The generalisation that the English experiment with their shirts and the Italians with their jackets broadly holds, particularly in business wear. While the English tradition of checked and plaid wools is a fine one, it was always largely restricted to the country (or at least the weekend) and has died out slowly as fewer English men wore suits casually.
The Italians are more willing to experiment with suit cloth at every occasion. This necessitates a shirt and tie combination that makes no attempt to compete with that cloth – the Italian Background.
The Italian Background is simple: a plain blue or black tie on a plain blue shirt. (Occasionally the shirt will be white, but this can look a little funereal.)
The combination works well because a blue shirt suits most people more than white, and it fades more into the background; because a dark tie fades more into the background than a pale tie; and because the dark blue tie is the most similar in tone and harmonious combination with a blue shirt – without being too similar and evoking tone on tone.
But this is analysing the obvious. It works as the plainest and yet most sophisticated of supports to an otherwise daring suit pattern – or indeed odd jacket. It equally supports an adventurous pocket-handkerchief, gloves, hat or jacket. When trying to balance an outfit, the Italian would much rather tone down a tie than go without one.
Four examples are displayed here, all courtesy of The Sartorialist. The first is possibly the most extreme. The high contrast, double-breasted jacket stands out, but is supported effectively by an Italian Background and dark trousers. It even makes it possible to add a pointed handkerchief without appearing over the top.
The second example marries an Italian Background with a hat and bright coat, while number three includes a faintly ridiculous coat that needs all the help it can get. Notice the uniformity of dress in this second combination as well – with odd double-breasted jacket and spread collar. While this may be because they are both associated with the same clothing outlet, it shows the versatility of the Background.
Example number four brings out a particular aspect of the Background – its fruitful combination with beige or tan (yellow, essentially). It is no coincidence that every one of these pictures involves a jacket in some shade of tan. And the gentleman on the left in this example shows that the Background is the best choice for what could otherwise be a very hard suit to find combinations for.
If in doubt, go for the Italian Background. (Oh, and buy yourself a nice, plain blue tie.)