Patterned (and Textured) Shirts
As long time readers may know, I’m a graduate student in his mid-30s, and I teach and study at a research university located in the Bay Area, a region somewhat known for its casual culture. One way for me to dress down my usual sport coat and wool trousers ensembles is through patterned shirts. If solid blue shirts are a good alternative when white is too formal, then patterned shirts can make things more informal still.
There are two basic patterns for shirts – checks and stripes, with each having varying degrees of casualness. The rule of thumb is that the bigger or bolder the pattern, the more casual the shirt is considered. For example, madras and gingham are more casual than graph check or tattersall. Gingham is that “picnic table cloth” pattern you see here, and madras is the colorful Indian interpretation of Scottish plaids, which we’ve covered here. Graph checks and tattersalls, on the other hand, are a bit more conservative, with the first looking like … well … graph paper, and the second looking like two or three graph checks overlaid on top of each other. Gingham and madras should probably be reserved for weekends, whereas graph checks and tattersalls can be acceptable in more casual office environments. In the fall, I think they can look especially smart under “textured” sport coats, such as ones made from tweed or flannel.
Stripes follow similar principles. A hairline stripe, which you can see above, is when the stripes are so close together than they resolve to a solid when viewed from a distance. As I write this, I’m wearing a light blue hairline stripe shirt with taupe tropical wool trousers and a patch pocketed navy sport coat. On some level, perhaps a light blue candy stripe or Bengal stripe would have been better, since I’m also wearing loafers. That way, the casualness of a bolder stripe would match the casualness of the shoes. Candy stripes are usually about 1/8” in width, whereas Bengals are a bit wider at 1/4”. Those along with dress stripes (also known as pencil stripes) are the three patterns I wear the most.
Of course, I still think you should have a strong foundation of solid blue shirts. Depending on your lifestyle, those will probably be the easiest to wear. However, I will say that I only own two solid blue poplin shirts, and don’t plan to get any more. I’ve found that lacking a pattern, solid blues tend to be more interesting in something that’s not a simple plain weave. End-on-end and chambray, for example, have a nice criss-crossing mix of blue and white threads, which give them a slightly more interesting look than a plain poplin, where no weave it detectable. Similarly, twills will have a subtle diagonal weave and oxfords will have a rougher basketweave. Like how bolder patterns should be considered less formal than subtle patterns, the rougher texture of an oxford should be considered less formal than an end-on-end, which in turn should considered less formal than a smooth poplin. However, since we live in a seemingly never-ending “casual Friday” these days in America, all these fabrics are more or less acceptable in most offices. Which means if given a choice, I favor slightly more textured cloths when wearing solids rather than smoother plain weaves. 
To learn more about shirt patterns, consult these posts by Alexander West and Alex Kabbaz.

Patterned (and Textured) Shirts

As long time readers may know, I’m a graduate student in his mid-30s, and I teach and study at a research university located in the Bay Area, a region somewhat known for its casual culture. One way for me to dress down my usual sport coat and wool trousers ensembles is through patterned shirts. If solid blue shirts are a good alternative when white is too formal, then patterned shirts can make things more informal still.

There are two basic patterns for shirts – checks and stripes, with each having varying degrees of casualness. The rule of thumb is that the bigger or bolder the pattern, the more casual the shirt is considered. For example, madras and gingham are more casual than graph check or tattersall. Gingham is that “picnic table cloth” pattern you see here, and madras is the colorful Indian interpretation of Scottish plaids, which we’ve covered here. Graph checks and tattersalls, on the other hand, are a bit more conservative, with the first looking like … well … graph paper, and the second looking like two or three graph checks overlaid on top of each other. Gingham and madras should probably be reserved for weekends, whereas graph checks and tattersalls can be acceptable in more casual office environments. In the fall, I think they can look especially smart under “textured” sport coats, such as ones made from tweed or flannel.

Stripes follow similar principles. A hairline stripe, which you can see above, is when the stripes are so close together than they resolve to a solid when viewed from a distance. As I write this, I’m wearing a light blue hairline stripe shirt with taupe tropical wool trousers and a patch pocketed navy sport coat. On some level, perhaps a light blue candy stripe or Bengal stripe would have been better, since I’m also wearing loafers. That way, the casualness of a bolder stripe would match the casualness of the shoes. Candy stripes are usually about 1/8” in width, whereas Bengals are a bit wider at 1/4”. Those along with dress stripes (also known as pencil stripes) are the three patterns I wear the most.

Of course, I still think you should have a strong foundation of solid blue shirts. Depending on your lifestyle, those will probably be the easiest to wear. However, I will say that I only own two solid blue poplin shirts, and don’t plan to get any more. I’ve found that lacking a pattern, solid blues tend to be more interesting in something that’s not a simple plain weave. End-on-end and chambray, for example, have a nice criss-crossing mix of blue and white threads, which give them a slightly more interesting look than a plain poplin, where no weave it detectable. Similarly, twills will have a subtle diagonal weave and oxfords will have a rougher basketweave. Like how bolder patterns should be considered less formal than subtle patterns, the rougher texture of an oxford should be considered less formal than an end-on-end, which in turn should considered less formal than a smooth poplin. However, since we live in a seemingly never-ending “casual Friday” these days in America, all these fabrics are more or less acceptable in most offices. Which means if given a choice, I favor slightly more textured cloths when wearing solids rather than smoother plain weaves. 

To learn more about shirt patterns, consult these posts by Alexander West and Alex Kabbaz.

(Masterful) Pattern Coordination

The latest episode of our second season, titled "Eccentric Style", comes at a good time for me. I’ve been wanting to talk about this fantastically good Styleforum thread on the subject of complex pattern coordination. Not that combining four or five patterns necessarily brands one an eccentric. Indeed, one of my personal style heroes, Luciano Barbera, often mixes numerous patterns without making it seem unusual at all. On the other hand, Tom Wolfe, who arguably has a bit of an eccentric style, is often seen carrying no more than one or two patterns at a time. 

Still, a high level of pattern mixing is more in the realm of eccentric style than not, and learning how to pull off complex combinations is worth discussion.

The rules are basic enough, and the principles for mixing many patterns stem from the ones we have for mixing just a couple. For example, two patterns of the same design (stripe on stripe, or checks on checks) can be combined if their scales are as different as possible. This avoids that terrible vibrating effect that can strain the eyes when too many patterns are present. So, a repp stripe tie with thick block stripes can be put on top of a Bengal striped shirt, or a puppytooth check tie can pair with a large windowpane suit.

Mixing two different patterns (stripes with checks) has the opposite rule. Rather than differ, the scales should be similar. This allows some contrast while still maintaining harmony. The only exception is particularly small-scale patterns, which can again distort the eye when two are placed too closely to each other.

From there we have the principles for mixing three or four patterns. Things should contrast, but also harmonize. If mixing three patterns where two are of the same design, vary the scale of two of the players – for example a hairline stripe shirt with a widely spaced chalk stripe suit. The third pattern can come in the form of a paisley or repp striped tie, so long the colors are complementary. For mixing three patterns of the same design, make all three vary in scale, perhaps letting them graduate from small to large as your ensembles moves outwards (shirt having the smallest scale; sport jacket medium; tie large). To get a fourth pattern, you can swap out the tie for a dissimilar design, and throw in a pocket square with a complementary pattern for final effect.

Of course, scale isn’t the only dimension to consider. There’s also texture, vibrancy, and color. A patterned woolen will look quite different from a patterned worsted, for example, and these things should be taken into consideration. But that entails a treatise that I’m not prepared to write, which is why your best bet is to follow the discussion here and observe the examples that some of the more astute StyleForum members have posted.  

Conservatively Patterned Socks

There’s an old piece of wisdom that says men should match their socks to their trousers. Doing so elongates the leg line, which in turn supposedly makes the man look taller. I’ve never been quite sure of this rule (or the logic). It works fine for navy or charcoal trousers, but matching brown socks to similarly colored pants and shoes seems off to me. I also don’t care for light colored socks, so wheat and mid-grey trousers need a different colored hose. 

In the end, I’ve found that navy socks go with everything. It’s richer than black and complements any color next to it. Thus, most of my socks are a solid navy, with charcoal a close second. I also have a few pairs in odd colors such as dark bottle green and aubergine, which I wear whenever I want a bit of irreverence. Those are never worn to match trousers, of course, though sometimes they complement a secondary color in my tie. 

It can be a bit boring to only have solid colored socks, however, so you can mix in some conservative patterns. This takes a bit more focus in the morning, but can add real character to your ensemble. Time-honored combinations include a two-toned houndstooth with glen plaid flannels, fine herringbone with a chalk striped suiting, or well spaced pin-dot hose with windowpaned wools. The key here is to find a pattern that both complements and contrasts your trousers. If you stick to neutral colors and conservative, traditional patterns, this should be easy. 

Marcoliani and Bresciani makes some of the best patterned socks out there. Marcoliani can be found through Kabbaz & Kelly, Howard Yount, and O’Connell’s. If you’re in the Bay Area, you can also find them at The Hound Clothiers. Bresciani can be bought through A Suitable WardrobeBerg & Berg, and Mr. Porter. Both of these brands are expensive, but the construction is top-notch and the patterns are tasteful.

For more affordable options, keep an eye out for Pantherella socks on Sierra Trading Post. They have more synthetic fibers in their composition, which means they’re a bit less breathable and durable, but their patterns are equally tasteful and they can be had for as little as $5 a pair (just wait for the heavy markdowns). Uniqlo also has these dotted socks which you can buy through Suddenlee, but they’re cotton and not over-the-calf. I recommend waiting for the Pantherella sales instead, if you can wait. 

Photo credits: MostExerent, SpooPoker, and Pocket Square Guy.

The late Duke of Windsor relaxing with a cigarette, his dog, and the knowledge that he is engaging in perhaps the most audacious exercise in pattern-matching ever undertaken.
(via Leisure Class)

The late Duke of Windsor relaxing with a cigarette, his dog, and the knowledge that he is engaging in perhaps the most audacious exercise in pattern-matching ever undertaken.

(via Leisure Class)

This outrageous combination is pretty much textbook pattern mixing.  Notice that in the three elements of this outfit (suit, shirt, tie) each part varies - the type (plaid, stripe, graphic), color (tan, blue, red) and scale (small, medium, large).  The essential rule of pattern mixing is not to put like with like, but rather to mix unlike but complementary elements.  The only close call here is the vertical stripes and the vertical element of the plaid, but color makes up for that.
Would I wear this combo?  Probably not.  I’d have grabbed a solid shirt.  But is this reasonably successful?  Yes.
(photo via)

This outrageous combination is pretty much textbook pattern mixing.  Notice that in the three elements of this outfit (suit, shirt, tie) each part varies - the type (plaid, stripe, graphic), color (tan, blue, red) and scale (small, medium, large).  The essential rule of pattern mixing is not to put like with like, but rather to mix unlike but complementary elements.  The only close call here is the vertical stripes and the vertical element of the plaid, but color makes up for that.

Would I wear this combo?  Probably not.  I’d have grabbed a solid shirt.  But is this reasonably successful?  Yes.

(photo via)

Some things to note about a lovely outfit from Andrew in Atlanta:
The weight of the trousers (and their sizable cuffs) is consonant with the blanket-weight coat and its large, bold pattern. 
Similarly, heavy wingtips stand up to the weight of the pants and their cuffs.
The tie pattern is different enough from the coat pattern (and simple enough) that they do not compete for attention.
The square adds a bit more color without being demanding (or matching the tie).
The coat, despite its weight, has a lovely shape without being tight.  Note the graceful waist suppression.
This is what fall should look like.

Some things to note about a lovely outfit from Andrew in Atlanta:

  • The weight of the trousers (and their sizable cuffs) is consonant with the blanket-weight coat and its large, bold pattern.
  • Similarly, heavy wingtips stand up to the weight of the pants and their cuffs.
  • The tie pattern is different enough from the coat pattern (and simple enough) that they do not compete for attention.
  • The square adds a bit more color without being demanding (or matching the tie).
  • The coat, despite its weight, has a lovely shape without being tight.  Note the graceful waist suppression.

This is what fall should look like.