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Styling a patterned shirt – Where do you start?

Patterns can be a little confusing when you’re building an outfit. By their very definition, they contain more than one colour, and it’s often the case that there’s a host of colours and shapes in the mix. But that’s precisely where the confusion can stem from. Pairing a patterned shirt or blouse with trousers or a skirt can be particularly hard. How do you know what will work alongside you when you've so much going on? Read on – we’ve got some guidelines from our styling experts.

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Find the dominant colour.

Patterns don’t emerge accidentally on the fabric or the tailor’s table. They result from years of practice, a keen eye and a flair for the imaginative. In other words, if a store is stocking a particularly patterned shirt, and you’ve loved it enough to buy it, the fabric and garment designers have done a sterling job of making something beautiful. They have also made finding suitable pairings a whole lot easier.

First, hold the shirt at arm’s length, or even better, hang it across the room and look at it from a distance. What is the dominant colour? Imagine you’re so far away that you can’t even make out the pattern. What colour would the shirt be, then? This is your first clue to finding pairs. 

If your shirt is blue-dominant, you can wear white or black trousers or a skirt, and you’ll be good to go. A dark blue will also go with a range of browns, from fawn to an oaky leather look. For a red shirt, black will still work on the legs, but you can also pair it with your favourite blue jeans, and there’s a lot of wiggle room for the darks and lights of both garments. Any combination will work. For greens, you’ve got even more options, as it will look superb with black, white, blue or brown pants, and a different shade of green can look striking too.

For black and white patterns, your overarching hue will be a shade of grey, from charcoal to a light fog, depending on the density of the dyes. A black skirt or trousers will probably go best here, but your trusty jeans will also work a treat, and again, it won’t matter if they're the darkest indigo or a lighter faded colour. It’s going to fit perfectly.

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Zoom in and take note.

We mentioned above that much learning goes into clothing design, so we’re bowing to that expertise for this next pairing tip. While there’s usually a single dominant colour in any patterned shirt, you’ll also find one or more complementary colours. It can be a single colour, as would be the case with pinstripes or some Tattersall check design. Or it can comprise a rainbow of other colours, as you’d find in a paisley design, a floral shirt or a tartan.

Those second, third and fourth colours open the door to an effortless way to choose a colour for trousers or skirts. All you have to do is copy it! The design has worked hard, so you must pick a colour and run with it. Consider a classic green, blue and white tartan, for example. The most prominent colour will be green, and the secondary and tertiary shades will be blues and whites. Therefore, you can look out for green or white trousers, and you can be guaranteed to look great, provided the shade of green is relatively close to the tartan.

If you look closely, there might be a fourth colour, a single thread every forty rows. And believe it or not, that too can form the basis of a whole block of colour for your bottom half. It can even be a pretty bold colour, for example, a yellow or a mustard shade – as long as it makes an appearance in the pattern, you’re almost sure the legwork will have been done by the designer when it comes to making sure it’s complementary.

What if your shirt is a two-colour pattern with no particularly dominant shade? Examples would be a simple check, gingham, houndstooth or glen check. Here, it’s best to pick one of the colours and let that be the one you’re looking for in your trousers. You’ll have a balanced appearance from a distance, and up close, you’ll be sure to have complementary top and bottom halves. Don’t be tempted to average the shades and match that resulting colour. It might work when you’re close to the viewer, but from afar, it’ll look like you’re wearing overalls or a jumpsuit, which might not be the look you’re going for.


Stick to single-coloured trousers and jackets

There’s a final guideline to note when matching your patterned shirt with trousers or a skirt. That is that you should avoid having patterns in that part as well. Even so much as a single pin stripe can detract from the overall sense of balance, try to follow the rules above without thinking that a patterned shirt calls for a patterned bottom half.

The reason for this rule is pretty straightforward. The shirt carries off the look, while the trousers or jacket are just there to provide a supporting role. Think of them as the frame of a picture or the pole of a flag – they’re essential to providing structure and finish, but they should not draw the attention of the leading performer. A bright, beautifully patterned blouse peeking out under a smart, dark blazer can look tasteful and stylish.

Sticking to the colour guides above will stand you in good stead, so either goes for the complementary colour of the dominant shade or pick out a strand or a motif that has been through the design process and copy that. You might feel a little self-conscious if your calculations bring you to a bolder colour that you might not be used to, but trust us on this one; it’s going to look great. If in doubt, you’ll rarely go wrong with black, and blue jeans will go with almost any patterned shirt, provided it doesn’t match the colour of the jeans too closely.

Accessories: bold or not at all

Your final decision when matching up your patterned shirt will come down to accessories – or lack thereof. Not all patterns are the same, of course. There are bold, stand-out designs and those subtle patterns that nobody would notice unless they’re standing next to you. 

Generally speaking, however, if your pattern is made up of significant components, be it floral displays, some bold, repeated motif or even grand geometric forms, you will probably not need much in the way of accessories, at least on the shirt itself. It might be an excellent idea to have some brooch on the lapel of your blazer, though. Make sure its dominant colour picks out one of the colours from the shirt for maximum impact. If you’re going for a hat, dark and subdued will usually work best against a colourful pattern on the shirt. And your bag will probably also look best if it’s a single colour, and again, a dark colour will set itself off best against the busy goings-on with your top.

Overall, you need far less in the way of accessories when you are wearing a patterned blouse. The form of the garment and the mix of colours will all be interesting enough without the need to enhance it. In fact, accessories can add a sense of confusion, like having two singers sing different tunes simultaneously. Sure, suppose you’ve got your favourite earrings and a lovely bracelet and are determined to wear them. In that case, you’ll be bringing personality without overbearing the messaging from the patterns, but in most cases, it’s best to keep it light and minimal and let the shirt carry the look.

Master your patterns

With these guidelines, you should be good to pick out any trousers, jeans, skirts, jackets and blazers to wear with your patterned shirt. It can work the other way, too – you can choose your patterned shirt based on the types of jackets and bottoms you like to wear, but the same rules apply – look for dominant colours, identify secondary shades and put your trust in the designers. That way, whatever shirt you choose will look great on any occasion.