Understanding which colours work together

One of the main challenges men face when it comes to clothing, is a misguided perception that being well dressed and stylish is a gift you simply either have or you don’t.

Like developing skills in any area, it requires a decent level of interest in the topic and a desire to learn more about it.

Being well dressed is a combination of understanding some lighthouse principles of clothing and then interpreting those guidelines to compliment and accurately reflect who you are as an individual. Style only ever comes once you can do the latter. It’s about finding coherence between your clothes and your authentic personality.

Choice of colour is among the most important factors which affects the look of anything we wear, along with texture (see previous article here), proportion and fit. And, like the other elements, it’s not about only finding a couple of items which work together, it’s about finding coherence across an entire outfit. Resulting in the whole becoming greater than the sum of its parts.

The guidelines which hover in the shadows behind the things we choose to wear apply to colours just as they do to everything else and well dressed men almost always have a strong underlying knowledge (eventually subconsciously) of which colours work well. Over time it takes the serious thinking out of what to wear each day and what was once a daily challenge becomes a simple process. You can compare it to learning to cook – at first, it’s a confusing and stuttered process as you learn which flavours work and which flavours clash, all the while occasionally setting the kitchen, and possibly yourself, on fire. Eventually, though, you’ll reach a point where you can simply look at a fridge full of ingredients and choose the appropriate ones to make the meal you want, depending on what you feel like at the time. 

Simplicity first:

For people with an emerging interest in clothes, over complicating your choice of what to wear is a consistent mistake. Early on, keep your choices simple as your eye develops. Solid colours and simple patterns (chalk stripes, simple checks etc) are ideal, as multiple patterns bring another, more complicated element in to the mix. Just focus on using colour well, and try to keep it to 3 or 4 (brown shoes and belt, grey trousers, blue coat, pale blue shirt, navy tie, for example).

Know which colours work:

As I’ve written about previously navy and grey are the two most versatile colours we can wear, they’re the most flattering to the widest variety of skin tones and both will work with brown or black accessories (shoes, belt, watch strap). You can use these 2 colours as a reliable base and then bring in other colours to either stand out or blend in. Think pale grey trousers with a navy jacket and white shirt – now choose a tie in almost any colour you like and the outfit will work.

Black, white, grey and charcoal work brilliantly together and are most effective when used to the exclusion of any other colours. As I write this I’m in lightweight grey flannel trousers, grey socks, black loafers and a thin black wool roll-neck. It’s an effective and clean aesthetic and one we should all use more often (just don’t wear a black suit to work, unless you’re planning on attending a funeral during the day).

Brown: Browns will work with blue and white shirts (the two most versatile colours for shirts), just make sure there is enough variation between your shoes/belt and the suit/trousers or the browns will blend in to one colour. Some contrast is what you want.

Crème: If you’re wearing a lighter creme suit or jacket or trousers, a blue shirt will be your best option, . A white shirt will wash out the whole outfit. White shirts are fine with darker crème’s where there’s enough contrast to clearly define the difference of the two colours.

Green: Dark green is one of the most under-appreciated colours. For conservative workplaces it’s still usually seen as inappropriate, which is a shame, but it’s unlikely you’ll be able to change that perception in a hurry. You will, however, be able to wear dark green in ties and socks and it’s versatile enough to work well with brown, grey, navy, crème and autumn colours (burnt orange, for example). For the rest of us in workplaces with some flexibility, start with green trousers or a separate jacket and you’ll find they quickly become some of your favourite pieces. 

There are a number of other colours options available, but the list above covers the core stable of colour choices. I’ll write a separate post on how to wear more difficult colours in future. Until then, just send through an email if you want specific advice on something you want to make work. 

Find a theme with smaller items:

Using accessories helps to pull an outfit together, colours which you might not use for jackets, trousers or shirts can be used. As I’ve written about with choosing and wearing pocket squares, find colours which complement the rest of your outfit. My preference is usually for paisley’s and more complex patterns, as the range of colour in a single square gives you a better chance of using it to pick up other colours in your outfit, while the rest can settle in to the background, unnoticed. 

Think of a navy suit, white shirt and dark green tie. Paired with a navy, green and brown pocket square, the brown will go by unnoticed, but the navy and green harmonise with the overall outfit. Bonus points for wearing a brown belt and shoes to make the most of the brown in the square. 

With the points above kept in mind, your eye for colour will develop quickly and you’ll start to instinctively know which options will work before even taking a shirt off its hanger. Most importantly, though, enjoy the process each day, play around with different options and have fun. You’ll begin to find your authentic voice with your clothes and that’s the essence of style. 

If all that fails, go and buy a pepperoni printed onesie and wear it with zip up high-tops. My friend Clive just did and he looks (and I hate to admit it) awesome. But that’s Clive being Clive… which is what it’s all about. 

Andrew is an Australian born writer, covering the world's leading bespoke tailors and craftspeople in menswear, with a focus on authentic quality, over branding. He spends most of his days running his successful (god knows how) consulting company and travels frequently to Europe for work and writing. He's a passionate cyclist, former trainee professional golfer and lover of all things Cocker Spaniel. He's married to his best friend and significantly better half, Mehri.

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