The combination of suit, shirt and tie that a man selects in the morning is certainly not the most important thing about what he wears. That would be the quality and fit of the articles themselves. But picking good combinations remains the thing men find it hardest to master – probably because they have such little experience of aesthetic creativity elsewhere.
Stick to two patterns across your suit, shirt and tie. A pinstripe suit and a polka-dot tie need a plain shirt as background. A striped shirt needs a plain tie or one with a much bigger, bolder pattern. When two patterns sit next to each other, they should differ in size and preferably style: small stripes, big spots; big check, muted paisley.
Using this rule on scale, or density of pattern can enable you to combine three or even four patterns (with the addition of a pocket handkerchief). But stick with two to start with, even one.
Or even none. Again, perhaps not to start with. But the more you play with patterns, the more you will realise texture is just as important. A tie can be satin, printed, woven or knitted silk – that’s a lot of variation in texture, without even going into other materials. By varying your tie and your suit (worsted, flannel, tweed, linen) you can create a lot of interest and variety.
Try restraining yourself to one pattern, and experimenting with texture elsewhere. Then try with none and see how many combinations you can create.
Here start with the simple, classic combination of navy and grey. It may seem boring but it’s worth starting from the ground up, relearning the things you think you know.
Classic clothes of all sorts are dominated by navy and grey for a reason – they look smart, they look sophisticated and they suit you. Navy suit, grey tie; grey suit, navy tie; you can come up with the pattern and texture variations yourself. Then throw in dark red, dark green and dark purple. Keep it dark, keep it classic, but learn which shades of green bring out the best of grey flannel, and how deep purple has to be to sit well with true navy.
Only then move onto the more countrified colours: burnt orange, browns and bright primaries. They need a lot more support in the rest of the outfit, and sophistication to be used well.
Harmony means that nothing stands out. This does not mean that the clothes have to be dull. Far from it. It just lowers the level of contrast. You can have a royal blue suit, green patterned tie and orange thing going on with the pocket square, but as long as they are all as wild as each other, harmony is achievable. In the more sober business world, it means not just wearing a bright, ‘fun’ tie. If you want colour and pattern, fine, but let it creep into your suit or pocket square, rather than just your tie.
5. Copy others
I remember Patrick Grant at Norton & Sons used to do this obsessively when he first took over the business. Running a Savile Row tailor for the first time, not sure of your own taste but confronted with that of others every day – it’s no wonder he took notes. Suit, shirt, tie, hankie, socks, shoes, everything. He started classic and then learnt from others. Now he’s in the best dressed lists.
The same applies with your colleagues and others you see walking down the street. Just make sure you note the whole outfit, rather than one thing. I have a beautiful lime-green Hermès tie that I was inspired to buy when I saw a gentleman wearing something similar. But it needs a plain blue shirt, dark suit and a touch of harmonious colour elsewhere to work well.
It is fun, picking out combinations.
(Pictured top: A Norton & Sons ensemble featuring a rather sophisticated run of similar textures, with one pop of silk and pattern.)