What’ll It Be Sir, Patterned Or Plain?

One of my elderly relatives gave me some excellent advice in relation to ties; “The misconception” he said “is that ties need only complement the shirt, not the suit.” He advocated that shirt, tie and suit needed to be considered alongside each other to achieve the most satisfactory results. “A suit” he continued “is not an overcoat – it’s not just something you throw on to keep warm.” Flow and harmony is paramount when looking at the torso of a suited gentleman; this triangle of supporting elements must be carefully constructed – a brilliant shirt and tie combination will be undetectable if the suit clashes.

One of the most important things I have learned is that complete plainness, however consistent, is dull; no wonder that modern politicians rarely stray from the plain white shirt, the plain unpatterned suit and the plain satin-silk tie. This combination lacks any kind of character and renders them bland enough to appeal to a vast cross-section; a French collared blue striped shirt with a foulard or Club stripe tie would be far better companions for a suit lacking any ornament. Plain suits yearn to be played with.

A loudly checked suit benefits from the calm of a plain poplin shirt but plainness can be limited to that; the tie could be a foulard, Club stripe or even checked. It is possible to avoid plainness entirely, depending on the style of the checked suit – a checked or striped shirt can add to an attractive ‘riot’, as long as they are subtle and do not attempt to compete with each other.  A striped suit, pin or chalk, need not avoid a patterned shirt; stripes with stripes is a dashing combination and a club striped tie in sober colouring looks in perfect harmony with a striped suit.

Patterned shirts with French collars are a perfect foil for strongly patterned suits as they add a cool splash of white twixt the patterns and, lest we forget, the tie should offer some sobriety – a plain woven or subtle foulard would be an ideal choice, particularly if a pocket square offers a subtle pattern of its own. The key thing is not to hide good shirt and tie choices beneath an insignificant choice of suit; as stated, plain loves to be played with, and patterns get along together very well provided there is a sobering chaperone accessory that supervises the ‘noise.’

Plain, plain and plain is not ugly, but it is not particularly attractive; rather like the new glass block buildings that pop up over London, there is a coolness but no intrigue. A ‘triple plain’ is what I call the ‘Lego suit’; inoffensive but lacking. A little pattern goes a long way. A lot of pattern could lead you astray, but if managed properly, could create not an ensemble of three incoherent parts but a harmonious and characterful whole.


  1. Mike said:

    Winston, good article. There are two reasons most politicians dress safe, in my opinion:(1) because they are mere copycats of other politicians and don’t know any better; or (2) to appease the people who may possible vote for them. Only a selected group of people enjoy clothes and dress well, and most politicians are not one of them. Even to those who “get” fashion, the so-called “modesty” in dress is far more important than looking swell. Take, for example, Vladimir Putin who regularly wears Attolini suits. His clothes are always subdued without any loud designs: he mostly wears plain blue or black suit, white shirt, and a red or a purple tie. It is understandable, however, since most people won’t vote for someone who they may perceive as “flamboyant” or too “wealthy.” Just my 2c.

    April 25, 2010
  2. Paul Hardy said:

    I think party image consultants and spin doctors also do a lot to squeeze all individuality out of politicians’ attire. It’s no coincidence they nearly all wear three plains to suit the demands of television.
    Away from politics, I think George Alagiyaah always blends patterns rather well. As a newsreader his job is to dress unobtrusively, but he always has one or more patterns in his ensemble (sometimes three). He achieves the trick of being discrete at first glance, but interesting on prolonged examination.
    Any other examples?

    April 27, 2010
  3. Mike said:

    Fareed Zakaria

    April 27, 2010
  4. Paul said:

    Mike — yes, I’d go along with that nomination. Not known to me before, but you’re right.

    April 27, 2010
  5. Patrick said:

    Man these guys’ “style” must be really discrete, because I can’t find any photos online of either George Alagiah or Fareed Zakaria in which they’re not just wearing pretty much the same boring uniform of not-particulary-great-fitting dark suit, white or pale blue shirt, and tie.

    If you see any photos that demonstrate their particular sense of style, please post the link.

    April 28, 2010
  6. Paul said:

    Patrick – two things I would say;

    1/ the fact that these two aren’t obvious style demons is perhaps a testament to the low ebb of dressing by men in the public eye. What we see here is The Wasteland or Waiting for Godot lived out, where we delight in mere scraps of sartorial effort which wouldn’t have warranted a mention in a previous era

    2/ the issue wasn’t a great sense of style per se but a modicum of pattern being incorporated into their dress. My comments about George are based more on seeing him host the six o’clock news over several years, and this perhaps isn’t reflected by the limited range of still photos available online. Oddly I DID find some interesting pics of Fareed after Mike’s recommendation, but I can’t track them down now.

    May 5, 2010

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