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I'm looking for (phrasal) verbs that describe these two actions.

Imagine in a music concert, if yor're a guest singer that is invited by the main singer, you're usually going to want to dress less attractive/flashy than the main singer because you don't want to stand out as being more important and draw all the attention to yourself. So is there a verb/phrasal verb that describes "to dress less attractive or make yourself look less attractive", and a verb that describes "to make yourself stand out as being more important than someone else" or "make someone else appear less important/worse than yourself"? I.e.

He is [...] because he doesn't want to [...] the main singer.

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I think you'll like upstage before the main singer. Some "close misses" I have to to dress less attractive or make yourself look less attractive are: underplay and dress down; neither capture the intention of dressing to make someone else look better. –  dingo_dan May 26 '13 at 15:24
    
I just discovered overshadow :) –  Theo May 26 '13 at 15:34
    
In The Profession and other performing arts, @dingo_dan's upstage is exactly the right term, although it has also a narrower technical meaning. Draw or pull focus, intransitive, with from X for transitive use, are also used. Antonyms are give X the stage and throw focus to X. –  StoneyB May 26 '13 at 16:19
    
I believe both appearing to be less impressive and appearing to be more impressive exist in the animal kingdom as responses to predators but I haven't had any luck pinning down a phrase. –  GetzelR May 28 '13 at 17:54
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10 Answers

up vote 4 down vote accepted
+100

He is dressed/behaving/acting unobtrusively because he doesn't want to [upstage] the main singer.

The synonym inconspicuously fits nicely too.

There are a number of words following that approach, each carrying different nuance, that may also work.

  • humbly
  • modestly
  • circumspectly
  • simply

There are also words that better capture the relative aspect of the behavior but are less descriptive, such as deferentially.

The words suggested so far for the second missing word work, although if you are still dissatisfied with what you have I can think of a few more.

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'He is [...] because he doesn't want to [...] the main singer.'

He is dressing down because he doesn't want to upstage the main singer.

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Here are my suggestions:

She dressed understated...

She demured herself...

She blended into the background...

She arrived incognito...

... because she doesn't want to upstage the main singer.

... because she doesn't want to overshadow the main singer.

... because she doesn't want to eclipse the main singer.

... because she doesn't want to overpower the main singer.

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You should probably use bold (double asterisks) rather than verbatim (backticks) to emphasize your suggestions. –  Bradd Szonye May 29 '13 at 4:58
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+1 for eclipse, which is an excellent addition to the suggestions made earlier (upstage and overshadow). I would remove or change “demure herself,” however – it's obsolete as a verb. Perhaps “dressed demurely”? And I would prefer “dressed down” to “dressed understated,” which sounds awkward. –  Bradd Szonye May 29 '13 at 5:00
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+1 for eclipse. But I disagree with "overpower". Overpowering the main singer sounds like rushing on stage and jumping on the main singer in quite a violent way (perhaps to stop the main singer aiming a firearm at the crowd?) –  Matt May 29 '13 at 5:09
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@Matt Overpower would also fit the case of singing louder – power is a common term for volume – but I agree that it's less than ideal for talking about appearance. –  Bradd Szonye May 29 '13 at 5:15
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I have a problem with dress down: it also means to berate. It wouldn't be misinterpreted in the sentence but I would avoid using it nonetheless. –  GetzelR May 29 '13 at 15:24
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Audience matters.

There are a vast number of pejoratives, colloquialisms, and metaphors that would fit if the target of the text was more or far less formal than what some of the answers might seem to suggest. I will omit the more heinous examples.

  • reserved
  • uninspired
  • muted
  • toned-down
  • conservatively
  • homely
  • tastefully

For the second aspect, I would also consider these:

  • embarrass
  • out-step, out-do, one-up, outclass
  • surpass
  • minimize
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I am recommending "toning down" and "show(ing) up" because it sounds like opposites to me - the "toning down" juxtaposed against the "show(ing) up".

He is toning down his outfit because he doesn't want to show up the main singer.

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He is drably/dowdily dressed because he does not want to distract (the audience) from the lead singer.

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The slang term 1-up / one-up could mean "to make yourself stand out as being more important than someone else", as in

I thought I was being flashy, but Aaron just had to 1-up me.

I do not know of a term which means the opposite of this, however.

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I'm not so much offering suggestions–there are already a ton of those–as a quick bit of advice: The second most important thing in this situation is to sound like yourself. Sure, choose words based on these suggestions if you like. But it's very important your audience not sense a break in style because you used someone else's words. We all remember that one kid in class who wrote papers with a thesaurus. Impressive words do not make impressive writing.

That said, I really like dress down/show up from the poster above.

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I think the words deferential or regardful serve the purpose rather than subdued or drab or dress down.

I particularly like deferential as it implies courtesy and giving way, whilst not committing to anything about the degree of the individual pomp :-)

To use your exact phase:

He dressed deferentially because he doesn't want to up-stage the main singer. I think it shows that the guest singer has a station and is giving way. However it doesn't limit the guest singer into being dowdy, drab or plain looking.

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From the suggestions above, I like these best: he is dressed inconspicuously because he doesn't want to eclipse the main singer.

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Participation is encouraged, but this is not a traditional forum. The format is to encourage unique, explained answers. –  JustinC Jun 2 '13 at 6:33
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