2014 Update: We still stand by this advice on how to wear prints to work — but you may also want to check our our more recent discussion on fun but professional patterns and colors.
How do you start wearing prints — especially if you’ve no idea how to wear prints to work? Reader T wonders…
I’m wondering if you can do a post on incorporating prints into one’s wardrobe. I looked at my closet the other day and realized that about 90% of the clothes I wear are solid colors. I seem to always gravitate toward very saturated bold colors, but never to prints. I guess I sometimes feel that wearing prints looks loud” or will make me stand out too much at work. I know how to use prints with accessories (shoes, scarves) but I’d like to specifically see a post on buying clothes with prints.
We’ve shared our best tips for mixing textures and patterns, but we haven’t really talked about how to start buying prints. I think T has a fear that is shared by a lot of women — looking too loud, too out of place. So here are my suggestions for how to dip your toe into the waters of dressing with prints…
1) Start with the stuff men wear — small, even, repeating patterns in pastel colors. Look at a site like Brooks Brothers or Thomas Pink and you’ll see that it is absolutely filled with patterns and prints. Windowpanes, houndstooth, check, stripes, gingham… men wear those to conservative offices all the time. So, step one: buy a blouse with an even, repeating pattern on it (probably in a pastel color), and start wearing that with one of your solid suits. As you get more confident and comfortable wearing those small patterns, add color to your outfits. Start with complimentary colors first — if you’re wearing a light blue checkered blouse, pair it with a dark blue cardigan.
2) Start to have fun with smaller, bolder punches of pattern. Back to men’s clothes — look at ties and you’ll see things like paisley, polka dots, more stripes, and even small embroidered animals. Proportionally, the tie is a really small component of the man’s outfit — but remember that it’s up front and center where you can see it, so it certainly isn’t hidden. For women, I think the corollary is scarves, belts, and even entire blouses layered beneath sweaters or blazers so not a lot is sticking out. Again I’d start with small patterns, but be bold — look again to prints that men wear, and see what strikes your fancy. As you start to get more confident wearing these small punches of pattern, pick a color in the pattern to highlight — e.g., the light blue in this paisley would be complimented by a blue cardigan.
3) Move to more feminine prints. There are some prints that are primarily worn by women such as florals, animal prints, and more. Even though women’s prints go through more of a trend cycle than the other prints we’ve mentioned above, these are still classic prints, and you shouldn’t be shy about investing in some of the pieces of you like them — a leopard blouse or belt will certainly be worn numerous times over the course of your career. Depending on your confidence level here, I’d start small — leave the print a small proportion of your outfit, and look for smaller, tighter patterns as opposed to very large patterns. (For example, your blouse could have 3 flowers on it, or 300.)
4) Get bolder, proportionally, with prints. If you’ve successfully experimented with all of the above, it’s time to get even bolder still. If you’ve been hiding your patterns beneath blazers or cardigans to keep them proportionally small, go big — wear the blouse on its own. Then, look for a bigger piece to purchase that will make pattern an even bigger part of your outfit, such as a patterned dress, skirt, or blazer. If a striped blazer feels too crazy and loud, consider buying a piece where stripes are created by texture (e.g., corduroy) rather than the printed fabric. If a leaf-printed blouse seems too crazy, try wearing a blouse with a burnout pattern so it’s color-on-color. As your better determine what prints you like, which are flattering on you, and how you like to wear them, branch into larger prints.
You know you’ve graduated when you’re wondering how to mix prints!
Readers, do you tend to stay on the safe side with solids? Are you comfortable wearing prints to work?