Clash could be in

Updated: Apr 27 2008, 06:12am hrs
To someone learning English, or learning how to dress, it is not the four-syllable words or the obscure necktie knots that provoke the most confusion. It is the simplest idioms say, That doesnt go that are the most baffling.

What doesnt go Go where

And when that is one bold pattern on top of another, the where is understood that is, it doesnt go outside the front door. Or at least it used to be.

First, a confession. When I was 10-years old and entering a new and statusy school, I made a gaffe that scarred me for life (as only sixth-grade gaffes can). Totally oblivious to the language of clothes, I boldly paired a red-and-green striped polo shirt with a pair of blue-and-yellow plaid pants (it was the mid-1970s) and off I went.

Lets just say the expression Children can be so cruel was not born in a vacuum. I was knighted with a nickname Clash before the tears had even dried on those plaid pants.

Instead of returning the next day with a more surefire outfit something in Rambo-style olive drab, perhaps I took my time and deployed other weapons: for one, an extensive wardrobe; also, some kind of styling sixth sense to tell me what made one combination go and another one go wrong.

Now this clash-o-metre seems as outdated as my 35-mm. Nikon. Eroded by a range of influences, from skate kids (for whom nerdy plaid has become a badge of honour) to British and Italian dandies (for whom the graphic prints and stripes of Paul Smith and Etro are sober neutrals), the old rules about pattern-on-pattern dressing have been tossed on the style scrap heap along with such quaint notions as combing your hair and not letting your underwear show.

Men are more brave with colour and pattern now, said Paul Smith, the British designer who may have initiated more men into the art of mixing pattern than any other. He knows, from working in his own stores, how eager men are to try, yet how afraid they are of making a mistake (see sixth grade, above).

You know, how do you say whats okay he said. Thats whats difficult. You have to be brave to think you can do it. Its such a matter of personal confidence and taste. But he noted that what made the Duke of Windsor and Fred Astaire style gods in the 1930s was their daring in mixing patterns.

There is no question that men are trying. Patterns sell, and its not just the suiting its sportswear, too, said Tom Kalenderian, the vice president for mens wear at Barneys New York. Men are more confident with it now. Theyre having fun with it.

So are designers. Even those known for their allegiance to an urban palette that ranges from asphalt gray to traffic-cone orange have had a field day with patterns this spring. Among others, Miuccia Prada, Martin Margiela and Junya Watanabe went overboard for, respectively, plaids, stripes and florals.

To fashion hardliners, utter cacophony may come to mind. Others might point out that mixing patterns is only logical now that the mash-up reigns supreme. In the food world, timeworn ideas about what goes with what were upended long ago. As Michael Romano, the senior chef at Union Square Cafe, said of food and fashion alike, There are combinations that sound weird that work.

One day last week, Romano was wearing six different patterns: a brown-and-cream houndstooth suit from Paul Stuart, a Truzzi dress shirt in blue and white stripes of varying hues, a Paul Stuart salmon pink tie with a blue paisley pattern, a Charvet gold-and-cream pocket square, suspenders in a chinoiserie pattern of blue, orange and yellow, and colour-block socks.

What, no vest Sometimes, he said.

Its so much more exciting and interesting and challenging than just a blue shirt and a solid suit, he said. Im a chef its the equivalent of tasting something really complex. When you see something thats put together with patterns, you have to take a moment and look, and see where it works. You cant just put any patterns together, but if you follow certain guidelines ... I constantly get people saying, Wow that looks great.

Those guidelines are crucial but what are they, exactly In general, the smaller and more neutral the pattern, the safer it is. Wear a brown houndstooth or Prince of Wales plaid vest with a blue-and-white pinstripe shirt and a small-paisley tie, and youre on solid ground, especially if one or two of the colours bounce off the others. The patterns should not be the same scale, or share too many colours (youre not a bedding display), or have the same colour value that is be all dark or all light.

But guidelines are not everything. You dont want to look as if you spent too much time matching your patterns, since part of clashs charm is a cavalier sense of the unruly. Even if it takes more time, its worth a little trial and error to look as if you just got dressed in a hurry.

What youre trying to avoid is looking as if you got dressed in the dark.

NY Times / David Colman