Do you remember the hour-long, once-a- week jam session called art class during elementary school?
Unfortunately, all those years playing with modeling clay, coloring with pastels and trying to draw the perfect circle without a compass haven’t paid off in adulthood.
To this day, most men still do not understand the concept of color and how it applies to style.
With a basic framework, you can utilize the color wheel to enhance your style in a multitude of ways.
By learning the fundamentals of patterns and colors, you will shop at stores knowing how the individual pieces you select will fit in and function with your existing wardrobe.
This is a slightly longer piece, but I really wanted to cover the topic in such a way where a guy who knew nothing about colors and matching could walk away with a solid understanding.
I'll start off this piece by mentioning one of my favorite books on men's style and my go-to resource "Dressing the Man" by Alan Flusser.
I read it in 2008 and it has been the most influential book I have come across in my understanding men’s color and pattern.
To help articulate and illustrate some of the points I've made in this guide, I've used the pictures from this great resource.
Understanding Color - The Basics
The first aspect to understanding color is getting familiar with the color wheel. Yes, you have seen this thing before, but how can you harness it to your benefit?
Read on to understand color better...
Colors that sit right next to each other on the color wheel are called associated colors.
You’ll often hear people say that an outfit is monochromatic, meaning that it is primarily composed of one color or colors that are right next to each other on the color wheel (in the same shade).
Black is by far the most common monochromatic outfit for its sleekness, but people rarely wear monochromatic outfits consisting of other colors, unless they want to stand out.
Complementary colors sit opposite each other on the color wheel.
If we reduce colors to their wavelengths, we can mathematically prove why certain colors look best together around the color wheel, but such discussions should be left to art majors at the university level.
What you need to know is that not all colors work together and some work together better than others.
The key here is that complementary colors offer contrast and with complimentary colors, you can create a number of outfit combinations.
Complimentary colors help you create a more functional wardrobe.
Further Reading About The Color Wheel
What About My Complexion When Matching Outfits?
During my time at Brooks Brothers in 2009, I learned how to assemble amazing colors and patterns for customers, but then I often got the itch to buy the same shirt/tie combo for myself when leaving work.
This almost always lead to the trap of buyers remorse and our goal here at Men’s Insights is to ensure that never happens in your purchasing.
Just because the rainbow exists doesn’t mean you should wear all the colors like a bag of skittles.
There are some colors that will help you look better than every other man in the room and then there are others that could get you mistaken for a clown.
Your complexion has a lot to do with whether a color will look good on you.
Watch this video to learn more about how to match clothing colors to your skin tone:
Most human bodies are monochromatic from the neck down so it’s the face that differentiates us with unique features that helps people identify us. Like the color wheel, some faces have features that are more associated with some colors and more complementary with others.
Your hair, eye and skin color influence the colors that look best on you, and that flatter your features most.
It will be hard to hold a conversation if the other person is constantly looking at your shiny shoes or the brightly colored lapel flower on your suit.
Most of the ‘talking’ will happen at the intersection of your shirt, suit and tie in the chest area. Your goal is to match the contrast of your clothing with the contrasts of your face.
Contrast Types & Outfit Matching
Something most men don't know (or care about) is how the color of their hair, skin, and eyes can affect the outfits that would look best on them. There are three types of men:
- Low Contrast
- Medium Contrast
- High Contrast
Low Contrast Outfit Matching
Someone who is blonde with pale skin and light colored eyes has the lowest contrast possible.
If he wears a white shirt and purple tie, the visual focus will easily be on his chest because that is where the contrast is and it will remain there. While this man can wear a white shirt, it's advised that he save white for the Spring or Summer and complement it with a light colored tie.
A light blue shirt should be the primary staple in this man's wardrobe because it will soften more bold tie colors like red, green and orange.
Another low contrast complexion is someone with red hair. For this individual, complementing with green tones will be his best play, along with rust-colored highlighted pieces.
It is best to stay away from bold or dark colors like purple for low-contrast individuals, which are far more difficult for this person to pull off.
In almost all cases, these aforementioned men will best increase their complexion and ability to wear more colors by growing a beard.
For all things beard, we recommend connecting with our friend Eric Banholz from Beardbrand out of Austin, Texas to learn more.
Medium Contrast Outfit Matching
The skin type for guys with medium contrast are tanned skin, or skin with more depth of color.
The hair is also brown or darker.
This person has it safe because they can wear more monochromatic colors as well as the more high contrasting pieces.
The key here is to pick out colors that contrast what is happening with the hair, glasses, eyes, lips and any other feature that creates body and definition in the face.
High Contrast Outfit Matching
This person has it the easiest and will attract the most attention.
Most models are high contrast individuals and this allows them to wear a much larger range of colors. Their skin is often light and their hair is dark.
This allows for these men to wear a white shirt and a bold tie or a tuxedo yet the audience’s eyes still pull toward the face.
Even though men of African decent have dark skin, hair and eyes, which is monochromatic, they are not considered low-contrast individuals.
This is because the white in their eyes as well as teeth create a high contrast impression. Also, some darker toned Indian and Middle Eastern men are high contrast individuals.
Men in the high contrast category can wear bright colors without a problem. Even yellow, which looks terrible on most men, would look great on someone with a darker complexion.
Remember, skin color and feature contrast is a spectrum. Your feature color can be "in-between", in which case you would be able to pull off most colors and patterns in either contrast category that you're straddling.
Further Reading about Contrast:
How To Pick The Color of Your Suit
When deciding how to match an outfit, one must have a decent understanding of the formality of color and the implications of wearing black, navy, tan, etc. Each event will warrant a certain level of formality ranging from black tie, to completely informal.
Because black has been the staple throughout history, it is still the most formal color for a suit especially in the form of a tuxedo.
With the Millennial generation, black tuxes are becoming less and less popular and their use in weddings is on the decline.
Today, they are often reserved for black tie events around the holidays or among people in high-society business or politics.
(Looking for a decent guide on wedding suit style? Check out this article)
Charcoal is one of the most common colors for a business suit because of its darkness and neutrality, while maintaining a sense of traditional formality.
It has a clean look and can work with just about any height or body shape a man may have.
It has a wider range of colors options than a black suit, but is somewhat constrained as its dark shade restricts its use against lighter colored shirts, ties and shoes.
A common mistake made here is wearing walnut shoes and belts or other lighter browns with a grey suit.
Next is Navy and it serves as the ultimate in universal appeal.
It’s dark enough to be formal but light enough to be casual. The jacket can often be dressed down with khakis or jeans, while still maintaining a professional look. The trousers can also we worn separately with a polo, sport shirt or sweater.
Khaki or tan is the summer suit of our time.
President Barack Obama wore one once during Easter and caught media flack because of its lack of power and presence, however, the suit looked excellent on him.
These medium and lighter shades of brown are informal but also calming. They are often made of lighter weight wool and have the same color functionality of a navy suit.
The trousers are the perfect combination with a navy blazer and sport shirt for the Ivy League look.
Picking The Color of Your Shirts & Ties
For shirts and ties, color functions differently than a suit. You need to be aware of the different factors at play when trying to match them with the rest of your outfit.
Picking The Color of Shirts
A white dress shirt is a staple that has existed since the beginning of time and still remains as a piece every man should have in his wardrobe.
There are several collar styles, but a standard forward point collar dress shirt can be worn with any color of suit and it can be dressed down with denim while also looking clean under a sweater with khakis.
Sky or light blue will be the next heavy lifter in your wardrobe.
It will match all of the suits in your closet and will play off of most of your ties as well.
Blue softens the colors around it and lowers the contrast of the overall outfit. When heading into a store, you’ll likely encounter the full rainbow of basic solid shirts.
Our key advice here is that your shirt should always be lighter, less bold and pronounced than both your suit and tie.
The dress shirt operates in the background behind your tie and under your suit so making it the focal point will be confusing.
Watch this video to quickly master shirt and tie matching:
Big department stores offer every color under the sun and while most of them will work under a basic suit, it will make finding a working tie that much more difficult.
When it comes to the basics, Brooks Brothers has been around for 200 years and have figured out what works best.
Pink is a great basic, but avoid it if it washes out your face and as mentioned before, yellow only works for a select group of people.
If you decide to go with a French cuff and collar shirt, you will be adding contrast to the wardrobe, which may not work well with your complexion.
A tux shirt is white and has pleats down the center of the chest.
Unless one attends at least two black tie affairs per year, we recommend just renting such an item. If you do buy a shirt, it makes sense to have it custom made as the investment will last the test of time.
We don’t recommend buying a white tie or a black shirt for any occasion.
A black shirt’s only purpose is for people in the restaurant industry who are susceptible to food stains on a daily basis.
Picking The Color of Ties
Ties are the most complicated piece of the suit as designers and manufacturers have created an infinite number of colors, designs and patterns.
Historically, the tie is the first piece of catch a viewer’s eye so that means one should be all the more picky when selecting such neck wear.
The first rule of solids , specifically with ties, is to make sure they do not match the suit.
A solid navy tie on a solid navy suit doesn’t tell a story.
In addition, garments take dye differently so even if the suit and tie are from the same manufacturer, the color will mostly likely be slightly off. It will clash and even the most untrained of fashionistas will notice.
While living in the solid world, the tie is where your story will start so it makes sense to pick a non-neutral color here.
Starting with a medium blue, red or maroon are safe plays for the wardrobe.
We advise against yellow and orange here only because they are so bold that they need to be muted with a pattern or serve as the minor color in the tie.
The Seasons & Picking Colors
There is an old rule that says one should not wear white or seer sucker before Easter and after Labor Day, but this rule should really be subjective to the client and culture that you are in.
For instance, if it's 100 degrees out in December in Florida, you should not be wearing navy or black to the beach. Utilize dark colors for the Fall and Winter.
Also, your surroundings should play a factor. If you're near the woods or countryside, greens and earth tones make the most sense.
On Wall Street, in New York City or another modern metropolis, bright and bold power colors will command attention.
Which Suit Colors Are Most Versatile?
When going shopping, a gentleman is always aware of the versatility of certain colors over others. This is especially true when investing hundreds of dollars on a new outfit. You don't want to drop $300 on a new pinstriped suit and wear it once a year right?
Of course note...
The same could be said of buying a cheap $100 Navy suit. You're likely going wear the crap out of that suit. I know I wear mine 2-3 times a week at a minimum. If you opt for a cheap suit that you wear often, it's going to break down and become worthless.
That being said... let's get into the specifics.
The Most Versatile Suit Colors
Bar none, the first suit that every man should purchase should be in Navy.
I prefer a modern navy as opposed to the traditional midnight navy, which is pretty dark and in some lighting, indistinguishable from black.
This is the ‘new black’ of modern days.
A navy suit goes with every height, body type and complexion. Additionally, if it has the right weight, it can we be worn year round.
The wearer can pair light walnut shoes and belt in the summer and bourbon or burgundy shoes in the winter.
When it comes to shirts and ties, light colors such as a white shirt with pink, yellow or other pastel can work in the spring and summer.
Traditional colors like a light blue shirt can be paired with forest green, maroon or purple in the winter months.
Least Versatile Suit Colors
White is the least useful suit on the market and there is no reason you should wear one...
Even if you are renting a tuxedo, at maximum, you might want to wear a white shawl collared dinner jacket but your date will likely suggest something different...
Now that we have white suits and jackets out of the way, the real enemy here is the black suit.
When I owned the retail clothing store Rusted Oak, men often came in looking for a black suit.
I asked them why they wanted black but they couldn’t tell me.
For royalty, black served as evening attire and men never took off their jackets.
The Duke of Windsor was the first to change this paradigm the evening he started wearing brown to everyone’s surprise. The next day, everyone followed suit (no pun intended) and that has been the trend since.
The problem with black is it is too formal and hard to match. What color belt and shoes can you wear with a black suit? Well, only black.
Your options are brogue, which is less formal or standard toe cap dress shoes, but when they’re black, does it really matter? You can wear different colored shirts, but white is the best option on black.
Colored ties that are brighter look best with black but if you are medium or low contrast, they will not look good at all.
Pocket squares will almost always be white or of a bold color as well.
Did we note that like a black car, a black suit will show the most imperfections with dirt, dandruff and any other particle that is floating through the air?
My take it that unless you are a conductor of an orchestra or in the band, a rock star or an undertaker at a funeral home, black is best left to formal events in tuxedo fashion.
Picking Colors Based On Body Type
Most gents know, dark colors are almost always slimming and lighter colors add weight.
Black, charcoal and navy suits all have a slimming effect, so unless you are reaching for that lightly colored linen sport coat, you should have no issues in this arena.
When it comes to body shape, strengthening your image will come from the use of patterns and design details of the shirt and tie or the suit construction.
Picking Out Patterns - The Basics
Now that we have covered color, it’s time to add pattern.
Pattern is inherently mathematical and when looking back thousands of years at Celtic or Islamic design, you can see curves and lines that are repeated over and over.
There are some things that stand the test of time and patterns in nature are one of them. What works in style is no different and is as logical as can be.
When starting to build a functional dress wardrobe, solids are the safest place to start.
When you look at the history of the U.S. Presidency, you’ll see that they are almost always wearing a solid suit, shirt and tie.
When you are the leader of the free world, getting dressed every morning is a chore and fashion becomes fairly low on the priority list. Every once and a while you will see them with a subtle pattern on the tie but it’s so small, the television camera can barely pick it up.
The human race has two options: to compete or collaborate.
Teams do this in sports. They collaborate and function as a unit to compete with other teams to win.
Think of this when putting together your outfit for the day.
Two stripes of the same width will compete with each other for attention of the viewer and the outfit will look ‘busy’ and essentially monolithic because everything looks the same.
We want our clothes to collaborate and tell a story, to work as a team. For suits, shirts and ties, one piece is basic, the second takes the low road and the third is the show stopper.
The more pattern you add to your wardrobe, the less formal it will be and it will be harder to put pieces together.
This becomes increasingly difficult as you shop across multiple brands. A lot of better menswear brands that sell in specialty stores only manufacture one item such as shoes, ties or accessories, which means the sales representative needs to have a strong command of how things go together.
Companies that manufacture and put together full collections are easier to shop because all of the combinations have been designed to work together ahead of time.
They protect their profit margins by only putting one of the two items of the outfit on sales. For instance, the small-striped shirt is on sale this week, but the matching wide-striped tie wont be on sale until next week.
As the consumer, you are almost always going to buy these two at the same time.
Matching Patterns For Your Ties
As mentioned earlier, because the tie is in the foreground, it should always be more bold that the shirt and sometimes more than the suit.
This is the place to start with pattern since it is already the focal point of your ensemble.
Basic repeating shapes of a pattern or a stripe serve as the bulk of business wear. Any shape and size of such patterns will work on a solid shirt or suit, but the smaller pattern will be more aesthetically pleasing.
Patterned ties will introduce you to a second or even a third color, which brings us to color balance. In most cases there will be a ‘major’ color and a ‘minor’ color on the tie depending on how much surface area is covered.
The major color is the one we refer to as the tie name itself.
For instance, a navy striped tie is mostly navy in color so it's the major color.
The major color is almost always more bold than the minor colors as well. This is because the minor colors are usually designed to match the dress shirt and serve to bring the shirt and tie together as a matching ensemble.
Minor colors tend to be neutral, which makes them more versatile in a business wardrobe. Ties that have four or more colors are not covered because we believe they are extremely limited in use and often times a waste of money.
Selecting Patterns For Your Shirts
Odds are at this point, you have patterned ties in your wardrobe and you are now ready to bring in some more diversity to the basic dress shirts.
You should still be wearing solid suits to make this happen.
As we mentioned before, shirts operate in the background behind your tie so any pattern that you select should be more subtle and lighter than your tie.
An easy rule for matching pattern is one should do the opposite for like kind and similar for opposite kind.
For instance, like kind would be wearing a striped shirt and tie. Doing the opposite means making sure the stripe width is different so that the shirt and tie are not competing for attention.
Because the tie needs to be more bold, its stripe width should be at least double that of the shirt. This 2x visual measurement seems to be the most aesthetically appealing. For opposite kind meaning you have a striped shirt and a patterned tie, the width of the designs should be the same.
Watch this video to learn some shirt tips that most men don't know:
Initially, we recommend staying away from gingham check and bengal pattern shirts only because there is not a major or minor color which limits their range of use with suits and ties.
We mentioned defaulting to larger and bolder patterns for the tie and we suggest the exact opposite for shirts. This will allow your shirts to match more items in the wardrobe and ensure it stays in the background in all cases.
In addition, smaller details will work well when you start introducing patterned suits into the wardrobe.
The conclusion here is that more often than not, your suit is the basic backdrop, the shirt the starter, and the tie is your all star.
Picking Out Patterns For Your Suits
The suit should be the last place you start to add pattern in your wardrobe.
The reasons for this are that matching pattern suits limits the functionality of the entire wardrobe therefore, it is far less expensive to add 20 patterned ties to your wardrobe than it is 20 suits.
Suits need to be cleaned more often and wear out quicker. Adding pattern to your suits also plays back into what body type you have and what will best highlight your strengths while minimizing what you don’t like about yourself.
The solid suit is the most formal and easiest to work with.
There are different fabric types beyond wool and weave types which will add texture but this will not impact your ability to match well.
The first patterned suit that most men purchase is the pinstripe or the chalk stripe suit.
Pinstripes are small and solid while chalk stripes literally look like faded chalk lines and they are spaced out a bit more. The pinstripe is easier to match because most of your ties will have a wider striped pattern.
The chalk stripe has become more popular because the faded look of the stripe gives the suit more texture and will take on the properties of your shirt.
For instance with a chalk stripe suit in both charcoal and navy, the stripe will look more white if you wear a white shirt and more pink if you wear a pink suit. Both of these suit pattern types will still allow you to maintain formality in a business setting yet express some personality.
It is easier to pair either with a solid shirt and let it be the basic of your triad. Like with shirt and tie matching. If you wear a striped tie, make it more bold that the suit and if you wear a striped shirt, make it less bold (smaller pattern) than the suit.
While it is possible to wear three stripes or three shaped patterns for the suit, shirt and tie, we recommend breaking it up with a solid somewhere in the outfit.
The next common patterned suit is the glen plaid or glen check.
It often comes in a shade of grey, but more recently has been introduced with hints of color woven throughout.
Because of the busy pattern, we recommend going the opposite with your shirt and tie and adding wider stripes and patterns to ensure ease of matching.
This suit also has a lot of appeal being worn as separates. Grey glen check pants work well with a navy blazer or camel hair sport coat.
Lastly, windowpane is the least formal but the most desired.
The windows are big and bold, which attract a lot of attention. While they often come in the staples of navy and grey, most are very colorful.
This in turn makes it harder to match both shirts and ties, especially when adding more color.
Further Reading on Patterns
Matching Socks, Shoes, & Pocket Squares
When putting together an outfit, accessories can set you apart from the crowd in a big way. A well place flower lapel pin or the subtle addition of presidential folded pocket square could give an outfit a bit of extra flare for everyday use.
Let's have a look at picking out and matching accessories.
Picking Out Socks
When putting together an outfit, sock choice is an area where you can play the most.
Sock patterns are a relatively new, yet resurfaced trend. In other words, fun socks are back!
Movie stars from years ago were not shy to wear beautiful socks and we recommend looking to Humphrey Bogart, Clark Gable, the Duke of Windsor or Fred Astaire for the best in sartorial sock wear.
Picking Out Shoes
Shoes are like suits, the more details you have, the less formal and the lighter color the shoe, the less formal.
The most formal shoe that one should have is the black toe cap dress shoe as it has stood the test of time for generations.
A person like me does not wear black so I have opted for the Allen Edmonds Burgundy Park Avenue.
This shoe has more versatility with my suits, shirts and ties but I primarily wear it in the winter given its dark color.
Any kind of faux holes makes it slightly less formal.
Wing tips are even less formal and can be more easily worn with jeans or khakis.
You will often see these in the lighter colors like walnut, which is a great spring and summer shoe.
Pairing your shoes with a suit is like anything else – opposites match. If you are going the most formal with solids, then pick the plain tow cap.
If I am wearing a solid suit, I try to offset it with ‘detailed’ shoes like brogues.
The opposite is true when I wear a busy windowpane suit. I pick a pair of monk straps or like shoe that is the most plain.
This will keep the shoe from competing with your suit for attention.
Picking Out Pocket Squares
Pocket squares are best left for advanced dressers.
Like socks, guys think they can pick up anything and throw it in their pocket.
Watch this video for a quick guide to socks and other men's accessories from celebrity stylist Ashley Weston:
A common mistake is that the pocket square should match the tie.
These are a lot of ‘package deals’ that are sold this way but its incorrect and looks fake.
Renting prom tuxes is the most common time you will see this. A pocket square may have a minor color that matches your tie or shirt, but it should stand out on its own.
The key here is getting the color hue to be at the same level of a tie. For instance, if the tie is mustard or flat yellow, having a neon blue pocket square will be completely off and attract the wrong kind of attention.
Glasses and other accessories should not be the focal point of your outfit, they are complements.
The biggest key to glasses is getting the shape of the lenses right. They should be the opposite of your face (see the theme of opposites yet?).
If you have a round face then your glasses should be square or rectangle. Also, the color of them should help add contrast to your face which will give you more options to dress with, much like growing a beard.
The key here is not wearing something that attracts unwanted attention. Other accessories like cuff links, watches, lapel flowers and the like should be there to highlight a part of you, but they are not the main focal point.
Start with something subtle or nothing at all.
Written by Robert Ordway
Raised in the small mill town of Lake Station, Indiana, Robert’s blue collar upbringing exposed him to little if any of the clothing industry. Robert has been following the menswear industry for over a decade and has been significantly influenced by the book, Dressing the Man by Alan Flusser. From 2009-2012, he worked in retail sales at both Brooks Brothers and JCrew. In 2015, Robert received the Custom Clothier certification from the Custom Tailor and Designers Association (CTDA), the oldest continuously operating trade organization in the United States. He is the former owner of Rusted Oak, a men’s retail clothing store in Valparaiso, Indiana.
Today, Robert's mission is to teach men of all shapes and sizes about grooming care, general life style tips, and of course male fashion stemming from his deep career in the fashion industry.