The Color Wheel and Men’s Clothing

Color coordination should never be overlooked by the man building a wardrobe.  Well-chosen colors are like a proper fit:  a detail that can entirely make or break an outfit.

Very nice clothing in the wrong color combinations will still make you look bland and boring, or loud and foolish.  Finding a happy medium is essential to developing the look men strive for.

We recommend starting with our article on A Man’s Introduction to Color, but if you’re hungry for more, we’re going into the color wheel in greater depth here.  This is the basic theory that underlies all the color decisions you can make in your wardrobe.

 

Introduction to The Color Wheel

primary color wheel

The color wheel – which was developed by Sir Isaac Newton in 1666 – is the basis for all color theory.  The 12 basic colors are called “hues.”  Most clothing comes in a more muted form of the true hues:  either they are lightened by adding white (called a “tint”) or darkened by adding black (a “shade.”)

Hue, Shades and Tints for Color Comparison

Shades, hues, and tints for comparison.

Any outfit will be a combination of these colors and the “neutrals” — white, black, and the two combined to make grays of varying darkness.  Brown is sometimes described as a “neutral” base for an outfit as well, but it is still a combination of color wheel hues, and usually reads closest to orange or red-orange in outfits.

Understanding which relationships on the color wheel look “good” to human eyes and which seem bland or garish is the key to using the color wheel in coordinating your outfits.

 

There are 3 Primary Colors:

  • Red
  • Yellow
  • Blue

Primary Color Wheel

These are the only colors that can’t be made by adding or mixing other colors together.  All the other hues can be created by combining primary colors.  In their natural hue (without shading or tinting) they read as very bright, vivid colors to the human eye.  You use them when you want to grab the viewer’s eye.  As a result, you’ll usually only see small accents in unaltered primary colors — a red tie or a yellow pocket square, but never a suit in that pure, bright blue.

 

There are 3 Secondary Colors:

  • Green
  • Orange
  • Violet

Secondary Color Wheel

These are each created by combining two primary colors — red and blue to make violet, yellow and blue to make green, and red and yellow to make orange.  Each secondary color is directly opposite a primary color on the wheel.  That relationship — opposite on the wheel — is called “complementary.”  Human eyes notice the contrast between complementary colors more than other combinations.  A complementing outfit will always read as bright and attention-getting.  As a result, many outfits combine a primary color (usually a shade or a tint of one) and a secondary color for the basic contrast.

 

There are 6 Tertiary (or Intermediate) Colors:

Tertiary/Intermediate Color Wheel

These are found between the primary and secondary colors.  It’s important to remember that they are distinct hues and not just shades or tints of the primaries and secondaries:  a violet shirt isn’t the same thing as a the deeper blue-violet.  It’s a different color rather than a darker form of the same color, with a different complementary color on the other side of the wheel and so on.  Treating the intermediate colors as their own distinct hues will make a serious improvement in your understanding of your wardrobe colors.

A Man's Guide To Style

Mixing Colors in a Man’s Outfit

Mixing colors is an essential skill for any man who hopes to dress well.  Mixing colors can create two effects: harmony or disorganization. When we mix colors in an outfit, we want to use colors that work with each other to create an appearance that’s pleasant to look at, not a mash of color that looks chaotic.

If we don’t mix colors or use any variety, the end result is most likely going to be bland or boring, which people don’t want to look at. If we mix too many colors, or mix colors in a non-harmonious way, it leads to a chaotic and disorganized appearance. This is why it is essential to know how to properly coordinate the colors of an outfit.

There are three color schemes that register as the most organized with human eyes:  complementary colors, triad colors, and analogous colors.

Complementary colors, as discussed above, are directly opposite one another on the color wheel.  This creates the most vivid contrast in an outfit:

Complementary Colors

It’s most common to see a complementing color scheme on someone who needs strong contrast to stand out.  TV commentators like complementing colors, since television has a hard time projecting closely-related colors without turning washed-out.  A small accent in a complementary color is a great touch on a suit or sport coat — pocket squares and boutonnieres in complementary colors always make an attention-getting splash of color.

Triad Colors are equidistant from one another on the color wheel.  This creates the most balanced form of contrast:

triad colors

Triad colors are a good scheme for an outfit with lots of pieces.  A man trying to balance a suit, shirt, tie, belt, shoes, cufflinks, etc. might want to be thinking in terms of triads (some accents in neutral colors, such as black shoes and a black belt, will of course work with any color scheme).

 

Analogous Colors are directly adjacent on the color wheel.  This creates a minimized contrast, giving a very consistent look:

analogous color wheel

Analogous color schemes are great for looking a little more restrained. They make good office outfits. Some fancy occasions also call for analogous color schemes, such as a wedding party with a unified color scheme, but be aware that fancy isn’t the same as formal. For that you’ll still need a standard black tie ensemble, which uses very little color at all.

 

Conclusion:  Using the Color Wheel in Your Wardrobe

The relationship between colors is a science — you can get advanced degrees in it, as a matter of fact.  Don’t let that intimidate you.  The three basic relationships outlined above are always good staples for your wardrobe.  And remember that you also have tints and shades to play with — a deep burgundy shirt reads just the same as a vivid red one for purposes of contrast and relationships on the color wheel, even though it appears much more restrained (and more socially-acceptable) in outfits.

Not all your outfits will follow the color wheel relationships rigidly.  Don’t worry too much if they don’t.  Look for combinations that you feel comfortable in, using the color wheel schemes as a very basic guideline.  A splash of difference here or there is what makes the outfit yours.  A basic understanding of the color wheel is just a tool to get you started.  And hopefully we’ve provided that understanding here!

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  • Dolly Cheung

    Dear Antonio, I wish to thank you for your very rich, professional and interesting articles on men’s style. it is inspiring and your work deserve big applause.

  • http://twitter.com/RMRStyle Real Men Real Style

    Thank you Dolly!

  • http://www.facebook.com/MrAllenU Allen Uribes

    This was a very knowledge-gaining article for me.  I knew about complimentary colors, but I did not know much about triads and analogous colors. 

    I hope to wear my outfits from my growing wardrobe even better with this knowledge in mind.

    Thank you for sharing.

  • brny

    Hi Antonio,

    I like how you go much more into detail about colors I’ve read elsewhere. I have a question. With triad colors, how well does it work to use only 2 from the 3 colors in a triad? For instance, grey (neutral) pants, white (neutral) shirt, dark red sweater and a navy coat, but nothing in yellow. Or a shirt/suit combination with neutral colors (charcoal/white), navy tie and red pocket square, again nothing in yellow. Or even navy suit, dark red tie, red (another shade) pocket square. How good looking would that color combination be in a work/business setting versus analogous colors vs complementary colors vs 3 triad colors?

    Also, assuming we pick one color – say navy – I see I have a wide choice of colors considering analogous, triad and complementary. In fact, almost the entire color wheel, which thus makes things a bit confusing. Which colors would be a bad choice to combine then?