Pairing Colors in Menswear

Most guys like color, but are afraid to add more than one to their ensemble for fear of making mistakes. This is laudable: better to play it safe and look possibly boring but overall pleasing than to reveal one’s ignorance. Indeed, the clueless color-lovers are often the worst offenders and blithely walk out the door looking like a clown exploded on them.

To help you embrace colors in menswear, I have a quick primer to share:

ANALOGOUS COLORS: these are next to each other on the wheel. The easiest for those who are just starting to dip their toes into the waters of tint. The least contrast, the most innocuous, if a bit unexciting. Good for impressing your mother-in-law. 

TRIAD COLORS: equidistant from one another on the wheel, e.g. blue/yellow/red. Triads are engaging, appealing. 

COMPLEMENTARY COLORS: opposite on the color wheel. Striking, compelling – if done well. Proceed with caution. 

colors in menswear

One last note: keep it muted. See the outside of the color wheel? Darker shades can add interest without overwhelming the eyes and maintain your outfit’s sobriety. You could do brighter hues and reap rich rewards, but at greater risk of looking, well, silly. Save those colors as accents for casual warm-weather rigs in cotton, silk, or linen. 

Now that the basics of color are understood, contrast can be introduced. To wit, a simple graphic: 

colors in menswear

The above picture shows varying degrees of color contrast, starting with the highest on top and ending with the lowest on the bottom. 

The top example of yellow and blue contrasts in two ways: they are triadic primary colors (equidistant on the color wheel) and they differ greatly in luminance. The yellow is quite bright, while the blue is dark. 

The second example, a kelly green and fuchsia, are color wheel opposites but have the same luminance. They do contrast, but less so than the first example. 

Next we have the analogous colors of red and orange. Since they are so close to each other, the contrast is low. Lower still is the final example – two of the same color, with one just slightly lighter than the other. 

How does this translate when wearing coat & tie? Generally speaking, as the contrast of an ensemble increases, so does the degree of difficulty of pulling it off well. Note the following examples.

Low Contrast

colors in menswear

Here we see Ethan showcasing what may be the most elementary color combination of them all: one. 

Why does it work? Simple: it is low-contrast epitomized. What makes this ordinary ensemble rise to extraordinary are noteworthy (cut, fabric, and texture), but for the moment just know that this ensemble can easily be emulated. You already have a navy worsted suit and navy grenadine tie (if not, you should; they are basics). Add a white shirt for more formal occasions or a light blue/light navy shirt for a more casual look. In the latter instance, be sure that the shirt contrasts at least a bit with your tie (you don’t want it to disappear). Either way you have an easy monochrome look that sits well in most occasions. The navy palette is pleasing, the colors cool.

Mid-low Contrast

colors in menswear

Armourer Jeff snapped a shot of his colleague Nick in an outfit that utilizes both high and low contrast, striking a serene balance between the two. 

The light grey suit provides a blank canvas accommodating any color combination (as well as black and white, for that matter). Here we have the tertiary tints of blue and yellow, which are about as far apart as you can get in luminance. However, they have been muted – the yellow mellowed, the blue brightened – so that the contrast is less severe, but not at all boring. This can be a difficult look to put together, but when executed well the mid-contrast ensemble is charming, attractive, and delightful. 

Mid-High Contrast

colors in menswear

Here, lnsee demonstrates what is by far the easiest look to pull off: mid-grey suit, light shirt, dark tie. This is an ensemble that men should thoughtlessly reach for when a situation calls for coat and tie. It is always, reliably, appropriate.

Alan chose the analogous colors of blue and green to accessorize, with a dash of the neutral color brown (which goes with practically everything, since it is essentially a mix of primary colors). The little peek of red in the pocket square adds even more contrast, but not so much that it calls attention to itself. Overall the hues are muted, giving the outfit a creative but quiet elegance.

High Contrast

colors in menswear

This is my favorite picture of Mark from The Armoury. This is pretty much as high a contrast as one can get, both in color and in luminance, and it looks great.

The odd jacket, of course, is the focal point. It is not, though, the only thing one sees. Mark makes good use of the vibrant plaid as a fulcrum; most of the rest of his outfit is either lighter (the shirt) or darker (the tie and trousers). Having red, yellow, blue, and green present is almost inviting a color clash of some sort, but instead we have all of them playing in harmonious, lively concert. It is a wonderful sight to see.

Note also the contrast between top and bottom. Darker brown shoes could have been chosen, but the look would seem too bottom heavy. The lighter snuff suede loafers not only provide contrast with the trousers, but in echoing the bright jacket, provide balance.

What does contrast mean?

Clothes speak in our behalf, telling the observer how we wish to be seen. In menswear, this has a variety of implications. You may wish (or need) to fit in, limiting your choices. In this instance, the combination of a mid-to-dark suit, light shirt, and dark tie is unimpeachable; Alan’s mid-high color contrast ensemble would fit in perfectly. 

Monochromatic looks such as Ethan’s are best in navy or grey and are a tasteful option for both day and night. In the absence of color contrast, try mixing textures instead, as he does.

Mid-low contrast, especially in lighter colors, is usually seen in more casual settings and are well at home there. Nick’s outfit is unceremonious, relaxed, approachable.

Mark’s high contrast look is all fun, for so many reasons. And when the occasion calls for it, shouldn’t that be what dressing is for, anyway?

Photo credit: ethandesu and jhilla

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Peter Zottolo
Peter works in construction, but has an extensive collection of custom suits which he gets so that he can wear suits on the weekend. Even though he lives in San Francisco, he has never used the word "impact" as a verb. He writes about classic menswear and is one fedora away from being a complete dork.
Peter Zottolo

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