Somewhat more complicated than following a dress code, the art of choosing the right pattern for both your build and for different degrees of formality is another common area of failing for men. Some men mismatch patterns to jarring effect, while others try to avoid the issue by wearing only solid colors, neither of which takes advantage of one of the defining features of clothing. Ditch the shyness, learn the basics, and make pattern a functioning part of your wardrobe – not just something that happens to be there, but something that makes a statement about you.
Levels of Pattern Formality: First off, understand that different patterns are acceptable in different social situations. Different cultures put slightly different emphasis on the importance of pattern – what might raise eyebrows at a charity dinner in New York City will likely go unnoticed at an art gallery opening in Wichita – but overall, the more obvious a pattern is the less formal the garment is considered to be. Solid colors are the most formal end of the scale, while overstated patterns like paisleys and polka-dots are so casual as to be almost entirely absent from menswear. Remembering the basic break-down of dress codes from the last chapter, you can generally assume that only solid colors are appropriate for formal or semi-formal occasions, modest pin striping becomes acceptable at the business level, and bolder patterns should only be worn in dress-casual or casual situations. This applies to jackets, trousers, and shirts; ties should also be kept solid at the upper levels of formality, but have a somewhat wider array of options in the more casual strata.
Matching and Contrasting: The most basic rule of patterning is never to match the scale of the pattern from one piece of clothing to the next. That is to say, if you wear a suit with narrow pinstripes, neither your tie nor your shirt should feature the same. A broad chalk-stripe on the shirt and solid tie or a solid shirt with a broadly-striped tie would be a better fit, and so on. People with a shallow understanding of clothing may extend this rule and simply say that you shouldn’t wear differing patterns, but they are missing the point – a shirt covered in small, delicate crosshatching is not inappropriate with a broadly striped suit, nor with a “figure” tie featuring a repeated crest or monogram.
Colored Patterns vs. Textured: When choosing patterns, be aware that they come from two different sources: the contrast of different colors in the dye or printing of the fabric, and the texture created by its physical weave. The latter is much subtler than the former, but equally important; there’s a reason that no one puts pinstripes on a herringbone tweed suit. Patterns created by colors are more noticeable and eye-catching, and therefore somewhat less versatile. They should be used to make a bold statement, but not in very formal situations, or in situations where you are expected to take a more supporting social role and avoid attracting attention. Examples of these include most striping, checks, “windowpane” patterns of broad grid lines, and plaids and printed figures. Unless done in very muted colors, or in colors that are very similar to one another, these sorts of pattern will be the centerpiece of an outfit, so use them sparingly. Patterns formed by the texture of the cloth are more understated, and can be used more freely than bold prints. Many solid-color garments are made more eye-catching with a textured weave; the repeating chevrons of herringbone is probably the most famous example, giving the classic gray tweed sports coat a dash of detail and breaking up its visual impact. Wear clothes with textured patterns to support your ensemble while keeping it from being just another set of single-color clothes, or where the added depth of the weave serves a practical purpose – woven wool ties, for example, hold heavy knots better than silk.
Types of Pattern: Assuming that patterns are going to be worn, remember the basics – larger, bolder patterns are less formal than small or understated ones, and the scale of the patterns in your various garments should differ noticeably. Within those parameters, fashion has produced a handful of staples that will always serve well in a gentleman’s wardrobe:
Solids are the obvious first choice for formal or business occasions, and are often preferred when a garment is not meant to be the centerpiece of an outfit. If you have a fine suit, wearing it with a simple, muted shirt in a solid color allows it to shine. It is possible to have a visible pattern even within the realm of solid colors, if the weave is textured, which will make the garment less formal but more eye-catching.
Stripes refer to vertical striping, and can run the gamut from classic pin striping to the equally-sized blue and white stripes of the traditional seersucker suit. Pinstripes are very narrow stripes, usually white or gray, against a solid background.
Sincerely, Charlie’s Design – Fashion House – Bangkok
Checks are even less formal than stripes, but still appropriate for casual suits, and completely at home in a casual jacket or a dress shirt. Plaids are the most familiar example, and the gray-dominated Glen check is still a staple of business-casual menswear. Windowpane suits are uncommon, and even jackets are not a routine sight, but small windowpanes have become quite widespread in dress shirts and can match well with a striped or solid suit. Conversely, muted plaids do still make occasional appearances in suits and jackets, but plaid shirts are generally considered strictly the purview of lumberjacks and farmers (or at least country gentlemen on the weekend). The word “check” can also refer to windowpane styles of pattern, which are created by intersecting vertical and horizontal lines set apart from one another in a broad, regular grid.
Figure pattern is a catch-all term for any repeating design or emblem, encompassing paisley, polka-dots, and more. Generally reserved for ties, there are some dress shirts with printed figure patterns; these generally work best if the colors are muted and similar and the design reasonably subtle. Neckties, on the other hand, can feature quite bold patterns when paired with subdued shirts and suits – the limit is really only how eye-catching a man is really willing to let his tie become. Of course, as with all things, the bolder the pattern, the less formal the look.