5 tips for pattern mixing success

In the photo above…top row (l to r): Etro Paisley Print Dress, Etro Fuschia and Emerald Print Dress, Anthropologie Waves Midi Dress, Anthropologie Ruched Stripes Column Dress, Anthropologie Sweeping Stripes Maxi, Kate Spade Amanda Dress, Elie Tahari Rosalee Dress, Kate Spade Solar Miriam Dress. Bottom row: J.Crew Java Tunic Dress, Creatures of the Wind for J.Crew Sleeveless Zip Dress, DVF Shannon Mini Dress, Elie Tahari Ginny Dress, DVF Callista.

Fall 2011 was a very quiet year in fashion — subtle colors, long silhouettes, etc. Not so this year! Fall 2012 is shaping up to be an exciting season filled with brilliant hues and tons of pattern. All this week we’ll be discussing how to mix patterns and prints effectively in your summer-to-fall wardrobe.

Mixing prints is no easy feat. It’s difficult to determine whether two patterns go together. To figure out if they’re too much or not enough. To ensure that not only do the prints go but that the placement is right. This post is 5 tips to help you get started. If you have any tips that help you pattern mix please share in the comments!

image source


1. Know the basics.

In order to master any skill, you must first learn the basics. For mixing prints that means knowing the color wheel. Do you know what primary, secondary and tertiary colors are? Do you know which colors are considered complementary?

Primary colors are the foundational colors from which all others are created. That’s red, blue and yellow for those keeping track. Between each of them on the color wheel are secondary colors, and finally tertiary ones. White is the absence of color and black is all the colors combined.

But what does this mean in terms of dressing? If you’re just starting out with pattern mixing, the color wheel can help. Colors that are across from each other (i.e. blue and yellow) are complimentary. They work together! Red and green — across from each other, perfect for Christmas. And this works one step to either side too — blue and red-orange (aka rust in the clothing world) look wonderful together for fall. 

Though rules are broken in fashion all the time, to begin with you should never wear two colors that are right next to each other on the color wheel as the main parts of your outfit. Yellow pants and a yellow-green top together is asking for trouble, for example. Focus on finding colors across from each other for the complementary pairing.

Starting off with a simple color wheel like the one above can help you determine whether the main color of two prints go together. Eventually you’ll progress to a more expanded color wheel, something like this:

image source

I know that’s a lot of colors to digest. The best way to work with a complex color wheel like this one above is to train your eye to see colors across from each other, like this:

If you need help determining colors that work well together in outfits, I highly recommend Color Collective. It’s a single-purpose blog that simply pulls out hues from outfits, photography and works of art. 

a sample color combo on color collective

The combinations shown will work in outfits. It’s been great for introducing me to new color combinations I never would have tried on my own. With just one element (color) to consider, you can open your eyes to new color mixes to try.

2. Don’t tip the scale.

Once you’re feeling more confident in which colors go together, it’s time to move on to the next facets of pattern mixing: weight and scale.

Let’s talk about weight first. I like to think of weight this way: how long does it take me to visually digest an outfit? 2 seconds? 5 seconds? 10 seconds? The longer it takes me to understand a print visually, the more weight it has. Big prints tend to have more weight, as do high-contrast prints. Bright colors make for higher contrast. White and black together are the highest contrast, especially when there’s more white. Bright colors like blue and yellow offer high contrast, as do neons. Darker and more saturated colors, i.e. jewel tones, offer lower contrast which the eye can distinguish more quickly.

In the photo above (l to r)…Modcloth It’s a Colorful Life Skirt,
Marni Graphic Print Linen Skirt, Banana Republic Graphic Chain Link Wrap Dress.

The prints above are all large and all complex. The pattern on the left has lots of colors, which the brain needs to time to distinguish before sensing the pattern. The middle print has big white spaces that the eye is drawn to first before recognizing the other colors, red and grey. The pattern on the right uses neutral colors but in a complex interlock.

One more element of weight is whether the print is abstract or visually clear. Is the print a floral that is sharp and recognizable, or are the flowers more like an impressionist painting, bleeding together into each other? Are there a bunch of different-sized polygons on your skirt or does the print repeat the same size and shape? The more abstract a print and the more different shapes and sizes, the more weight a piece has. 

In the photo above (l to r)…J.Crew Tippi Sweater in heart me, DVF Richley Dress, AG Polka Dot Ankle Stevie.

If you have one pattern with a lot of weight in your outfit, it’s best to mix it with something more subtle to balance out the look. Small polka dots, tones of brown and grey, or silhouette prints are a great way to balance out a striking piece. Each of the patterns in the photo above is done in a neutral color and is very simple. They weigh less visually.

Let’s move on to scale. Scale asks is the print large or small? Most prints tend to fall into a medium size. I’d consider a small pattern something that the naked eye can’t make out unless up close to the garment. A large pattern can be seen and understood from far away. 

You don’t want to wear two large prints. It’s going to look very heavy. And with few exceptions you don’t want to wear the same pattern on the top and bottom. So no color-mixing polka dots with a grey polka dot skirt and a blue polka dot top. You can however mix scales easily. Pair a large-scale print with a medium or small. Pair a medium with anything, including another medium. Pair a small print with something in the medium or large realms.

In general I like to wear one abstract print and more clear print. This is mostly because my skills matching two sharp prints isn’t great. 

In the photo above (top to bottom): Achroma Angles Pouch, Madewell’s the calf hair dispatch card case, Anthropologie Striped Trinity Pouch

3. Start off small.

So you’re ready to try pattern mixing, but not sure where to start? Instead of jumping in with a whole pattern-mixed outfit why not start small? Wear one print in your outfit and mix in a second via an accessory, like a bag or scarf. There are so many cute patterned clutches out there and it’s a great way to experiment with pattern mixing, especially vivid color pattern-mixing. The bags shown above all have neutral-based patterns that will go with nearly any color combination.

Ask your friends — does my bag/scarf work with this look? Build up your confidence and if you went astray ask why the two patterns don’t work. Take photos of your entire look so you can go back and remind yourself what worked and what didn’t.

4. Keep it in neutral.

Once you’re ready to wear both patterned pieces for a whole day, instead of jumping right into neons or bright yellows, blues or reds, try some pattern mixing with neutrals first.

What colors are neutrals? Typically medium browns, greys, black, and navy blue. Other colors can work as neutrals but start there. A navy-and-white print is a fantastic place to start. Pair it with a grey-and-white print and you’re off to the races. 

In the outfit above, three soft grey-based patterns mix well together!

5. Seek out inspiration.

When in doubt, I blog search it out! There are so many talented bloggers who mix patterns 1000 times better than I ever would on my own. I dig through the archives of my favorite bloggers and peruse sites like chictopia and lookbook.nu for pattern-mixing ideas. Plus there are sites like Polyvore where you can look for outfit ideas for items you already own. When I see a photo I like, I’ll save it to my local drive or bookmark it in a “pattern mixing” folder. 

Here are just a few recent pattern-mixing outfits I’ve bookmarked:

And those are just a few of many! I posted my own OOTD, the first of several to come this week, late last nite.

If you have a favorite pattern mixing master I’d love to know in the comments. Share your tips and tricks too, and as the week progresses we’ll all learn together! What are your secrets for print mix success?