Combining Colors and Patterns

Fool-Proof Coordination

professional dress men combining colors patternsAmong the most common clothing questions men ask themselves and/or their partners is: Does this tie go with this suit? Or, Is this shirt good with this suit? The tasteful coordination of jacket, shirt, and tie not only makes you look your best, but it also shows your sense of creativity and organization. People assume that you will bring those same qualities to your job.

The formula for excellent clothing coordination is to coordinate the fabric, pattern, color, and formal level of the items in your outfit.

Comparable Fabrics

The texture and the finish of the fabrics should be similar, which makes the outfit balanced with the same level of formality. For example, a worsted wool suit with a broadcloth shirt and fine silk tie; all of these pieces have a smooth texture, giving the outfit a formal look. On the other hand, a glen plaid tweed sport coat, an oxford shirt, and a knit wool tie all have more texture, giving the outfit a casual look. Shiny fabrics are more formal, and matte-finish fabrics are more casual.

Combining Colors

Your shirt should be lighter than your suit for a more formal look. Dress shirts are usually in light to medium colors, ranging from white to light gray to pastels and deep gray or French blue; these create contrast when mixed with dark suits. Example: A blue-gray suit with a French blue shirt or a navy suit with a light-gray shirt. A shirt darker than the jacket is appropriate for a more casual look and for sport coats. Example: A deep-blue shirt with a camel jacket.

Your tie should be darker than your shirt and/or lighter than your suit. Lack of contrast can result in a dull monochromatic look. The tie should stand out from the shirt background as a focal point.

Your tie eco/blends with the color of the suit, the color of the shirt, or both. When we say eco/blend, it does not mean repeat exactly the same shade, but the same color family. Example: Pair a teal-and-rust patterned suit with a light-gray shirt and a teal, gray, and yellow foulard tie. The shade of gray in the suit, shirt, and tie would be different, but the gray color is what ties the three items together.

Men's clothing expert Ken Karpinski has detailed the four steps to combine colors: Identify, isolate, amplify, and coordinate. The steps, in more detail, are as follows:

  • Identify: Look carefully at your suit and find the colors in the fabric; you will be surprised at how many colors are woven in, especially if you are looking at a patterned suit. You will find accent stripes, color nubs, and slubs. For example, consider a subtle glen plaid gray suit; let's say the overall look of the suit is gray but up close we find it has very fine lines in teal, burgundy, and blue.

  • Isolate: Decide which color you want to pull out. As an example, we will isolate burgundy.

  • Amplify: Once you have determined the color, you need to find more of it, and the easiest place to do this is with your tie. Don't try to match the colors perfectly; again, think in terms of color family. Navy, light blue, and bright royal blue are from the blue family. Burgundy, pink, and red are from the red family. Teal, green, and aqua are from the green family.

  • Coordinate: Now we will take the suit and tie and see how they look together. You may have several candidates picked out, so look for the one that you like the best. As an example, let�s select a tie with a deep-red background with medallions that have blue-green, blue, and off-white in the design. Now let�s look at three shirts in white, light blue, and pink. When looking at the different alternatives, the white shirt looks good if you need a more formal look. For a regular workday, the light blue looks the best.

So, the final outfit looks like this: a gray subtle plaid suit with touches of burgundy, teal, and blue; a light-blue shirt; and a medallion tie in deep red with a blue-green, blue, and off-white design. Notice that the burgundy and the deep red are not the same shade, but they are in the same red color family.

Combining Patterns

  • professional men combining patternsCombine two solids and one pattern. Example: A solid navy suit, white or light blue shirt, and striped or foulard tie.

  • Combine two patterns and one solid. Example: A striped navy suit, solid blue or white shirt, and foulard tie. Using a white shirt makes this combination dressier and fool-proof.

  • The lighter the shirt and tie and the darker the suit, the more formal the look. For example, a dark charcoal-gray suit, white shirt, and light grenadine silver tie is formal.

  • As you darken the shirt and lighten the color of the tie, the outfit becomes more casual. For example, take a gray-patterned suit and pair it with a gray shirt and medium violet with white and yellow foulard tie. The colored shirt makes the outfit more casual. If you want to raise the formal level of the outfit, change the shirt to a lighter color such as icy gray or white. If you want the outfit to look even more formal, you could change to a deep purple tie.

  • Combining Three Patterns. Mixing three patterns shows flair and requires skill. Here's how to correctly combine three patterns: The three patterns need to blend. One color must be repeated in all three patterns; it can be a different tone, but it must be from the same color family. Mixing two stripes makes it easier; select them in a different width, such as a subtle tweed suit, narrow-striped shirt, and bold striped tie. Combine small patterns with bold patterns, such as a herringbone suit, striped shirt, and large medallion tie.

From Formal to Casual

The following guidelines will help you select the jacket, shirt and tie within the same formal level. You should always remember: 

  • Keep formal with formal

  • Combine formal with less formal

  • Combine less formal with casual

  • Do not combine formal with casual!

  • Do not wear a double-breasted suit with a button-down shirt!

Suits-Sport Coats


  • solid dark color

  • pinstripe

  • shiny fabric

  • double-breasted

  • black suit--evening only

Less Formal:

  • herringbone
  • glen plaid
  • subtle pattern
  • windowpane
  • fine tweed
  • silk blends
  • hounds tooth


  • tweed
  • bold plaid
  • linen-silk blends



  • Sea Island/Egyptian cotton
  • tone-on-tone
  • broadcloth
  • solid white
  • contrasting white collar
  • spread collar
  • standard collar
  • solid icy colors--almost white
  • stripes on white background
  • pinstripe

Less Formal

  • stripes on a color background
  • pinpoint
  • end-on-end
  • button-down broadcloth
  • solid medium colors


  • solid dark colors
  • checks
  • tattersall
  • graph check
  • plaids



  • solid silk
  • woven silk
  • pin dots
  • micro patterns
  • shiny fabrics
  • white dots on dark background

Less Formal

  • foulard
  • stripes
  • repp stripe
  • paisley
  • medallion
  • abstracts
  • geometric
  • abstract


  • club
  • knit
  • wool
  • plaid

Earning Respect

By following these simple steps and rules, you can gain a competitive edge in your particular industry. Potential and current clients will notice your personal style, creativity, and attention to professional standards. Clearly, the right impression can do wonders.


Return to Professional Dress


Copyright ©