Q: Could you explain the whole bra strap thing? When is it OK to show them off, when not?

A: Not to get all hoity-toity on you, but visible bra straps are no big deal over in Europe. In fact, the sheer-top-dark-bra look has been a fringe trend for several seasons running, at least for casual occasions. Here in the States, however, we get all flustered when reminded that adult women wear brassieres, so don’t go flaunting your straps just anywhere.

Visible bra straps are never, ever appropriate in professional settings or on formal occasions. (If you work at a nightclub or are attending a punk wedding you can use your best judgment, but otherwise, just plain “no.”) Straps should not creep out over your shoulder from sleeveless tops or peek out toward your collarbone from wide necklines. In both cases, adding a cardigan or blazer with a narrower neckline should solve the problem. If you don’t want to layer, invest in a quality strapless.

If you’re going out to First Avenue, or to an evening event at the Walker, or to some other gathering that calls for a mix of casual and edgy attire, go ahead and let those straps show. Opt for one of those wide neckline tops — or even something off-the-shoulder — and allow your straps to show on the collarbone side. Skip nude and white options in favor of black, bright colors, or interesting textures. You want this to look intentional, after all, so break out the sexy. And if someone asks if you’re aware that your bra straps are showing, say, Mais oui.

 

Q: I’m seeing some brown shown this fall. Could you offer some options for perking up brown? It can be drab if one is not careful.

A: It’s true, after years of nothing but cognac, camel and khaki, chocolate brown has finally made a comeback for the fall/winter 2014 season. It’s also true that this color can look a bit lifeless if worn in huge, unbroken swaths. An easy way to make chocolate brown beautiful is to pair it carefully with other colors.

Since brown is dark and deep and can therefore dominate your look, stick to one brown piece per outfit. A brown sweater will look dynamite with navy trousers and an eye-catching necklace. Try a brown dress with a mauve cardigan and warm gray boots. If you do brown trousers, try them with an olive blazer and printed blouse.

And speaking of prints, consider breaking up your solid browns with a few pretty patterns. Any motif that includes chocolate brown can serve as a bridging piece, allowing you to bring more — and sometimes unexpected — colors into your outfit’s palette. Scarves, blouses and skirts are ideal for introducing print, and you can find all three in prints that include trendy chocolate brown in malls and thrift stores. After all, this isn’t dark brown’s first brush with fashion stardom so there are loads of secondhand options available.

 

Q: Do I really need to dry clean/hand wash all these items that tell me I should? (Because I don’t.)

A: Bottom line: No.

Natural fibers — including linen, silk, wool, cashmere and cotton — can generally be hand washed in cold water, even if care instructions insist on dry cleaning. Same goes for sturdy polyesters and nylon blends. But, you’re safer going the dry cleaning route if the following are true: You’re dealing with a particularly thin or delicate fabric, the garment has loads of sewn-on embellishment or it’s a garment that is lined (such as a suit).

Hand washing can be avoided, too, in some cases. Sturdy garments can be thrown in a delicates bag or tied inside a pillowcase and put through your washing machine’s delicate/hand wash cycle. Stick to cold water, which is less likely to cause felting, damage and color bleeding than warm or hot. But, again, it’s safer to dry clean if the following are true: You know that your machine is a little on the vigorous side, your “cold” cycle includes some bursts of hot water (as many do) or you’re dealing with a delicate fiber and complex garment construction.

If you’re unsure how a garment will fare when washed instead of dry cleaned, do a patch test. Wet a small, non-prominent area with cold water and blot with a dry, white paper towel. If the fabric puckers, shrinks, or bleeds color, take it to the cleaners.

There are a lot of stopgap solutions that can lengthen the time between trips to the cleaners. Dress shields can be applied to the underarms of most garments to keep them relatively smell-free. Products like Dryel can be used to freshen up dry cleanables in your home dryer.

Use your judgment and make calls on a garment-to-garment basis. When in doubt? Do what the tag says.

 

Sally McGraw is a Minneapolis-based personal stylist and creator of the daily style blog, Already Pretty (alreadypretty.com). Her fashion advice appears on this page once a month. Send your questions to:

tellus@startribune.com.