A Man’s Guide to Combining Colors

We’ve already written on this site about the basics of color for men — what colors match well and different ways to combine them.  But how does that translate into an actual outfit?  It’s not enough to know that red and green are complementary colors that go well together.

Even though the colors are good in combination, the wrong shades or the wrong amounts of each color will just make you look like a Christmas decoration.  Menswear has to find a good balance between the dominant colors of the suits and shirts and the accent colors of things like neckties, pocket squares, and jewelry.  Combining colors tastefully is one of the hallmarks of the truly well-dressed man.

Base Colors:  The “Canvas” Clothes

Color comes from every item you put on your body.  Your suit has a distinct color and so do the frames of your eyeglasses.  Try to have a good understanding of what each piece brings to the relationship between colors.  Large, visible pieces like suits and shirts are your “canvas” — the color that serves as the basis for whatever accents you add.  These are the most visible piece of clothing but don’t necessarily have to define the outfit.

A neutral canvas like a dark gray suit or a white shirt will let the viewer’s attention move to other details.  If you want people to notice a particular accent — new eyeglasses, or a status watch, say — you can grab their eye by leaving the canvas clothing simple and muted.  Wear neutral canvases with colored accents for the most balanced look.

Neutral Clothing Canvas

Neutral Clothing Canvas

A blue-tone canvas (navy blue suit or lighter blue dress shirt) is a traditional base for menswear and is often seen as a “youthful” look.   It adds more color than a completely neutral base, which is more eye-catching but also more limited in matching options.  There are a few colors that just won’t look good with shades of blue.  Wear blue-tone canvases with colors like brown or dark oranges for the most flattering contrast.

Blue tone clothing canvas

Blue tone clothing canvas

A colored canvas (brightly colored/patterned shirts or colored sports jackets) can be striking but difficult to match.  They’re also not very appropriate outside of casual settings.  Wear accents of complementary colors to make a colorful base work without clashing (you can visit our article on A Man’s Introduction to Colors for more on complementary colors and the color wheel).

Color Clothing Canvas

Colored Clothing Canvas

Have a good sense of your base or canvas clothing before you start adding accents.  Some pieces may fall into more than one of these categories — a tweed jacket, for example, might be predominantly gray (neutral) but have traces of blue woven into it.  That would make it a better match for shades that go well with blue, even though it can theoretically work with any accent colors.

mens blue tweed sport jacket

A blue-gray men’s jacket with a lighter blue shirt.  Note the complementing brownish-orange stripes in both.

Defining Colors:  The “Accent” Clothes Unless you’ve chosen a very striking base like a brightly-colored suit, the “feel” of your outfit is going to be defined by the smaller accents.  The same neutral gray suit can become very different outfits when you start changing the shirt, tie, pocket square, and other accents that go with it.

  • Neckties are the most common accent for men.  They look best when they are either from a similar color family as the shirt beneath them (lavender tie over a light blue shirt, for example) or a complementary color for contrast (such as a burgundy tie over a white-and-green striped shirt).
  • Pocket squares are similar to neckties in terms of decorative function, but are far less widely-used.  Include one in your outfits to add a bit of stylish flash.  They should pair with the suit jacket or sport coat in much the same way that the necktie pairs with the shirt:  either joining it in a similar color scheme or contrasting with it in a complementary fashion.  When wearing both, be aware that the necktie and the pocket square should never match — they are two separate accents!
  • Jewelry should generally be understated on a man.  The basic rule of thumb is to keep all the metals matching:  either gold tones or silver, never both.  Watches, rings, cufflinks, and earrings if you wear one all fall under the rule.  The only exception is a wedding band, which can be worn with anything — its significance is recognized to be set apart from the rules of fashion.  If you do happen to wear colored jewelry (unusual on a man), be sure that the colored stone/glass either contrasts or mimics the colors of the larger outfit in the same way as the other accents.
  • Briefcases and other bags are rarely a perfect match (unless you happen to have the money for a matching bag with each suit and shirt).  Most men find it easiest to own a black bag and a brown bag and match the bag to their shoes and belt.  Blue-tone canvases do well with brown leather, more neutral bases go best with black, and brighter colors may go with one or the other depending on where they fall on the color wheel.
  • Glasses can be particularly frustrating if you need to wear them daily and only own one set of frames.  Any kind of distinct color will be a jarring note in outfits that don’t go well with that particular color.  Try to stick to narrow frames with a muted metallic or black color if you’re planning on wearing your glasses with all of your outfits.  See our article on A Man’s Guide to Wearing Eyeglasses for more information on making glasses work with your outfits.

Putting it All Together Creating a well-matched outfit is as simple as combining the two categories above.  Your “canvas” clothing provides the background that you work on.  Your “accent” pieces define the color scheme.  Accents similar to the canvas colors gives you a matched, single-color look.

Accents that contrast with complementing colors give you a balanced, active appearance.  The real key is to make sure all your accents are doing the same thing — a few matching accents and a few contrasting ones may wind up looking confused rather than deliberate.  Pick an approach — matching or contrasting — and stick to it throughout your accenting. You may also want to read: