A Man’s Introduction to Color

How well do you understand color?

Unless you happened to go to art school, odds are not that well.  Most men’s eyes tend to glaze over and go vague whenever someone starts talking about hues and shades and complementary colors.

That’s too bad, as color a powerful visual stimulator that can send a message without saying a word.  Just look at the man below.

young man dressed in colors

Casual, relaxed, warm, happy, artistic.  Any if not all of these describe him in my mind.

An understanding of color is a fundamental part of dressing well.  It makes the difference between trying on dozens of different pieces of clothing and wondering if they’re going to go with your wardrobe back home and picking one well-suited piece with confidence.

This is your basic introduction to colors in menswear and men’s fashion — all the practical tools and as little of the art school theory as we could manage.  Belt up, take a deep breath, and dive on in.


Why Are All My Shirts White and Blue?

The default man’s wardrobe offered by department stores isn’t particularly colorful.  It focuses heavily on variations of blue and white for shirts; navy blue and charcoal gray for suits.


The reasoning is that these are good base colors that match well with most accents pieces (ties, shoes, hats, jewelry, etc.).  White shirts and gray suits make good “canvases” — neutral bases that work in a wide variety of outfits.  Blue shirts and suits achieve a similarly neutral effect while adding a little color to the ensemble.

mens blue white dress shirt

So it’s not actually bad if the majority of your wardrobe features shades of blue, white, and gray.  Those are colors that you can work with easily.

What separates a well-dressed man is the ability to build off of those neutral bases, rather than simply wearing them day in and day out.

A Man's Guide To Style

Basic Color Schemes:  Associated, Complementary, and Triad

Now it gets a little trickier.  For an outfit to look good, all the colors have to belong.  They have to be related in the right ways — if a color is too different from the other ones around it, and in the wrong ways, you end up clashing.

Your cheat sheet for this is called the color wheel. It’s not actually as scary as it looks.  The color wheel shows the basic colors that make up every color we perceive and their relation to one another:

color wheel coordination

The color wheel can help you build outfits that have a pleasing “palette” — a combination of colors that work well together.  Some arrangements work better than others, and where colors fall on the color wheel gives you a good idea of what works together and what doesn’t.

Associated colors are directly adjacent to one another on the color wheel.  They let you create a monochrome or nearly-monochrome ensemble:  dark blue suit, light blue shirt, pale purple boutonnière, for example.

Associated clothing colors

This jacket and sweater combination works well without heavy contrast. The wearer maintains a muted look.



Complementary colors are opposite one another on the color wheel.  Complementary colors creates a bright, noticeable contrast.  Complementary colors often get used for school insignias or holiday themes — we associate them with celebration and pride.  An outfit that contrasts complimentary colors is good for people looking to appear bold and outgoing.

Contrasting colors used in tropical themed shirts



Triad colors are three colors equidistant from one another on the color wheel.  This gives a very balanced appearance with less contrast than a complementary arrangement.  Men with lower-contrast complexions who still want an outfit in multiple colors should consider triads.  Be careful of getting too carried away — with that many colors involved in an outfit, it’s best to keep the hues themselves fairly muted.

Color schemes that are more haphazardly placed around the color wheel may not be as aesthetically pleasing.  If your outfit is jumping all over the place in terms of color, you may want to rethink some of the pieces in it.  Try to bring everything into a balanced relationship like the one above.  There’s nothing wrong with a colorful outfit, but they need to be the right colors.

Wearing Colors:  The Basic Etiquette

So with the color wheel in hand you should be well prepared to move beyond the basic white-and-blue canvas of typical menswear, right?  Absolutely — but have an awareness of the etiquette when you do.

Bright colors in general are not considered appropriate for formal or business situations. Very strict business dress is in fact restricted to a charcoal gray or navy blue suit and a white shirt — don’t try to get creative in those settings.  More casual day-to-day business attire can include color in moderation, usually as a pattern on shirts and neckties.  In social settings, you’re free to wear whatever looks good, so long as it isn’t too ostentatious for the event.  When in doubt, always remember that more colors equal more casual, and so do brighter colors.

A special thank you to the Lisbon Tailor for three of the above photos – click on the images to see more of his photo skills!

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