What's it like to have a well-balanced wardrobe, in terms of colors?
Well, picture it this way…
You get up, you stumble through your morning routine, and you open up your closet. Eyes closed, you grab yourself a shirt, a jacket, and a pair of trousers.
If your wardrobe is pretty well-balanced, the odds are better than even that you've got a matching outfit.
If there's a good chance that you don't have a matching outfit, you're maybe leaning too heavily toward hard-to-match colors, and need to add some more basic staples.
How To Balance Your Wardrobe By the Numbers
The chart above is a breakdown of the colors, by percentage, that we'd expect to see in a well-balanced wardrobe for an adult man who dresses primarily in Western business and casual clothing.
Now, this is obviously not a hard and fast set of rules. Don't start adding up the number of gray items you own and dividing by the total amount of clothes in your wardrobe or anything like that.
We're talking about general guidelines here. Broadly speaking, your life is going to be easier if you've got a lot of white shirts and only one or two brightly-colored ones, versus having a lot of vivid colors and not much white.
Some of these colors are going to cluster more around specific items (your grays, for example, will mostly be suits and jackets), while other spread through the whole wardrobe. We'll take you through the color families one by one and look at the clothing that's usually found in them — and at why you might what more or less of that color in your wardrobe.
20% – White
White is going to make up the bulk of your wardrobe for a couple of reasons.
First and foremost, it's the most formal dress shirt color. If you don't own at least one good, plain white dress shirt, get one — that's your go-to whenever you're wearing suit-and-tie formality for a “serious business” kind of event.
White-based dress shirts with some light patterns are going to account for another good chunk of space. They're not quite as formal, but have a little more individual style, making them a staple for wearing with any sort of suit or jacket.
Then there's the basics of white cotton: it gets used for T-shirts, undershirts, underwear, athletic socks, and just about every other piece of what you might call “style neutral” clothing — stuff that's worn purely for practical purposes. And we all need some of those, so even if you're not taking them into consideration when you dress nicely, plan on having some plain white pieces lying around the house. They're cheap, interchangeable, and easy to bleach clean when they stain.
Some men may also include a few pairs of white trousers or a white jacket in their collection. These are generally made of light material for summer wear. (Traditionalists will tell you to only wear white between Memorial Day and Labor Day.) White shoes are also not unheard of, particularly the traditionally Southern “white bucks.”
18% – Gray
Gray breaks down into different shades: light, medium, and charcoal.
Charcoal gray is a default business suit color. If you're going to only own one suit, charcoal's probably your best bet, and men who own multiple suits often have several variants (pinstripes, etc.)
Light and medium gray are often used for more casual suits, frequently with patterns (glen check, etc.). They also show up in odd jackets and trousers (unmatched), ranging across the whole spectrum from almost white to charcoal.
Less common pieces include collared shirts, socks (to match gray trousers), and the occasional piece of leather (boots, belts, etc.). Gray sweaters are also not uncommon, and many are made with undyed wool from naturally gray sheep.
14% – Navy Blue
We listed navy separate from the other blues because it has a more prominent role in business clothing: navy blue, like charcoal, is essentially a “default” color for both suits and blazers.
In terms of formality it plays an identical role to charcoal gray. Practically speaking, you're more likely to see a navy blazer than a charcoal one, and probably a little more likely to see a charcoal suit than a navy one, but there's no rule for or against either one.
Apart from suits, blazers, and the occasional pair of odd trousers, navy doesn't show up much. Sweaters, matching socks for navy trousers, and the occasional casual shirt might add a bit more navy, but for the most part yours will be concentrated in the jackets section of your wardrobe.
13% – Black
A lot of men own black suits, which is fine — it's a starker look than charcoal or navy, and purists will insist that the color is reserved for funerals and formal wear, but these days it's a pretty reasonable thing to have in your wardrobe.
If you do own formal wear, that will also obviously be black: the jacket, trousers, tie, and generally the waist covering (cummerbund or waistcoat).
But for a lot of men black is going to be a casual color as well as a business or formal one. Black jeans are quite common, as are black shirts, ranging from dress shirts and polos on down to T-shirts.
Black socks, while they're sold almost everywhere as “business socks,” aren't actually that useful unless you wear a lot of black trousers. You're better off matching the color of your trousers, or going to something that's a deliberate and colorful contrast.
Finally, black is, of course, the default “dress” color for leather items. Shoes, belts, and watchbands in black are fairly necessary if you find yourself in any sort of business dress situation.
12% – Blue
The various shades of blue (dark, light, sky, etc.) outside of navy cross over into most sections of a man's wardrobe.
You've got your blue jeans, a basic casual staple that can come in anything from deep indigo to plain light blue.
Then you've got blue dress shirts, a wardrobe staple usually done in a soft cloth like chamois. With a soft material and a button-down collar they're quite casual; stiffened up a bit with a point or spread collar they become suitable for the more relaxed end of business dress.
Blue (like most of the remaining colors) works fine as an accent color in pieces like neckties and pocket squares. It's occasionally also seen in leathers, particularly shoes.
10% – Brown
If you include khaki on the spectrum, brown is probably the most significant player in the casual and dress-casual wardrobe.
It's relatively neutral, which makes it easy to match, and shows up in jackets, trousers, and casual suits. Brown is also the primary color for leather accents outside of business dress. Brown shoes can range from dark, plain styles suitable for wear with suits on down to casual work boots and elaborate wingtip brogues.
The only place you're not likely to see brown much is in shirts. They exist, but they're not that common, and don't flatter most men.
7% – Green
From this point on, the colors we're looking at are less likely to be used in “core” pieces like the suits and jackets, and more likely to appear as accents.
Green is probably the most likely to still have a role as a core piece. Olive suits and trousers are not uncommon, and on the east coast the forest green blazer is worn as an alternative to the navy blazer (with clear prep-school origins).
Apart from those uses, however, and as an accent color in the pattern on a white-based dress shirt, green will mostly appear as the base color for neckties and pocket squares. It may also crop up in overcoats, hats, and in corduroys or other soft trousers for the colorfully-inclined.
2 % – Purple
Lavender has enjoyed a period of popularity as an accent, showing up in ties, shirts, and even the pinstripes on business suits. It's largely used as a more playful alternative to plain business blues.
Darker purples make good shirts for men with dark skin, and often show up on ties and pocket squares as well. Lighter purple is sometimes used as a stripe or check color on white dress shirts.
2% – Red
Red pants and jackets are only for the truly bold, or for marching band leaders.
The most widely-used subcategory here will be pink garments, with pink or pink-striped dress shirts showing up fairly regularly in business-casual wardrobes.
Some leathers could also be classified as reds — cordovan and burgundy shoes and belts straddle the gap between red and brown, with some leaning more heavily to the red side. The brighter the red, the flashier (and less formal) the shoe, making it striking but less flexible in the wardrobe overall.
1% – Yellow
Not an easy color to match, especially for lighter-skinned men, yellow is mostly used in dress shirts.
Bright yellow trousers, usually denim or corduroy, do sometimes show up in modern hipster and urban styles. If you really like them, there's no law against having them in your closet, but if you own more than one pair it might be time to re-evaluate your style.
Deeper gold tones are a little more flexible, and are a common choice for neckties.
1 % – Orange
Very uncommon as anything but a necktie or pocket square, and generally used in moderation even there, orange does occasionally show up as a shirt color for dark-skinned men. You'll know if you've got the colors to carry it off — it looks terrible on anyone who doesn't.
All of these numbers are meant to be taken with a little flexibility.
Are you doing it “wrong,” for example, if you have more navy blue clothes in your wardrobe than gray? Obviously not.
But this chart will hopefully give you a basic tool for organizing and for planning your purchases. The more balanced your wardrobe colors are, the easier you'll find it to make matched outfits — whether you're planning them carefully or just grabbing clothes at random in the morning.
Need tips on how to build a more flexible wardrobe?
Check out this article How To Build An Interchangeable Wardrobe