Be Bold, But Softly

My stepfather’s wardrobe, mainly assembled in the 1980s, was typical for a businessman of his era, filled with mini herringbone, baby houndstooth, faint pinstripes, and muted glen plaids, all rendered in clear-finished worsted. In the immediately post-Herb Tarlek era, subtlety was a byword for taste -- a vaguely Reaganite reaction against the seizure-inducing liberties of pattern taken by 1970s permanent press. Suits like my stepfather’s were the bland, joyless, semi-solid uniforms (often framing the brittle rictus of a “fun” necktie) that augured the end of the tailored era, and to this day they fill the mournful racks of thrift stores and various other men’s warehouses nationwide.  

Patterns so shrunken or diminished that they’re virtually invisible across a table simply aren’t worth having. They don’t communicate tasteful refinement so much as timid repression, wanly worn for fear of being either too boring or too brazen, conveying neither the elemental confidence of solids nor the playfulness of bolder patterns. They are, in short, everything that most people have in mind of when they think of tailored clothing: zzzzz.   

Setting aside the more esoteric Scottish tartans, the classic menswear canon acknowledges only a handful of distinct patterns for cloth: stripes, houndstooth, herringbone, windowpane, shepherd/district/gun check, Glen and Russell plaids. (Nailhead, birdseye, barleycorn, and a few other patterns are generally so fine as to appear solid at all but the most intimate ranges, and are thus more usefully regarded as weaves rather than patterns.) If this is a somewhat arbitrary collection, it is based on centuries-old weaving techniques and technology, and sanctified by tradition (or perhaps more to the point, sanctified by most men’s traditional aversion to novelty). For the most part, these patterns all have a geometric simplicity that lends itself to combination without clashing (in interesting contrast to womenswear’s virtually limitless design palette and stubborn aversion to pattern mixing). There’s really no rocket science to this. The principle variable is simply scale: patterns can peaceable coexist when their relative size and density differ.

As previously noted, the most common and least interesting combination is a tiny pattern against a merely small one. Americans have generally been willing to be a bit bolder with their neckties, and city boys in London tend to let their shirts do the talking, but dressers with moxy know that pattern’s most exciting canvas is cloth. A patterned tie or shirt gives a flash of visual interest, but a patterned suit or jacket envelops one in it, and the larger field encourages one to go big. When unapologetically visible, stripes flatter figures, textural patterns like houndstooth and herringbone soften formality, and any sort of box check accentuates the movement of curvaceous tailoring.

Personally, I don’t buy the received wisdom that shorter men should avoid patterns; one need look no further than the Duke of Windsor himself to see that a confident dresser can wear what he likes, whatever his stature. There real pitfalls of pattern are less often noted. One must be careful, for example, not to mix patterns of differing formality; urban stripes and rustic plaids are never happily paired, whatever their relative scales. A somewhat related corollary is to mind the relative hardness of any given pattern. Traditional weavers understand that the most beautiful patterns should generally be somewhat softened, playing to the woolen texture of the country cloths that tend to carry them -- not necessarily muted, but fuzzed around the edges, like the imperfect edges of ribbon type on good paper when you really zoom in. Pinstripes and laser-like windowpanes on worsted city suits may convey a certain professional precision, but I’ll take my lines chalked on flannel every time.

Be bold, but softly.

[Originally published in A Suitable Wardrobe.]