Color goes hand in hand with pattern. Choosing one well does no good if the other is mismatched. Where the guides for pattern are largely based on formality, color is often a purely aesthetic choice (although certain social situations and dress codes call for specific colors of attire, as noted in Misconception #2: Not Dressing for the Occasion). Many matching errors come from following bad advice – color choice is particularly plagued with old truisms of the fashion industry, “no white after Labor Day” and so forth. Most of these have roots in good, solid advice, and may even still be applicable in the majority of situations, but color selection is a skill much better served by a little understanding than by a lot of rules.
Understand the Color Wheel
There’s a whole branch of science devoted to colors and different ways of producing them down at the fundamental, wavelength-based level, but for dressing neatly you can generally get away with the same basic guide people have been using since the mid-seventeenth century: the color wheel. The color wheel is an easy reference for the relationship between different hues.
Generally speaking, outfits should be assembled along the more symmetrical breakdowns of the color wheel: Complementary colors are directly across the wheel from one another – red and green, for example. These colors make a bold, eye-catching contrast with one another, but do not look jarringly mismatched. Triad colors refer to three colors that are equidistant from one another, making a sort of Y-shape on the wheel: red, blue and yellow are triads with one another. This is the most balanced approach to color, and can look very studiously neutral in lighter shades. Analogous colors border one another, as in the case of red, red-orange and orange. These are used to create color-coordinated outfits, and often rely on darker or lighter shades as well. Neutral colors are the non-colors – white (which is the combination of all colors into plain light) and black (which is the absence of color altogether), or the shades of gray between them. Adding white or black to a hue on the color wheel lightens or darkens it without altering its position, allowing infinite variations of each color. Obviously, one can easily put together an outfit that is none of these things – blue blazer, yellow-green shirt, orange tie; gray suit, yellow shirt, green tie, and so on. These combinations are generally jarring to the eye, which is why most designers use the color wheel as their basic cheat-sheet for color schemes.
Understand Complexions: Assuming you stay within the most flattering relationships from the color wheel, the base hues of your clothing should never be too jarring. There is still room for error, however, if you clothes match badly with your complexion; the color of your skin, hair, and even eyes will have an effect on which shades you should select. Issues of brightness and darkness are particularly crucial in choosing clothing suited to your complexion, since they determine the amount of contrast your clothing offers.
High-contrast men are people whose natural complexion is characterized by vividly different colors – fair skin and dark hair is a common example of a high-contrast complexion. Brightly-colored eyes can also heighten a man’s natural contrast. Since these men are naturally characterized by contrast, they want to seek it in their clothing as well; dark suits with light shirts and strongly-colored ties are the best choices. Complementary colors from the wheel will provide the strongest contrast, or triad colors can be a good option for the basis of a suit-shirt-tie combination.
Low-contrast men are the opposite, sporting hair that is similar to their skin (or no hair at all, which removes most of the contrast from any man’s complexion). Very strongly-contrasted outfits can be overpowering on low-contrast men, who do best in analogous colors or even varying shades (degrees of lightness) of the same hue. Pattern, particularly from textured weaves, is a good way for low-contrast men to add variety to their outfits, since overdoing it on the colors will be unflattering.
Medium-contrast men don’t necessarily have a stark difference between their hair and skin, but don’t blend seamlessly from one to the next either. Brown skin and black hair, or tan skin with lighter brown hair are examples of medium-contrast. The key to outfits for medium-contrast men is simply avoiding extremes – complementary colors in very bright shades will be too contrasting, while muted analogous colors in very similar shades of brightness will look washed-out. Triads are a good choice for medium-contrast men, since they offer good balance without being too aggressively different.
Matching vs. Contrasting Even within a single garment, a man is often faced with the decision between matched or contrasted colors – is a blue shirt better with fine white windowpane lines, or should the lines be a light blue instead? The above advice on complexion can be one deciding factor; for the rest, remember that brighter colors and stronger contrasts grab the eye more, while muted hues and patterns worked in similar colors are easier for the eye to travel over. As with all menswear choices, strive for balance – if you are wearing a suit in an unusual style, you will generally want to opt for more matched colors, while higher contrast will make an otherwise-unremarkable outfit stand out in the crowd. Bigger, more distinct patterns require less contrast to make them apparent, and so on.
Sincerely, Charlie’s Design – Fashion House – Bangkok
Lighting and Seasons The old advice about wearing specific colors in specific seasons isn’t simply arbitrary tradition – it’s based on an idea, albeit a heavily Eurocentric one, that the seasons provide predictable lighting, and that a man can dress to take advantage of each one in turn. Winter is predominantly grey and white, making dark, rich colors desirable, while the emerging colors of spring require muted pastels to keep an outfit from appearing garish. Summer is bright, to say nothing of hot, making light colors (and fabrics) ideal, and the riot of colors that deciduous trees produce in the fall is nicely contrasted by reserved earth tones. Since these conventions may or may not work depending on the climate a man finds himself in, it is generally better to simply say “keep your surroundings in mind” and leave it at that – avoid looking too bright for the landscape you’re likely to find yourself in. An interesting footnote on issues of lighting and color choice is that very few men are flattered by black suits when under fluorescent tube lights, an industrial staple of nearly all buildings; this is one of the reasons that charcoal gray is seen as a better business suit choice than black. Unless a man has a very dark complexion, his skin will stand out from a black suit and take on the greenish-purple hue of the lighting.