key: Choose a simple pump for day and these silver-studded, python-printed leather sandals (Claudia Ciuti) for some enchanted evening.
Earrings, M.C.L. by Matthew Campbell Laurenza. Ring, Noir Jewelry. Bangle, Giles & Brother by Philip Crangi. Chair, Preben Fabricius & JØrgen Kastholm, 1967, Suite New York.
5. Break out of the box! Try a soft silhouette
A single red piece is a great pick-me-up for most skin tones. "I dress to stand out at auditions, but I want to be relaxed, too," says actress Quinn Miles, 26—which is why this crimson goddess-style tunic (Marina Rinaldi, $665) earns a "bravo" from her. Proportion matters: The top's silky sash gently outlines the bust and enhances a curvy waist, while black leggings (Eileen Fisher, $88) and ballet flats (Cole Haan) complete the full-top, lean-bottom silhouette.
Cuff, Wendy Mink Jewelry. Ring, Lia Sophia.
6. Go ahead—pair up two brights!
Be bold and test out one of the season's intense color combos. A melon floor-length silk sheath (Adam, $425) and orange ruffle-collared cardigan (Kate Spade New York, $245) are no-brainers for makeup artist Christina Brice, 59, who says, "This is so me. Sometimes I'll mix three lipsticks together to get the shade I want." Black shoes would weigh down this look; tread lightly in nude patent leather sandals (Manolo Blahnik).
Bangle, Kara by Kara Ross. Ring, Sylas by Nashelle.
7. Casual can be stylish—instead of sweats, slip on easy silk pants
Craving something casual but not shapeless? Here's a surprise: Designers have modified the harem pant (She Said by JCPenney, $36), replacing droopy with leg-flattering draping. (No worries about looking too '80s—this cut is very wearable.) "I'd adopt these for everyday," says author Julie Muszynski, 41. "I'll grab what's comfortable—as long as I can go to the yoga studio in it." Combined with a smart acid-yellow sweater and heels, the new harems transform from relaxed to refined.
Cardigan, Calvin Klein, $64. Necklace, Kara by Kara Ross. Bangle, Marco Bicego. Sandals, Tory Burch.
8. Don't be shy about prints!
Simply swapping a black sweater for a patterned one can upgrade your whole look. A painterly floral knit (Gap, $45) plays off classic white trousers (Liz Claiborne New York, $69) and a T-shirt (Nation Ltd., $62). Claudia Moore, 34, who works as a consultant in the buttoned-down corporate world, says she gets away with as much style as possible at the office, "which usually means an edgy shoe. I'd definitely file this look under 'business casual.' It's radiant and reminds me of spring." Earrings, Me & Ro. Watch, Michael Michael Kors. Bracelets, Me & Ro, Aurum Vitae by Tam Tam, Ija Designs, and Broken English. Ballet flats, Iman Global Chic. Chair, Poul Kjærholm, 1952, Suite New York.
The Future is Bright!