Classic clothes are the backbone of your wardrobe – here’s what to look for in patterns.
The majority of clothing is made in plain colours, but a proportion of patterned clothing is very useful in any wardrobe. It rings the changes, shows you’re up to date, ties together two disparately-coloured parts of an outfit and is a great way to introduce a bright colour that you may not want to wear in a large, unpatterned block.
How to wear patterns
The patterned clothes you buy should go with at least two other items in your wardrobe, so that you can create an outfit with them. If you’re busty, keep patterns to your bottom half to draw attention away from your breasts and never wear patterned tops coupled with plain bottoms. If you’re hippy, or petite, keep your patterns on your top half to draw the eye upwards.
Generally speaking, it’s best to only wear one patterned garment at a time, and to combine it with other garments that are plain-coloured. Combining different patterns, especially traditional and modern patterns, or – for instance – checks with florals, takes real skill and can look terrible if you don’t quite pull it off.
Colour and tone
When it comes to colours, tonal combinations have more mileage than bright or clashing combinations (we’ll leave aside monochrome combinations, as these nearly always work). With tonal combinations, you can afford to make the pattern itself much bolder. Conversely, mingle two or more bright colours in a print and you’re creating a very vibrant mix. If you like bright colours in prints, such as red and pink, keep the scale of the pattern small and look for prints that also contain a mid-toned neutral such as grey or beige. If about a third of the patterned area is in a mid-toned neutral, you can combine virtually any colours in the other two thirds.
The scale of patterns is also important – large patterns that you can discern from a distance can be useful to draw attention (and therefore draw focus away from other areas you’re not happy with), but small patterns that are only discernable close-up are more dateless and have more mileage in your wardrobe. Save large patterns for disposable items such as summer dresses, tops and nightwear rather than for more expensive tailored items. Also check carefully the position of designs in a large pattern – an unbelievable amount of women still buy tops with a giant flower positioned directly over each nipple.
Is that a nightie or a dress?
All traditional patterns lend themselves readily to nightwear such as nighties and pyjamas, and because of this association, take care if you wear one of these patterns in an all-over garment. As a rule, the larger the pattern and the bolder the colour, the more it looks like nightwear.
Fashions in pattern change constantly, as do the combinations of colour used, but certain themes occur again and again. Here are the basics:
Stripes. Stripes are a constant in fashion and can be used to convey different messages, according to their colour, width and regularity. They lend instant formality to an outfit provided they’re in subdued colours, of equal width and narrow – say, up to a quarter of an inch. Above that, they lend a casual air because we are accustomed to seeing wider stripes on holiday clothing and items such as deckchairs – in this case, the stripes often come in bright colours.
Narrow, equal-weight or graduated stripes in classic combinations of blue and white, black and white and grey and white are very useful in shirts or blouses to add crispness to jeans or a casual shirt, while in all-over in a dress, they turn a casual cut into something formal. Widen the stripe, however, and you enter the territory of holidaywear, as seen in the classic ‘matelot’ style t-shirt – at its best in cream or white with navy. This is a look to avoid if you carry weight on your top half – it only works on the very thin.
Stripes that are not of equal weight (ie: graduated) come and go in fashion. Currently they’re in fashion, and are a good way to introduce subtle colour variations into an outfit. A stripe of this kind that includes black can look very snazzy – my personal favourite at present is a cotton satin shirt from Next in graduated stripes of black, blue, white, purple and pink.
For a very casual look, stripes that twist or whirl can add welcome movement and colour to an outfit without creating either horizontality or verticality. At the moment, retro-look stripes in 1970s colours are very ‘in’ and look great in tops or wrap dresses. Most of them are in viscose jersey with lots of stretch, so it’s best to go up a size (or even two) to obtain a good fit.
Vertical stripes enhance verticality only until they reach a certain width, at which point the eye reads them across instead of down, and they make you look wider. The cut-off point is about half an inch. Generally speaking, you should avoid horizontal stripes on any area where you carry weight, but they can usefully add width if, for instance, you have a small bust.
Dots. Polka dots of equal sizes are a classic pattern in fashion – a quick search on Ebay.com found over 2300 polka dot items in women’s clothing. In dots of up to a quarter inch, in black on white or white on black, they’re hardly ever out of place. Increase the size to half an inch or above, mingle dots of different sizes or make those polkas bright colours and you’re into the realms of either very casual clothing or partywear – especially girly evening frocks.
Be careful about very large dots, as they can make you look like Coco the Clown on his day off. The larger the dots are, the subtler the colours need to be. In particular, watch out for large polkas in bright colours on black (or the reverse colourway) – these are a very current look, especially from Banana Republic, but we also saw it back in the 1980s – don’t wear it a second time if you wore it the first time.
Paisley. Paisley is based on a Persian pattern called the ‘boteh’ and is named for the town of Paisley, which imported Indian shawls with this pattern in the 18th century. Paisley can come in small, regular prints or huge, oversize, almost abstract designs but usually incorporates several colours, with the boteh motif being made up of multiple small dots. It’s most often seen in shawls and scarves, blouses and jacket linings, but occasionally makes an outing as a blouse or dress. If you need an item to lock together multiple colours in an outfit, a paisley blouse or wrap is a good way to go about it – combinations can be either subtle or startling.
Checks. Checked fabrics also have a long history in fashion. By virtue of how they’re produced, they’re usually woven fabrics, though printed stretch fabrics may occasionally have check patterns. Equal-weight checks on white are known as gingham and are a classic pattern for little girls dresses, household linens and summer dresses. Because of these associations, gingham is an inherently casual fabric. Make the check more complicated, however, and you’re into the realms of traditional patterns such as Argyle (diamond-patterned, often seen on socks, but here seen in a shirtdress from yesstylecom) and Tattershall, used mainly on men’s country shirts.
Plaids and tartans. A check becomes a plaid when it is no longer simple, though the terminology here is somewhat flexible. ‘Tartan’ used to mean simply the checked pattern, while a ‘plaid’ was a large, blanket-like garment with a tartan pattern, but now ‘plaid’ has come to mean the pattern as well as the garment, and ‘tartan’ more often refers to a registered clan pattern such as McDonald, or a regimental tartan such as Black Watch.
Leaving aside the complicated history of tartan, what is certain is that plaids and tartans are inextricably linked with Scotland and will inevitably lend a Scottish flavour to your outfit. This is considered desirable virtually everywhere in the world except, it would seem, the UK. This is a shame, as many of the older patterns, in particular, are based on natural dyes and are very subtle, as are some of the ‘hunting’ tartans. On the average wearer today, tartans are most often seen in linings, accessories and wraps, but if you do wear them as garments, whatever you do, only wear ONE tartan item at once.
Tweed. Tweed is actually a kind of cloth, usually handwoven in Scotland or Ireland, which is produced in several classic patterns, including plaids such as Prince of Wales check. Plain tweeds contain multiple flecks of soft, mingling colours, which may be small, as in Harris tweed, or larger, as in Donegal tweed where the slubs can be seen at quite a distance. More definite patterns associated with tweed include herringbone, and dog’s or hound’s tooth, which is an offset check in white plus one other colour, turned on its side.
The subtle, broken colours of tweeds are useful in a wardrobe because they’re almost dirt-proof, but they usually appear only in woven wools and tailored garments such as coats, suits and winter skirts. Occasionally they make the leap into mainstream fashion in the form of prints, in which case they’re often bold and brightly coloured. The larger the pattern in a tweed – especially hound’s tooth and herringbone – and the brighter the colour, the quicker it will date, but a classic plain, hound’s tooth or herringbone tweed will last pretty much forever.
Animal prints. Animal prints are always in fashion in one form or another, the most common being leopard and zebra, followed by cow print and ponyskin. Leopard and ocelot-type patterns have high-end associations, but less so the utility pelts that come from herd animals. Once you’re over 40, I’d confine these patterns to accessories only, such as scarves, bags, shoes and belts, and only wear one at a time (in particular, don’t mix species!). The exception I’d make to the rule would be a high-end coat in a realistic-looking leopard print – but don’t choose a cheap fake fur or you’ll look like a King’s Cross hooker. A fun pair of zebra-pattern wellies or a cow-print bag can add some humour to an outfit.
Florals. Floral patterns are ubiquitous in fashion, but the style constantly changes. In fact, almost no pattern dates quicker than a floral, with abstract treatments replacing naturalistic and vice versa, in rapid succession. You can virtually date an era by the style of its florals. In the 1930s, scattered sprigs of red and yellow on black were common, while in the 1950s, florals were splashy and large, in shades of pink, yellow and grey on white. In the 1960s, psychedelic florals in brown, orange and purple held sway, while the 1970s saw the introduction of tiny florals in cream on soft grounds, produced by Laura Ashley and inspired by the patterns of the 1830s. In the 1980s, florals were bold, big and in bright primary colours, then turned greenery-yallery with the advent of grunge. Currently they’re quite psychedelic and retro once again.
When it comes to florals, I’d advise simply accepting that floral-patterned garments will date quickly and using them as a splash of welcome colour and pattern in whatever style is of the moment.