Walk on the Wild Side with Prints

how to wear prints to work2014 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?

Original photo used (2012): Fabric, originally uploaded to Flickr by ChristopherTitzer. 2017 Update:Picture via Stencil.

A reader in a conservative office wondered: how to wear prints to work? We offered some advice on how to start incorporating prints into work outfits.


  1. Former MidLevel :

    For Step 1, I’d add black and white prints. They are really easy to work into your wardrobe – and versatile.

    • Ada Doom Starkadder :

      But they can also be overpowering and aging. Maybe black & white (but in a small pattern.

      • Former MidLevel :

        Fair enough. I was thinking mostly about Kat’s example, though – small,even, prints on blouses. Not a crazy huge pattern on a skirt or jacket, which would definitely be advanced-level pattern-work.

      • How are black and white prints aging? There are a lot of very graphic black and white prints out there that I think look very mod/modern.

        Now small-scale floral prints, particularly in sort of “dusty” colors – those are aging.

        • Former MidLevel :

          I took the “aging” comment to mean that certain styles could look dated.

          • Ada Doom Starkadder :

            Yes, that’s part of it, certain black & white prints scream ‘bad vintage 70s/early 80s’.

            But like those “small-scale floral prints”, etc., have you ever seen a fashion-forward young person (20s) totally rocking black & white (non-animal) prints? I haven’t. I’ve seen black & white dresses that look like 50’s matron who lunches in Florida. Ditto jackets. If that’s your lifestyle, then great. If you’re in your 20s, then not so much. And not even ironically.

        • I think that a lot of “mod” b&w prints do look dated. I’m thinking graphic prints here. It sort of screams late 30’s – mid 40s mall chic to me. Now, small scale floral prints, in dusty colors and otherwise, are actually very in right now and I think half the NYU students in the East Village are wearing them as I type. So, I think Ada definitely has a point.

          FWIW, Kat’s right – men’s prints are always a safe and timeless bet. I have some checkered shirts from Brooks Brothers that have been in my closet for years and they look very elegant with almost everything. For a more feminine twist, I like a good small polka dot.

    • I also think that black and white is good place to start. Today, I’m wearing a skirt with a fairly bold black and white houndstooth pattern. I get a lot of wear out of this skirt just because I can grab any solid top and go. A skirt like this is tame and versatile: http://bananarepublic.gap.com/browse/product.do?cid=35288&vid=1&pid=905367

      • That skirt is actually flying to me right now! I really wish they had a matching jacket. That would make for an awesome suit.

  2. I love print dresses, but have to be VERY carful, b/c it tends to make my tush look VERY wide when I have a CHECKERBORD pattern. Veritical stripes are good, but NOT horizontal stripes. These lessons my father told me, b/c he is ALWAYS comenting about my tush being to big. I have to REALLY work to keep svelte. FOOEY!

  3. Wondering if anyone has any recommendations for an alternative to J Brand jeans – I love them but they’re obviously pricey to stock up on (but they fit me best). I’ve tried on everything I’ve seen recently, but I haven’t found anything that looks nearly as good. I’m trying to figure out whether I bite the bullet and buy more (eek for my wallet), or if there is a good, mid-rise, alternative out there. (FWIW I’ve never tried Not Your Daugther’s Jeans, but still being a daughter and not a mother myself, I have an objection to buying those – it’s mental, I know, but still).

    • so anonymous :

      I’m interested to hear responses as well. I HAVE tried on Not You Daughter’s, and I do not like how high-waisted they are. I get that they are responding to mom’s not liking super low-cut jeans, but there has to be a happy medium.

    • Depending on the cut you’re looking for, I love Ann Taylor’s curvy fit jeans. They fit great and they’ve aged well and they aren’t particularly “old”.

    • What kind of leg are you looking for? If you’re open to skinnies, I swear by (don’t hate) Urban Outfitter’s house jeans. They have high-but-not-obnoxiously-high waist jeans that are my defaults, and mid-rise that are exactly that: mid-rise.

    • I’m liking Banana Republic’s trouser jeans. I had decent luck with Gap jeans (I think the Real Straight cut) a couple of years ago.

      Limited has many different cuts of regular pants, not sure if they have such a variety of jeans. But I find their Cassady pants to be a good mid-rise style, maybe they have them in jeans form.

    • I already mentioned this brand today, but I love James Jeans. They are mid-rise and flattering.

    • Charlotte :

      I really like J Crew Classic Flare jeans — they are on sale on the website in limited sizes. The rise is high enough that I don’t expose anything when bending down, but not so high that I keep needing to pull them up, if that makes sense. They might be classified as higher-rise, but look at the picture… they definitely go to the waist but no higher.

    • I think J Brand is also sold at stores such as Loehmann’s and Nordstrom Rack for around 50% off.

    • Ada Doom Starkadder :

      If you need a medium or low-rise, NYDJ are just expensive Mom-Jeans in the SNL skit kind of way, but with slightly better washes.

    • don’t think so. I am a die-hard j-brand lover. I have tried everything else in the hopes of finding some cheaper alternative. Nothing fits me as well so I just suck it up. Piperlime does have relatively frequent sales on j-brand.

    • I like Old Navy’s Sweetheart jeans. Try on in person because their sizing is completely inconsistent.

  4. I’m a fan of prints, but I do generally believe in the rule that your prints should be proportional, in size, to you. I’m petite, and I look terrible in a blouse, dress or skirt with only a few huge flowers. If you’re taller/larger, however, I think they’re fabulous; same goes for the size of jewelry. Someone wary of prints might feel more confident if the prints were dead-on size-wise.

    • Meh. I’m borderline petite at 5’4 and I wear a lot of big, bold prints (less anyone say “but you shouldn’t be wearing them!” the one time I’ve been photographed by a random street style person I was in a large, bright floral). I wouldn’t take this as a nailed-on rule. You’ve just got to be able to find ones that work for you and your print comfort level.

      • Agreed, I was just saying what I’ve found for myself. Big ups for being in a street style photo!

        My personal reasons for generally adhering to this rule include: my long curly hair that tends toward ringlets, my round babylike face, my floral first name, and the fact that I work in a very male field and environment. All combined, I’m just not looking to emphasize how short I am.

        • Wow, a., so cool that you were photographed by a street style person!

          I think I might have been at some point too….I was on the Tube in London with my mom, and she nudged me and told me someone had just taken my photo – but I never actually saw the photo anywhere. I much prefer to think it was a street style photographer rather than some random perv, but who knows.

          I’m 5’3 1/2″ and also stay away from big prints….not because I think they would emphasize the fact I’m short necessarily, but because whenever I try them, it just feels disproportionate. I’ve really tried, but they just don’t work on me. I love prints, and love bright colours, but have to really watch the pattern size…

  5. If you have a large chest, be careful about how the prints fall across the girls. If the fit is off even slightly or the seeming a little strange, patterns (especially stripes) can get all crooked and strange in the chest area.

    As a result, I tend to avoid prints. I do love animal print shoes though.

    • For an example, see the J Crew blouse featured last Thursday. The position of those paiselys/inkblots/whatever was just unfortunate…

    • This is more of a problem with repetitive prints. Instead of ruling prints out, try a floral or abstract print.

  6. For myself, I look for prints that have colors in them that coordinate with pieces I already own (so the magenta skirt or black or grey pants or tan pants or whatever). That way its less about the print and more about what I know I’ll wear it with.

    This has allowed me to find a few that I wear frequently and love. But if I buy prints with no definite plan in mind, they tend to sit in the closet unused until I buy a solid bottom to go with them.

    • Or until you start wearing multiple prints together like this crazy old lady…mwahahahaha

      • Yes. I have not pulled off this advance a stage yet.

        • I am wearing a gray windowpane plaid skirt with a black shirt with small white polka dots, topped by a teal cardigan. Do I get points for moderately advanced pattern-mixing?

          Although honestly, the plaid is so low-contrast it basically looks solid from several feet away.

  7. I would never wear a floral print to work, but I have never been a fan. After looking at pictures at my 20th high school reunion, I have to say that my preference for solid colors has served me well, because everyone else was mortified by their outfits. I looked at my little black dress and thought, I’d wear that today if I could fit in it!

    • I do like floral prints, but I don’t believe all florals/prints are created equally. There are some that are definitely more work appropriate than others. Though I’m not sure I can nail down what makes some more office appropriate than others – perhaps smaller prints with fewer colors/brights?

      • Totally agree. I wear florals/prints/patterns that don’t have a white background. Especially florals with white backgrounds, it looks Eastery to me. I normally don’t wear white clothes anyway, bc I am a klutz and it doesn’t go well with my coloring. So if you wear blue or gray or whatever color a lot, pick something in that color and work with it. Like yellow flowers on a gray background. Or that awesome maroon/orange geometric print blouse Kat featured last week.

  8. I’d also start with tone on tone prints, or one color & white or black. They aren’t as overwhelming, and only one step away from a solid color, imo.

    I realized a while ago that I don’t have a lot of prints in my wardrobe (although I am wearing a pencil skirt with big flowers all over it today – that’s the exception) but the prints I find myself drawn to most often are prints with only one or two colors. I too am trying to branch out into more prints, though.

  9. I have completely the opposite problem–I HATE wearing solids. Hate. I wear prints all the time, which is generally fine but I am doing a detail in a more conservative office and sometimes fear that I might look like a clown compared to the other women in their uniformly solid colors, usually neutral (double death). But every time I try to wear a solid color I realize I’d rather look like a clown than want to throw up from boredom.

    • Ada Doom Starkadder :

      I think for certain garments, patterns (depending on the pattern), can look way better than solids. I don’t like sheath dresses that are solids, because I feel like there’s just this vast expanse of this one color. I look like a giant long rectangle of a single color. Perhaps I’d be ok with this if I had the standard hourglass figure, but I don’t, so patterns work better for me w.r.t sheath dresses.

  10. this post and thread are so conservative! i have print blouses and skirts i pair with solids, just depends on the item, no rules. live a little people!

  11. The archives on Academichic have some great posts and outfits on just this topic (check out Mixing Patterns in their category lists). Generally less conservative than you’d see in a law office, but a fair number of the outfits they feature would be appropriate just about anywhere.

  12. Complimentary colors are actually opposite each other on the color wheel: Blue and orange for example.

    Sorry to nitpick :)

  13. I love using colour and especially prints to make my work wardrobe more “me”. I wear pattern nearly everyday – either a subtly patterned suit (pinstripe, window-pane, tweed) with a brightly-coloured solid blouse, or a solid suit with a bold patterned blouse (stripes, polka-dots, floral, houndstooth, paint-stroke). In the summer, I often wear a patterned sheath dress with a solid blazer in a coordinating colour. To me, if you’re following the rules by wearing a modest suit or business seperates, then adding pattern doesn’t affect the appropriateness of the outfit.

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