A Stylist’s Recipe for Mixing Patterns Like a Pro

How to successfully mix patterns is a question that comes up ALL THE TIME with both female and male clients. It is probably because pattern mixing is one thing that, when done correctly, adds an inordinate amount of interest to an outfit. And when done wrong, well, it can be a total disaster.

Some people can naturally do it. They throw on this and that, and it looks effortless and flawless. It can seem like those people are everywhere, especially with the highlight reel of life that is social media. But in reality, those that can throw it on and go are few and far between.

How to Mix Patterns 

Make it Look Effortless

Spoiler alert – most things that look effortless and flawless are the exact opposite. There is usually a whole lot of effort that goes into making something look effortless. Think of a dancer floating across a stage or an athlete. It takes a tremendous amount of work to make it look like it doesn’t.

It’s kind of the same with pattern mixing and matching. On this blog, I try to break things into generalized, fundamental rules to follow. However, keep in mind that fashion is an art form, and style is subjective. Coupled with the fact that this art form is displayed on human bodies – and each body is unique in shape, color, and size – so these rules serve more as a road map if you will. 

It’s a Guideline, Not a Guarantee

Think of it as a guideline, not a guarantee. It would be lovely if mixing patterns (or even getting dressed for that matter) was as straightforward as the step-by-step instructions for putting together a bookshelf from Ikea. And as long as you follow each step, it will turn out uniformly perfect every time. 

Nope, that’s not how fashion works. It’s more of that family recipe handed down from your grandma, requiring a pinch of this and a splash of that – a recipe you need to keep tasting along the way to see if it’s right. 

Pattern Mixing is Like Making Bread

I’d say pattern mixing is more like making Challah than sourdough. If you’re a bread baker, you might know what I mean – if you’re not, stick with me. You know I’m all about the food analogies.

I enjoy making Challah. It’s something I find relaxing. And while I follow a recipe, each batch I make is a little different. And that’s the beauty and the difficulty with Challah. One day it’s sticky and needs more flour. And another, it’s dry and needs a little oil or water. The kneading time is not an exact science. It’s a when you know, you know, texture kind of thing. And as for rising, well, sometimes I let it rise for an hour and sometimes a good part of the day (no judging, please). It depends on what’s going on and if I get sidetracked or not. There’s a road map to making challah, but overall it’s more feel, sense, and practice than clear-cut rules.

More Like Challah than Sourdough

Conversely, sourdough takes incredible precision to be made well. Quantities are measured (with a food scale no less), and rising times are to the minute. How do I know all of this? Because, over quarantine, my husband (who incidentally is not comfortable in the kitchen other than to eat) decided to take up making sourdough. While I will happily eat the sourdough he makes (it’s dangerously delicious), I’ve never actually helped, just observed. To be honest, the kind of exactness that sourdough takes freaks me out. I love cooking (and styling, for that matter), the creative process, how it ebbs and flows, and never gets boring because it’s always evolving. It feels interactive because I’m tweaking it along the way.

So what does this have to do with pattern mixing? Well, there are overarching how-to formulas, but then you’ve just got to try it on, see how it looks, and adjust accordingly.

Here’s a bold generalization – if you are comfortable making challah, you’ll probably be ok mixing patterns. And if you’re more of a sourdough person, and precise rules are your thing, maybe focus on one print and some solids – it’s just more predictable.

A Quick Guide To Mixing Patterns 

1. Keep the color cohesive or monotone.

It’s easier to mix patterns if they’re all in the same color family. The continuity of color gives the impression that they go together.

 

SHOP THE LOOK

2. Pick patterns of different sizes.

This way the patterns can complement each other rather than compete. It’s a scale and proportion thing.

SHOP THE LOOK

3. Animal prints (leopard, snakeskin) and stripes are prints that work as a neutral.

If you’re a print mix novice, this is a great place to start. 

SHOP THE LOOK

4. Add a solid topper.

Mixed prints can feel loud. A solid blazer, jacket, or sweater helps ground the print chaos.

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5. Look for items that already have the prints mixed.

Like the skirt, I’m wearing in the photo above. Or this crazy, fabulous jacket below. Just pair it with solids, and you’re good to go. If you’re riskier, you can add another print (like I did with a tweed bag) to up the print mix ante.

 

SHOP THE LOOK

Try it On – See How it Feels

Once you know the method, it’s time to try it out. When you put it on, does it feel fun and unexpected yet still harmonious? If so, yay, you! It’s a winner! 

Or do you feel like a kindergartener that got dressed in the dark? If so, go through the checklist above and see if a tweak can be made, so the patterns feel more in sync.

The goal is for the patterns to coordinate but not necessarily be all matchy, matchy. 

And if in doubt, call me! I now offer a 1 OOTD (Outfit of the Day) boot camp. You upload your mirror selfie outfit to a private virtual portal, and I privately make suggestions that can tweak the outfits and take them to a whole new level.

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Author

Cleveland-based personal stylist and fashion blogger.

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