Forget reaching for lazy leisurewear – a trip to the beach is an occasion to warrant a wardrobe of its own, says Rebecca Gonsalves

Dressing for the beach may seem simple enough as you reach for that trusty pair of cut-offs that don't quite button up. Add the oversize T-shirt that was a freebie on your last company away-day, a pair of flip-flops and the battered straw hat you use when gardening and you're good to go, right?

For those who rely on structured outfits to get through the working week, the sudden transition to full-on laissez-faire dressing can be just too much to take. A grasp of the basics and a quick lesson in coordinating will take the pain out of trips to the shore.

Close to home

Let's begin at the bottom. The leg-lengthening illusion afforded by a pair of wedges is all well and good if you have only to totter a few feet from your luxury villa to a private bay, but in reality the stroll down to the beach laden with towels, picnic, games and books is not a time you want to worry about going over on an ankle. Instead, opt for sturdy but sweet sandals in soft tan leather – the once-ubiquitous gladiator sandal has grown up.

That's not to say that glamour has no part to play: a smattering of subtly shimmering sequins or the cooling texture of silk on sun-blushed skin (here's hoping) should not be overlooked. Lace-trimmed shorts with an elasticated waist are perfect for a quick change when a dip in the water beckons. When mixing and matching separates, choose from a soft, muted colour palette and remember blue denim goes with everything. A shirt or kimono in a sheer fabric is perfect for throwing over your swimsuit when you make that all-important trip up the beach for ice creams – between 1 and 7 August, Topshop will donate £10 to the Teenage Cancer Trust for each of three styles of cover-up purchased.

If it's hot and you just cannot be bothered with separates, a romper suit in soft washed denim or cashmere over a halter swimsuit has something of an off-duty Fifties pin-up girl about it.

Tortoiseshell shades, a chic straw hat and a sweet but simple cotton tote bag are all you need to complete a look that's perfect for spending the day at the seaside – though you may want to pack an umbrella just in case.

Farther afield

If you are heading for a proper sunshine holiday, though, you may want to ramp things up a gear. Don't worry, there are plenty of pieces to make sure that you're not left in the shade.

Take inspiration from Prada and Stella McCartney's spring/summer collections and get fruity with a pair of bold print shorts or this jungle-inspired one-piece from Urban Outfitters. Colour blocking is a trend that was huge on the catwalks this season, Jil Sander, Marc Jacobs and Gucci all leading the charge. However, the observant among you will have noticed that on the high street, racks of the stuff are being reduced as we speak – the buying public has collectively said "thanks, but no thanks". Instead, try a less didactic form of clashing – mash up bright colours and prints with different fabric textures and shades.

Don't worry about what goes with what – you're on holiday and life is too short. It all might feel a bit "I'm mad, me" when you're packing your suitcase on a somewhat dull British day, but by the time you're in balmier climes with a piña colada in hand, everything will slot into place.