What `goes with' what? You decide!

DRESSING in a combination of bold checks, jazzy stripes, and a splash of polka dots might strike some people as a big mistake, an error made on a dark morning when the electricity failed. Those people would be wrong, according to current trends. The idea that any given pattern does not, as they used to say, ``go with'' another pattern is out of date. The old strictures against wearing an assortment of patterns have been relaxed.

Now just about anything is being mixed together.

Threesomes of checks, stripes, and dots are getting the fashion stamp of approval. And so are combinations of any number of other patterns. Wearing plaids, florals, tapestries, paisleys, and whatever else looks good all at once has become a jaunty new way of dressing.

It is a welcome turn of events. Used with discretion, the practice can be a means of giving an imaginative touch to what might otherwise look too academic.

Feel free, designers are telling us, as they cheerily break rules by pairing tattersalls with herringbones and add seasonings of foulard and pin stripes. True, some of these combinations are very subtle, but others -- like Kasper's teaming-up of different blanket plaids -- make a strong point.

Sometimes a large-scale pattern appears with a smaller version, as do Norma Kamali's big-size and little-size leopard prints.

There's also the reverse usage of an identical pattern -- as in the Bill Blass gray and white flannel suit. It has a plaid jacket with a white background and a skirt of the same plaid with a gray background.

Other times the play is between two or more individual patterns. There are paisley tops with foulard skirts or pants in some of Danny Noble's ensembles, oversized glen plaids with country checks in others. Oscar de la Renta mixes a muffler of checkerboard buffalo plaid with a suit of houndstooth over a print blouse with lighthearted abandon. Those are among many illustrations in the fall collections.

Doing your own mixing has its advantages and its pitfalls. How to mismatch without ending up looking like a crazy quilt will be harder than mating exact patterns or combining solid colors. But given judicious thought, the idea works well even when applied to the stodgiest kind of dressing. A business suit will still look serious if worn with, say, a striped shirt and a paisley tie instead of plain ones.

When used as a wardrobe revitalizer, playing with patterns can be a boon. Pieces from previous seasons -- the odd jacket, vest, scarf, skirt, or trousers -- take on new life. The key lies in seeing the relationship between the assorted patterns, prints, and textures so that they complement each other rather than clash.

A good point of departure is to stick to a single color combination -- black and white, or black, white, and gray, for instance. With that unifying theme, a graphic look can be safely achieved.

Depending on the strength of the different patterns, the effect can be restrained or fairly wild. Adventurous dressers can carry the idea all the way through to black-and-white-printed accessories, plus patterned shoes and stockings, provided they have the wit and aplomb.

Then there is the one-color focus. By keeping red, for example, as a central color, a mix of florals and other patterns should be successful.

The new fabrics of Gloria Sachs, prints that combine plaids, paisleys, and cabbage roses on a ruby-red background, are a case in point.

In composing an outfit, another system that works is the variation on a single pattern, such as several paisleys that are related in color, or tartans that look akin to each other (even if their Highland clans are actually miles apart).

Mix-matching patterns is meant to be fun, a part of the high-spirited side of today's fashion. Never mind that it's flouting tradtion.

Artistic rules were made to be broken. If they weren't, would we have Picasso?

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