Style

The Art of Tonal Layering

You’d be forgiven if, from a distance (and primarily through Instagram), you thought that ‘layering’ in menswear meant technicolor vest worn under saturated suits. That’s certainly one angle that certain large menswear e-tailers have pushed in recent years – gotta find a way to attract eyes in a sea of online images –  and you can’t really blame consumers for wanting to lust after garments more titillating than grey and navy suits. That’s not to say it’s necessarily a bad thing – look at our friend and occasional contributor @flannels_and_tweed for some great examples of high-contrast layering – but I’ve always loved the alternative that is tonal layering. Some colors work much better than others, however. I think that matching earth tones – blue, olive, brown, camel, taupe – works out much better than than brighter colors (including, for example, burgundy), which are apt to make you look like a streetstyle hanger-on, or a movie villain.

Note: to offer a brief, insufficient definition, tonal layer is when you’re matching single colors but the tones aren’t quite the same. I’m also discounting monochrome (black and white) outfits, because that’s not what we’re talking about here.


the art of tonal layering menswear styleforumI’m a guy who wears blue a lot. Like, a lot a lot. I’m not the only one – layering blue is very simple, and you don’t have to be wearing fifteen pounds of indigo-dyed cotton (like me); it might be as easy as pairing a blue sportcoat or jacket with your denim, as seen in this fetching shot from Drake’s:

Of course, there’s a contrasting layer involved here, but add a washed-out blue knit to this ensemble and you’re good to go. You probably have a lot of blue in your closet already – navy being, as we all know well, one of menswear’s sacred pillars – so it should be easy for you to experiment.

Plenty of people do this, and in all honesty it’s not that hard if you don’t mind looking like you’re wearing nothing but indigo – which I don’t. You can find examples all over the internet, including on the Styleforum tumblr, but if you’re looking for casual inspiration I can direct you to both 45RPM and Blue Blue Japan.

The latter is a company I’ve written about many times, best known for their incredible work with indigo dyes. The clothes boast incredible depth of color, which makes donning multiple layers of blue a bit less strange than it sounds. Of course, you just have to be comfortable wearing head-to-toe indigo – if you’re not, I understand.



Camel is also a good bet, and the same cam be said of other neutrals like taupe and oatmeal. All white tends to come off a bit priestly – or Miami Vice-y – but a little bit of grey calms things down quite a bit. I happen to be a big fan of camel (as are many men), although I maybe wouldn’t recommend wearing it head-to-toe the way you might wear navy. It’s such a classic color for outwear that slipping on a similarly-colored inner layer isn’t hard, nor are the results strange.


Finally, green layers can look very nice, both with militaristic olive tones and mossier country greens. Something like the below, featuring cotton cargo pants and a Ten C nylon and shearling liner, is a nice option, since not only do you have the subtle variation in color, but you have mixed fabrics as well. This helps you feel a bit less like you’re wearing a not-quite suit, and becomes especially fun if, like me, you have trouble distinguishing green from brown.

the art of tonal layering menswear styleforum

You may have picked up that neutral colors work pretty well for this. Think oatmeal and grey wools, textured browns, as the subtle variations in these colors create a wonderful depth when they’re combined. When you’re matching similar layers, one key is to make sure that you’re also mixing textures. Just because something is blue, or camel, or green, doesn’t mean that everything needs to be the same fabric – lest you end up looking as though you’ve draped yourself in bedsheets.

We’d love to see your own examples of tonal layering, so stop by the Classic Menswear and Streetwear and Denim what are you wearing threads to share your own inspirations.

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