Mixing patterns is a high-risk, high-reward maneuver that showcases style savvy when done well; yet it’s all too easy for one mistake to ruin your entire outfit, undermine your aura of competence, and make you look like a hapless try-hard. For that reason, it’s easiest to use only one patterned piece in your outfits for a big splash. But if you feel ready to step it up to the big leagues, you’ll want to familiarize yourself with these 5 guidelines for foolproof pattern play:
1) Manage Boldness
Boldness should be your first and foremost concern: your outfit must have visual hierarchy -- an order of operations if you will. Your eye will be drawn first to the boldest pieces, those with busy patterns, bright colors, or intense color contrast.
Both of these ties are striped, but the one on the left is bolder. The colors are more saturated and contrast more powerfully against one another. Meanwhile, the tie on the right is more muted overall and has less contrast between the base colors and the patterned accents.
When mixing patterns together, you always want a distinct difference in the boldness of the patterns in play, so that one’s eye can glide comfortably from one piece to the next. When two patterns of similar boldness are stuffed into the same outfit, they fight for the eye’s attention, creating a brutal clash that’s painful to behold.
In the picture above on the left, you’ll notice that the red tie is boldest. The base red contrasts strongly against both the yellow and blue stripes. For that reason, it is first to catch the eye. Second in line is his gingham shirt, which is busy and bright -- less bold than his tie, more bold than his jacket. The windowpane jacket is lowest on the rung of visual hierarchy and is what the eye finds last. Having this pecking order allows onlookers to take it all in stride.
The pattern mixing on the top right, however, fails to properly manage the boldness of its patterns. All of the patterns are bold in both the intensity of their colors and the contrast between their accents and base. The tie and shirt are more bold than the jacket, but all of these pieces are too bold to play nicely with one another, which ultimately makes their mixture overwhelming to look at.
More than anything else, the key to pulling off multiple patterns is in making sure to vary the boldness between them. You can pull off a bold tie, a bold shirt, OR a bold jacket -- but not more than one. The bolder a pattern is, the fewer patterns will fit into your outfit. Conversely, the more patterns you want to incorporate into a look, the more muted each of them will have to be.
The outfits depicted above are great examples of skillful pattern mixing. The outfit on the left features a very bold plaid jacket, which is first to catch your attention. Neither his printed pocket square or textured knit tie will fight to be seen first, which allows your eye to find them at its own leisure. The same is true for the outfit on the right; his shirt pattern is boldest, followed by his pocket square, then the tie, and finally the distinct twill weave of his jacket. Managing the boldness of his patterns creates a visual hierarchy, which keeps the patterns from clashing.
It should also be noted that smaller pieces can afford to be bolder than large garments. One can tastefully incorporate an extremely loud pocket square, but trying to do that with a sport coat tends to look clownish and distracting.
2) Manage Scale
Managing the boldness of your patterns should be your first priority, but your work doesn’t end there. The oft-repeated wisdom about mixing the scale of your patterns is important as well. Patterns that are too similar in size lack contrast and can blur together, which is rather dizzying. For that reason, you must make sure to vary the size of your patterns.
Let’s reexamine a particularly successful example of pattern mixing on the left. In addition to mixing the boldness of the patterns in play, this well-dressed gentleman took care to properly manage the scale of the patterns as well. Doing this prevents the patterns from blurring together and confusing the eye.
Conversely, the outfit on the right features a tie pattern that is almost identical in size and spacing to that tattersall check on his shirt. For that reason, the two garments get lost within each other, even though they could peacefully coexist from the perspective of boldness. Were the diamonds on his tie bigger and/or more spaced apart, his outfit would be pleasing rather than discombobulating.
It’s also worth noting that boldness is more critical than scale. It’s possible to have an inoffensive mix of patterns even when their sizes are too similar -- but only if there’s a drastic difference in boldness. The opposite is not true: even when you vary the sizes, similar levels of boldness completely ruin the look.
Examining the pictures above, you’ll find that the outfit on the left is aesthetically pleasing and the outfit on the right is a disaster because of its improperly mixed patterns.
If you look closely at the ensemble on the left, you’ll notice that his shirt check, tie dots, and jacket herringbone are nearly identical in size. Yet the patterns don’t clash or hurt to look at because of the staggered boldness; the pocket square is most bold, followed by the tie, the shirt, and then the jacket. His outfit would certainly look better if the tie dots were larger and less packed together than the shirt pattern, but he gets away with it because he managed the pattern's boldness.
The poor sap on the right, however, prioritized the wrong details! The plaid pattern on his shirt is smaller and tighter knit than the stripes of his tie, or the overcheck on his jacket. And yet, because his shirt and tie are similarly bold, they create a jarring clash. Mixing boldness and scale of patterns are both important, but the former is crucial, while the ladder is optional (yet highly recommended.)
Alright, so now that you know how to avoid pattern clashes, the next criteria you have to consider is whether the patterns actually make sense together.
3) Be Mindful of Formality
Formality and dress codes are crucial considerations for all facets of style -- pattern mixing included. When you are mixing patterns, you must consider the overall context of the situations you’re dressing for, the appropriateness of each pattern, and the cohesiveness of your combinations.
Gingham, for instance, is a very casual pattern. In the outfit above on the left, the gingham shirt looks congruent with the formality of a tan summer suit and bright purple paisley pocket square. Whereas on the right, gingham has been nonsensically paired with a gray chalk stripe suit. Striped suits -- excluding seersucker -- tend to carry a strong business undertone and are consequently incompatible with a casual pattern like gingham.
4) Repeat Patterns with Caution
It’s easiest to mix different types of patterns into your outfits, as they’ll contrast naturally, but what if you want to repeat the same type of patterns? When doing so, you must be extra vigilant about whether the outfit makes sense.
Depicted above are two examples of repeated patterns that don’t make sense. The floral shirt with a floral tie on the left looks overdone and nonsensical, despite the fact that it passes the tests of boldness and scale. The outfit on the right is equally absurd, and while the patterns are both too similar in boldness and size, fixing that wouldn’t fix the outfit.
The two easiest types of patterns to repeat are stripes and checks. When doing so, it behooves you to pay extra attention to contrasting their scale so that they don’t blend together. Furthermore, keeping the shirt pattern smaller and more tightly knit than the tie or jacket is easiest on the eyes.
Notice that in both of the outfits shown above, the shirt pattern is smaller and more tightly knit, which prevents the similar patterns types from blending together. Doubling up on the same type of pattern can look sharp and daring when done correctly, but any more than that comes across as contrived, ostentatious, and too matchy-matchy.
The gentlemen depicted above did a fine job in managing the boldness and scale of the patterns, so as not to clash or blur together. And yet, repeating the same type of pattern three times is rather tacky and overly try-hard -- especially given how much extra consideration it necessitates.
Now that you understand how to manage the boldness, scale, formality, and the composition of your patterns you are fully equipped to avoid unsavory and ill-advised pairings. This final guideline builds atop that foundation and will ensure that your outfits are aesthetically pleasing.
5) Echo Your Colors
Color is powerful and wielding it skillfully goes a long way in keeping your ensembles cohesive -- especially when there are multiple patterns in play, since each patterned piece houses several different colors. As such, it behooves you to make sure at least one accent in each of your patterns echoes a color found elsewhere in your ensemble; the colors don’t always have to match exactly, but they should feel similar and related.
In the left outfit, the black knit tie echoes the black from the trim of his pocket square and lapel pin. The white accent dots echo a similar white to that of his gingham shirt, which in turn carries a gray that is similar to the sharkskin jacket. Overall, this practice brings cohesion to an outfit with so many nuanced pieces.
The same is true for the ensemble on the right. His jacket’s Prince of Wales check is brown like the knit tie, while the light blue overcheck picks up blues from his shirt and pocket square. Every item is linked to at least one other by similar shades of brown and blue echoed across the entire outfit.
Neglecting to do this puts your outfit at risk of seeming random and disjointed.
The outfits above are cautionary tales of what can happen when your patterns aren’t unified by common colors. Even though the pattern mixing passes all other criteria, a lack of coordination in their coloring introduces too many unrelated elements. In other words, without that final consideration, they look like a hot mess.
With these 5 principles in your back pocket, you are well-equipped to navigate the wild waters of pattern mixing without fear of failure or embarrassment. Manage the boldness and scale of your patterned pieces; keep them congruent in formality; adhere to best practices when doubling up on the same type of pattern; and make sure each pattern echoes a color found elsewhere in the ensemble. With a bit of practice, you’ll be pattern mixing like a pro!
For inspiration, note the dapper gentlemen below employing all 5 principles to perfection.
@thedressedchest / @dapperclassic
@stylecaliosa / @fabioattanasio