One of the first things a man needs to know to dress well in a suit, shirt and tie is how to combine patterns. Colour is more complicated, a little more instinctive and comes later. Guidelines like ‘match your socks to your suit trousers’ can be spelt out as simply as that. But pattern matching takes a little explanation.
It’s all about density. And by density I mean how close the elements of the pattern are to each other – whether the stripes on a shirt are broad butcher stripes or narrower bengal stripes, on a suit whether they are chalk or pin. Ties are decorated with a vast range of patterns, but it’s not hard to assess the various densities, even between a paisley and a microdot.
Once you get an idea of how to assess density of pattern, the rule is fairly straightforward: keep similar densities apart. If you’re shirt is striped, make sure the tie that goes on top of it is of a pattern that is sufficiently different – a much bigger, more widely spaced stripe or perhaps a high-contrast spot. Plain shirts or those with needle or bengal stripes are thus the easiest to match with ties. It’s always slightly harder the other way around – to wear a tie with a dense pattern over a strongly patterned shirt. That’s why the latter is so often worn with a plain tie.
Different patterns can also make a difference. A checked shirt can work with a striped tie of not too dissimilar density. If you’re struggling to find a tie that will go with a loudly striped shirt, Switch the pattern to dots or perhaps paisley. It gives you a little more flexibility with the density.
A plain shirt is a useful breathing space between patterned suits and ties. Again, that’s why plain shirts are so often recommended for striped or checked suits. That breathing space gives you virtually complete freedom to experiment with suit cloth and tie silk. Just don’t have them both in exactly the same stripe.
But it is perfectly possible to wear all three items patterned. A tattersall check on the shirt, for instance, worn with a chalk stripe suit and a big, widely striped tie. Or glen-check suit with a bengal-stripe shirt (tie to be filled in at your leisure). The truly bold can even combine four patterns at once – adding a silk handkerchief with a density of pattern sufficiently different to the suit it is set against.
Other factors have a minor role to play. Contrast, for example, is assumed in less dense patterns. But some rep-striped ties may be a white on pale pink – not a dense pattern but not much contrast either. In that case you may have to give special consideration to the shirt beneath it – dial down the assessment of density. Equally bold colour can sometimes replace pattern for strength in an outfit – one reason Italians wear a lot of navy ties with blue shirts is that it permits stronger coloured jackets and suits. Banana-yellow linen, for example.
That’s how density of pattern works. It sounds simple but it’s amazing how many men get it very wrong.