Combining Patterns, Part I

Discussion in 'Andy's Fashion Forum' started by manton, May 21, 2007.

  1. manton

    manton Arbiter CBDum

    This has come up a few times recently. I promised to post some old Apparel Arts charts, so here goes.

    But I first I think it would be valuable to go through, point by point, Chapter 4 of Dressing the Man, the most sustained treatment of this topic in the literature. I like that chapter very much, but I think there is more to be said on the subject, and also I think Flusser’s advice is not always sound.

    Flusser is good at conveying all the age old guidelines. For instance:

    • When mixing two patterns of the same type, vary the scale.
    He offers a picture of Cary Grant in a bead stripe suit (the stripes are spaced out by about 3/4"), a pencil stripe shirt (white stripe in what was probably a blue ground) with close set stripes, and a solid tie (looks black):


    Using a solid tie to both bind together and lower the volume of an ensemble is the classic way to combine jacket and suit patterns. It is relatively easy to learn, and yet still done rarely enough to look unusual and smart. It has long been a hallmark of a sophisticated dresser (as is, for that matter, the solid tie).

    Flusser next offers a photo of Astaire in what looks like the classic Brooks Brothers candy stripe, paired with a rep tie:


    Note that the stripes on the tie are many times thicker than the shirt stripes, and spaced a good two inches apart. All in all, a great combination.

    Flusser's "Don't!" illustration is also apt to his purpose:


    The colors work well together, but the stripes of shirt, suit and tie are all too close in scale, and the effect just becomes at once too busy and too uniform.

    Moving on from stripes, Flusser shows examples of combining two checks. Again, he says to vary the scale. Left unsaid, but implied by his examples (and I think good advice), is to vary the type of check as well. Obviously, this is harder to do with stripes. Stripes can differ somewhat, in being broken or unbroken (as we have seen in the Grant example, a bead stripe made up of closely spaced dots pairs well with an unbroken pencil stripe), or single or multi-, simple or complex. But still, for the most part, a stripe is a stripe, a straight line. The main way to change to vary two stripes is to vary the scale. But with checks you can vary not just scale but type.

    Another caveat I would add is that it is virtually impossible to pair a checked shirt with a checked tie successfully, no matter what their relative scale. It will just look much too busy. As ever, there are always exceptions:


    The above works well in spite of all odds. Nonetheless, it remains true that shirt & tie pattern combinations are more difficult to pull off than jacket and shirt or jacket and tie. Shirt and tie work together as a whole in a way that the others don't. It's part proximity, and part the fact that two are melded together as a unit, by virtue of the tie being tied around the neck and as it were “emerging” from the shirt collar.

    Flusser gives three examples. The first is a glen plaid trouser leg worn with a houndstooth sock:


    Flusser appears to cite this as a successful example, but I don't think it works. First, the scale is not really that different: note that the scale of the houndstooth in the sock matches almost exactly the houndstooth in the center box of the plaid. Second, even if the scales were widely different, I think the patterns are just too alike. If one must wear a check with glen plaid, better to make it a windowpane or a fancy check -- anything but houndstooth or 2x2 (the pattern, not the weave), the two building blocks of glen plaid.

    Agnelli's ensemble, by contrast, works well:


    The suit is a double windowpane (a particular favorite of mine) and the tie a woven houndstooth. The difference in scale AND type helps make this work.

    Flusser's "Don't" illustration here is another disaster;


    But not, I think for the reason he says. It's not so much that the scales of those patterns are too close; frankly, the tie pattern is noticeably smaller than the coat's. It's more that the coat is clearly a hairy tweed, and it looks incongruous with a business, geometric pattern tie. Plus, that coat would be better "warmed up" by a shirt with some color rather than stark white.

    • When mixing two patterns of different types, keep the scale as similar as possible.
    I think Flusser is partially right here, partially wrong. He's right in that similarly scaled patterns can work well together, but wrong I think in claiming that similar scales are all but mandatory.

    Take his illustration on the left; shirt and tie:


    We have bold stripes, widely spaced, and a dark ground tie with a large motif. Obviously a solid tie would pair superbly with that that shirt, but we are talking about pattern mixing here. Flusser is right that a small neat, all over pattern would not be the best choice. But I think he is wrong that a tie with smaller figures, but similarly widely spaced would not work. The key here is the spacing, not the size of the figures. The ground of the tie must dominate for this to work. Whether the figures are large or small is secondary.

    The second picture shows a suit of indeterminate pattern, but some sort of plaid with an overcheck, worn with a widely spaced striped tie:


    The combination works very well, but you can see the limits of this "rule" instantly, in that it's obvious that a neat, small pattern would work just as well -- so long as the shirt is solid. As noted, it's much harder to pair a patterned shirt with a patterned tie, than either a patterned shirt or tie with a patterned jacket.

    Flusser then adds the following well-worn caveat:
    • However, combining two small patterns is usually a mistake.
    This is certainly true. The optical illusion effect this gives off is not pleasing. It doesn't matter what the colors or patterns are, small + small almost never works.

    Flusser's "Don't" picture here is of a pencil striped shirt with a neat print tie:


    It could be worse -- worse examples are seen on the streets every day -- but it conveys the problem.

    The picture below shows a large scale tie paired with a miniature houndstooth suit:


    The pairing is fine, pattern-wise, but the ensemble itself is uninspired. The cloth lacks like, the tie is department-store-common, and the white shirt really does not belong.

    Flusser then adds some advice of his own:

    • When combining three patterns, the safest route to make sure that they are all different from each other.
    Now, this is just not supposed to be done, right? Three patterns? Hell, Mortimer Levitt forbids even two, declaring that a man must always wear "two plains and a fancy." But Flusser is right: three patterns can be mixed successfully, for a very dashing look. He calls mixing three different patterns "safest." I agree. He says the key is to make sure the scale of everything differs. I also agree.

    But of his two examples, only one really works. Tyrone Power's shirt and tie go well together (incidentally illustrating that similar scale is not so necessary when patterns are different after all):


    But the tie does not work with the jacket. Now, we can't see the colors, so maybe it looked better in real life. But I doubt it. There is an irregular "fleckiness" to the ground of the tie that corresponds quite closely to the "slubbiness" of the coat fabric. Again, a solid ground, and lots of it, would work better.

    The combination illustrated on the right hand page, however, works very well:


    The key, I think, is that (again) the tie, while striped, is strongly dominated by its ground, not its stripe.

    • When combining three patters, and two are the same, vary the scale of the two like patterns dramatically
    Again, good advice, especially with respect to stripes. Flusser adds, somewhat unhelpfully, that the third should be "unlike" but "visually compatible with both." Well, we already know it is to be "unlike," right, because that's the premise of this section? And of course it should be "visually compatible with both." Shouldn't everything we wear always be visually compatible with the other things we wear, whether we are mixing patterns or not?

    In any case, Flusser's examples are good and illustrate an unstated principle. It's typically easier to pull this off when shirt and jacket are the same pattern and the tie is different:



    As ever, there are exceptions. A suit of nailhead (a very small pattern) can go quite well with a narrow gauge striped shirt and boldly striped tie. Also, it's easier when the shirt is the small pattern and the coat and/or tie is the big one.

    Flusser goes a little wrong, I think, with his advice on mixing three patterns of the same design. This is very difficult to do well, and I think Flusser's examples are not altogether apt. The first is Basil Rathobone, not dressed like an ahistorical 1930s Holmes:


    This is not so, so bad, but we can't see the tie. Since this is used to illustrate three like patterns, I assume the tie is solid. So the third check is the square. Not a disaster, perhaps, but ill-chosen. Figured silk would be better with that (marvelous) coat.

    Prince Charles looks like a bad Burberry ad from the late '80s:


    Just ... don't.

    The final example might work, but it's hard to tell from the illustration (taken, I note, from an Apparel Arts chart):


    It's also worth citing here the introductory pic to this section, since it is an example of combining three patterns of the same type:


    The suit and shirt are fine together; compare with Grant, above. But the tie fails utterly. Way too busy. I think that, of all the three-pattern combinations, three stripes is the hardest to pull off. Make that tie a solid, and you have a lay up. Make it spotted or a neat pattern with small figures, and you have a three-pointer at the buzzer.

    Four patterns. Impossible you say? Flusser says no.


    This is his first example. I admit I only see three patterns. So, probably, do you. Yet the ensemble looks great, does it not? Imagine that the shirt were a subtle blue pencil stripe; perhaps it is. Wouldn't it still look great? I think so.

    Here is undoubtedly a four-pattern ensemble that just ... works:


    He makes it look easy, no? Why does this work? First, simplicity. Not overall simplicity, but every piece is simple in and of itself. The aforementioned blue pencil stripe shirt. Which is, I hasten to add, a completely neutral and versatile color. The scale of the tie is bigger than the shirt but smaller than the jacket. The color palate of the jacket and tie complement, but do not match, each other. The pocket square pattern is unlike any of the others, out of scale, and a different (though perfectly blended) color. Splendid!

    Coming Soon: Apparel Arts on combining patterns.
    Last edited: May 22, 2007
  2. Alexander Kabbaz

    Alexander Kabbaz Tech and Business Advice Guru

    United States
    New York
    East Hampton
    That was an extremely insightful analysis. Thank you. :icon_hailthee:

    When shall we expect Chapter 2?
  3. rssmsvc777

    rssmsvc777 Active Member with Corp. Privileges

    Could you please dedicate an article on combining textures. The biggest probelm I have is matching correct textures. Textures between sportcoats and pants, and textures between ties and suits.

    I like heavy wool or cashmere ties with heavy flannel suits, but silk and linen sportcoats don't look correct in the ensembles I have put together. I like solid shirts and solid ties with a patterned sportcoat or suit but the textures never seem right to me.
  4. Alexander Kabbaz

    Alexander Kabbaz Tech and Business Advice Guru

    United States
    New York
    East Hampton
    I re-read my response. Boring. I'll try again.

    Your article was absolutely wonderful. Thank you very much. We shall await Chapter 2 with baited breath.

    And I concur with the textures request. It is much too often missed that utterly smooth and sleek lightweight silks are often paired with heavy, fuzzy tweeds with no regard for anything but the pattern.

    While you're at it (we'll happily pay extra) can you add socks into the mix?
  5. yachtie

    yachtie Advanced Member

    Very nicely done- spot on Manton! I'm also looking forward to the AA charts and a talk about texture combinations.:icon_smile_big:
  6. eg1

    eg1 Active Member with Corp. Privileges

    I'm not so sure that you necessarily want the textures to match -- I rather enjoy texture contrasts, especially if they are subtle.
  7. luk-cha

    luk-cha Senior Member

    well Manton, this has been one of the best posts in a long time great pic's a clear explinations! i really like the combination of the light grey suit and the check suit and tie combo and also the grey plaid and striped tie no the only issue is finding simular fabrics!
  8. yachtie

    yachtie Advanced Member

    +1 :icon_smile_big:
  9. DocHolliday

    DocHolliday Honors Member

    I wonder if the fourth pattern isn't the trousers, rather than the shirt. Don't they appear to be striped, rather than plaid?

    Personally, I like the houndstooth sock/plaid combo, though not for the reasons Flusser cites. There's a progressive simplicity from the trousers to the sock to the solid black shoe I find pleasing.
  10. sia

    sia VP AAAC Corporate Benefits

    United States
    Excellent lesson, thank you!

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