Mastering Complex Patterns

“Creativity is more than just being different. Anybody can play weird– that’s easy. What’s hard is to be as simple as Bach. Making the simple complicated is commonplace–making the complicated simple, awesomely simple–that’s creativity.”  – Charles Mingus

In today’s post-slacker world, just wearing coat and tie is enough to turn heads in many environments.  Sadly, in response to the incessant thundering appeal to “stand out,” men are blindly throwing together so many unrelated #menswear trends and patterns under the misguided siren call to “be original” that the resulting stew of glen plaids, gingham checks, candy stripes, and polka dots would make even Andrea Bocelli vomit. 

If that’s what you’re shooting for, more power to you; but do not delude yourself into thinking a random salmagundi of patterns is an expression of your creativity.   Many confuse “individuality” with “creativity”, but there is a difference: the aim of individuality is to be “different” by bucking convention.  The genius of creativity is taking something complex and making it appear simple. 

Charles Mingus released one of his best-known albums, Ah Um, the same year that Miles Davis released Kind of Blue.  Both, now over 50 years old, are premier examples of how complexity can be done well.  Indeed, despite the fact that up to six instruments played a part in each song, note the recurring concept that keeps appearing in critics’ reviews:

“Simplicity – the reason Kind of Blue has remained so successful for so long.”

“…one of the many amazing things about Mingus Ah Um is that he took this incredibly challenging jazz, in perhaps its creative heyday, and made it as easy as pop music.” – Bob Lange

“All of the contributions…only served to illuminate Miles’ zen-like approach on this record that relied on simplicity.” –

This concept was by no means new.  Over 100 years earlier, none other than Chopin himself opined: “Simplicity is the final achievement. After one has played a vast quantity of notes and more notes, it is simplicity that emerges as the crowning reward of art.”

Can this concept be applied to #menswear?  Yes, it can, in two ways:  One instrument at a time; or if many, they must harmonize.

One pattern

One pattern is easy – choose one and keep the rest solid. Non si può sbagliare. 

If more than one pattern, the scale of each must harmonize via contrast.  Think of it this way:  The items that are closest to each other should be dissimilar in scale; your ensemble should not look too busy.  If your jacket has a large pattern, the shirt’s pattern should be smaller.  If the shirt’s pattern is small, the tie’s pattern should be large.  If you decide to wear a pocket square, its scale should differ from the jacket.

Two patterns

In the first example, Mark Cho wears a suit with a large pattern, while his tie has a small pattern. Same with the second picture – large windowpane suit, small scale “neat” tie. The third example showcases the reverse: small scale gunclub jacket paired with a tie that has stripes spaced far apart. 

Three Patterns

Three patterns can be done relatively easily: anchor your ensemble with a solid suit, make the shirt and tie in differing scales, and throw in a patterned pocket square. The first two pictures demonstrate this well. 

Once you throw in a patterned jacket things can get tricky, but the following photos demonstrate how it can be done. In the first, Ethan is wearing a gunclub jacket (small repeated scale), a neat tie (in a slightly larger scale with more space in between the print), and a square with a large scale, dissimilar to the jacket. The next picture has Jake in a pinstripe jacket with quite a bit of space, a tie with less space, and a shirt with closely spaced stripes. 

Four Patterns

Not impossible, but the risks of appearing fastidiously studied or a chaotic cacophony should give one pause. Simply changing the scale can have too many lines crossing every which way in a dizzying mess.  To limit this effect, try introducing shapes and prints into your accessories, such as a medallion tie or paisley square.


Note that in all cases, the colors are not garish.  If one pattern stands out more than the other, it is not so disparate as to look either out of place or forced. Whether simple or complex, everything should just…flow easily.  Stephen Thomas Erlewine of sums it up by saying:  “Kind of Blue works on many different levels. It can be played as background music, yet it amply rewards close listening. It is advanced music that is extraordinarily enjoyable.”

Standing out is easy; just wear red shoelaces.  Don’t just be different.  Be creative by making the complicated simple.  Make Mingus proud.

Photos courtesy of Alan See, the Armoury LightboxEthan Newton, and No Man Walks Alone

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Peter works in construction, but has an extensive collection of custom suits which he gets so that he can wear suits on the weekend. Even though he lives in San Francisco, he has never used the word "impact" as a verb. He writes about classic menswear and is one fedora away from being a complete dork.

3 thoughts on “Mastering Complex Patterns

  1. Thank you for the primer. While it can be fun (if you are in no rush) to walk about the bedroom fumbling for that perfect combination, sometimes having some basic rules or principles to guide you might make the process easier. I like your music analogy and lament that I leave quite early for work and am unable to play music as I select my outfits. Worse, if I choose something the night before it often doesn’t fit my mood when I wake up. Any suggestions?!

    • Hi there Ramon. I often chose outfits the night before as well, and just like you there are times when don’t like it the next morning. Either I go with it anyway, or start over. I wish I could give you suggestions, but one sure-fire way to an easy combination is sticking to one pattern. It’s simple and always looks good.

      As far as music goes, well…if you find something that truly inspires you, you may want to invest in headphones for that early morning pattern-mixing experiment.

  2. Enjoyed reading this. I wrote something on this for work (I work for a clothes company and I had to demonstrate my enthusiasm for clothes somehow). I basically compared musical aesthetics to clothing aesthetics.

    “We may enjoy congruent contrast for its own sake within the field of both music and the visual arts (I am rightly including fashion within the latter). The sharp, crisp contrast of a tie against a white shirt may be pleasing within itself, just as one may enjoy a contrasting theme variation within itself. If something either visually or musically feels disjointed, it may be described as ‘wacky’. ‘Wackiness’ is when forms are in contrast, but cannot be sufficiently connected to be placed into a clear structure. Contrasting print patterns can therefore be overstimulating and ‘challenging’ – we are attempting to process all of the visual information. However, ‘wackiness’ is an aesthetic quality that exists semantically. If one wishes to convey ‘wackiness’, one should wear wacky clothes. One’s behaviour may then unconsciously become more ‘wacky’ as a result.”

    Basically, just as with music there are formal aesthetic principles (principles pertaining to form) aesthetics are also semantic. In other words, one can totally disregard all of the formal principles so long as it means something. So if it is in vogue to use disjointed, incongruent patterns, it can become beautiful in a cultural sense. To put it another way, the ugly can become beautiful when people believe that it is beautiful.

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