Color coordination is the arch nemesis of all too many men. They struggle to figure out which colors compliment their skin tone, which colors go together, and how to coordinate colors in general. While the subject is rather nuanced when you get into the nitty-gritty, it's actually not that hard to get the basics under wrap. Thankfully, that's more than enough to dress well without racking your brain over whether this shirt goes with that jacket!
There are 3 key components to color coordination: managing contrast, avoiding clashes, and having a few color schemes in your repertoire. The first two help you avoid bad combinations, which ought to be your focus when you're first getting comfortable with color. The final piece will aid you in organizing, understanding, and composing color combinations that work for your style.
It all begins with...
Whether or not colors are compatible ultimately boils down to their contrast levels. Each item must contrast favorably -- neither too little nor too much -- with both your skin tone and the other garments you wear. When garments are too similar in color, they look muddled and confused.
Using the examples below, one outfit has favorable contrast in its colors while the other is lacking. Both ensembles primarily feature green and gray, yet in the outfit on the left, each color is clearly distinguishable from the others. This allows the eye to differentiate each garment from the next and appreciate the colors individually. Everything looks good.
When there isn't enough contrast between each garment, they blur together in an unsettling way, as shown on the right. The colors look so similar yet definitely aren't the same; the eye struggles to discern where the shirt ends and the pants begin. Worse yet, the same can be said about the man's shirt and his skin; the inadequate contrast makes him look sickly and washed out.
Even with monochromatic outfits in which every garment is from the same family of colors, it pays dividends to create contrast between each piece by varying shade and texture.
Compare these two monochromatic outfits:
Left, Sabir M Peele (@mensstylepro) expertly composes a monochromatic blue ensemble that's rich with contrast because of slight variations in the shades of blue, varied patterns, and mixed texture. The outfit is sleek at first glance -- as is the point of going monochrome -- but offers more nuance upon inspection.
Conversely, the outfit on the right is flat, amateurish, and reeks of John Wick Wannabe-ism. It seems novel at first glance, but wilts under scrutiny.
Making sure that there's enough contrast between each item that you wear is key. It helps differentiate each piece and gives the overall outfit a greater degree of visual depth.
Yet too much contrast can lead to issues of its own, which brings us to Color Coordination principle #2...
There are few things that detract from an outfit more than clashing colors. At best, they are subtly off-putting; at worst, they are a literal eyesore. In either case, it behooves the stylish man to strive for harmony across the colors he wears.
Color clashing -- when colors look incompatible with each other -- is caused by excessive levels of contrast. A healthy dose of contrast, as we've seen, is necessary. Yet too much of a good thing thing will turn bad; too much contrast will prevent neighboring colors from peacefully coexisting.
There are 3 main culprits behind color clashing:
For more information on this, check out the article "No More Color Clashing," from which we will borrow a few exemplary images.
When it comes to color and menswear, a little brightness goes a long way. Think of it like a phone in the dark: too much brightness literally hurts to look at. The picture below demonstrates this perfectly.
Blue and pink are a harmonious color combination. The outfit below is comprised of a blue sport coat, a pink plaid shirt, and pink chinos. The blue jacket and pink shirt look great together, but the pink chinos clash. That isn't because pink and blue aren't compatible, but because the pink chinos are too saturated and can't play nicely with colors around it.
That very same principle applies when coordinating with skin tone as well.
Below, the man on the left wears a light blue shirt that has harmonious contrast with his skin tone: not too little, nor too much. The fellow on the right, however, wears a shirt that is too bright for his skin tone. The excessive contrast overpowers his face and draws attention away from it.
A rule of thumb to keep you safe from overly-saturated colors is to keep your brightest pieces on the small side and your larger pieces more muted. That way, you'll have a pleasing pop of color rather than a neon sensory assault.
That solution should keep you safe from clashing in most instances, yet it pays dividends to be extra vigilant when pairing complementary colors. These are the colors opposite of each other on the color wheel: yellow and purple, red and green, blue and orange.
Complementary color pairings are intrinsically high-contrast, hence require the most caution around brightness. Contrary to what dubious menswear gurus claim -- that they always look great together -- complementary color combinations are very high, risk high reward. They can look spectacular together, but they are also the most predisposed to clashing.
Keeping these colors tastefully muted is key to nailing the look.
The final and most elusive cause of color clashing is mismatched seasonal tones. While there are ways to work around it, it is good practice to keep your warm weather tones lighter and brighter and your cold weather tones muted and somber.
Haphazardly mixing the two will look off-putting and incongruent. Something just looks wrong about it, though most will struggle to discern why.
The fix is simple: keep the colors cohesively optimized towards light and bright warm weather tones or dark and muted cold weather tones.
This guideline *can* be bypassed by implementing seasonal fabrics/textures, but thinking strictly about color, it's best not to mix warm weather tones with cold weather tones.
To avoid clashing goes a long way in making colors work for you rather than against you.
Yet these guidelines, thus far, have mostly focused on what to avoid. What does the stylish man actively seek when trying to compose pleasing color combinations?
The answer is:
Once you've trained your eye to recognize what doesn't look good together, you'll want to inventory the combinations of colors that do! Whether you come across them on your own or lift them from someone else's playbook, curating a repertoire of go-to color schemes makes building outfits a breeze. Rather than having to scrutinize each pairing, you'll have some reliable color combos at your disposal.
The most popular and widely-utilized color scheme is found in the ol' menswear uniform: navy jacket, gray trousers, white shirt,
The beauty of a good color scheme is that you know the colors are compatible, so you can shake up where each color appears. For instance, why not the reverse the color of the jacket and trousers?
Better yet, a repertoire of color schemes will make you confident to add new items to your arsonal! Let's say you love wearing an olive field jacket with a blue chambray shirt, and khaki chinos. If you've been contemplating the purchase of an olive sport coat, you can rest easy knowing that it'll fit seamlessly into your wardrobe because it fits a color scheme that you already wear!
That knowledge will also make you feel safe rearranging the composition of those colors because they'll still look great together wherever they are. A khaki sport coat and olive chinos exude a different vibe than an olive sport coat over khaki chinos, but that color scheme is a proven success! As is either outfit.
Perhaps the greatest benefit of having reliable color schemes is that they will keep your outfits cohesive. They give you a palette to draw from and work with.
An absence of such results in a haphazard hodgepodge that looks disjointed, distracting, distasteful. The men below are unfortunate examples of how just throwing too many unrelated colors together can go awry.
So figure out which color schemes do work for you and build outfits around those!
Implementing the right amount of contrast, avoiding color clashes, and building a solid repertoire of tried-and-true color schemes will change your relationship with color! Once you get comfortable with these practices, what was once a confounding obstacle course will quickly become another tool in your pocket for expressing yourself and projecting your poise!.
In a nutshell, that is color coordination 101.