When a man decides to buy a custom-made shirt the color is usually the first thing he picks.
This makes total sense — the color of the shirt is the first thing anyone will notice at a distance, long before the quality and texture of the fabric come into play. A great many dress shirts are, of course, not one solid color, but they will still usually have a single dominant color that the shirt “reads” as from far away.
We'll talk in later articles about patterns and how to choose one that works for you, but for now we're going to talk in terms of single colors and what each one does for a dress shirt:
- White – The quintessential business shirt. Goes with everything; acceptable everywhere. Quality of the fabric and cut can make a big difference in a white shirt, since there's nothing else to stand out. Sometimes the only acceptable color in high-formality business settings.
- Light Blue – The more relaxed companion to white shirts. The two make up the vast majority of off-the-rack men's business shirts, in fact! How the cloth is woven may affect how “blue” the shirt is. Not as universally easy to match as white.
- Light Gray – A popular choice for men who want a somber, muted look or who don't like the stark contrast that pure white makes with a dark suit. Very restrained-looking, and as a result sometimes looks odd with a very bright tie/pocket square.
- Yellow – Another light color that's a good alternative to plain white in business dress. A natural complement to blue, it goes great with navy suits and jackets.
- Pink – An increasingly-popular color that European men have been wearing for generations. Stick to lighter, pastel shades and steer clear of “hot” pinks unless you're really trying to make a statement.
- Lavender – Similar at a distance to light blue, but different enough that you'll stand out in a crowd of men wearing blue shirts. Also a useful complement to jackets or suits with lavender (rather than white) pinstriping, which is becoming increasingly common.
- Olive Green – A color that works well in patterns, such as alternating stripes with white. As a solid it's more casual, and goes well with earth-tone jackets and trousers.
- Oxblood – A deep burgundy that's traditionally used in alternating stripes with white. Solid dark reds are striking casual shirts when worn with black or charcoal jackets and trousers.
- Pastels – Just about any solid pastel (yellow, green, blue, etc.) looks great in a summery, light-colored outfit with a contrasting light-colored suit or jacket.
- Tan – Khaki-colored shirts have a traditionally military look. They're unusual and eye-catching but decidedly casual, and don't always work with most suit colors.
- Deep Green, Purple, etc. – Dark, unbroken colors are rarely appropriate in suit-and-tie business settings but can look great in business-casual or social outfits.
The best way to select among all these options (and the many patterns they can come in) when you order a custom-made shirt is to think about the role of the shirt rather than the color: forgetting about the terminology, what are you going to use the shirt for? Think about the fundamental questions:
Is this shirt for business or pleasure?
Social shirts can be any color you please, these days. It's simply a matter of what colors you like, what works with your complexion, and what else you plan to wear.
Shirts for a business dress environment, where suits and ties are the daily standard, will rarely be anything other than white, a white-based pattern, or occasionally another very light color like a pastel.
If you fall into the middle — you work at an office where collared shirts are expected, say, but jackets and ties are optional — you should plan to avoid deep, solid colors but can experiment more with unusual lighter colors and with patterns blending multiple colors.
How versatile do you need this shirt to be?
You can take a white shirt anywhere. It's a blank slate, quite literally. Once you start getting into other colors you're making more of a personal statement (which is a good thing), but you're also not as universally-acceptable.
The brighter, deeper, and richer the color of your shirt, the less flexible it becomes. A smooth, shimmering weave in dark forest green is a gorgeous shirt that any man would be jealous of, but it can only be worn with a few specific kinds of jackets, and only in situations where that sort of flamboyance is acceptable.
You'll need to know before you pick the color whether you want a shirt that you can wear every day with just about anything out of your closet or if you're picking a special shirt for a specific look/outfit and little else.
How serious do you need to look?
If you want people to think of you as a serious businessman you'll want to stick to shirts in the traditional mold: mostly white and light blue; lightly patterned or not at all. These will show their quality more close-up, where the weave and the texture of the cloth come into play.
If, instead, you like to play the dandy a bit and will be wearing your shirt around the town and in social settings, you'll want to steer clear of the traditional colors and have a shirt made in something that most men wouldn't have considered. Colors that are rarely seen on the rack in department stores are your friend — purples, pinks, greens, reds, etc.
Do you want a patterned shirt, or monochrome?
Not all colors take patterns very well. The best base color for patterns is white, paired with a single color that the shirt then “reads” as from a distance.
Color-on-color patterns are more striking and usually aren't appropriate for business dress settings.
We'll talk more about patterns in the next section, but when you choose your color you do need to know already whether you're planning on having it as a solid monochrome, patterned only by the texture of the weave, or if you're going to have a second color in play.
Does your complexion work (or not work) with specific colors?
There are always a few colors that you just can't wear well. Know what they are.
Much of color-coordinating is a question of contrast rather than color, and you can control that by varying what you pair your shirt with. But if you know you don't look good in greens (perhaps because of bright blue eyes, say), don't choose to wear a bright green shirt right up around your neck!
What colors does your existing wardrobe work with?
This is a very important cost consideration. If you're thinking of something new and extravagant — a fancy color you've never worn before — you especially want to think hard and picture it paired with the jackets and trousers you own.
Remember that a shirt is only as useful as the rest of your wardrobe. If you only have one pair of trousers that look good with it, you'll only be wearing that shirt when both it and the trousers are clean. Odds are that won't work out to very often, and it'll take a long time to get your money's worth out of the shirt.
All together, this is a lot to think about — and we've only picked the base color of the shirt! But the color will be the first, boldest statement your shirt makes, and that's why we've spent so much time on it.
Next we're going to look at another factor that affects the color, and is affected by it, directly: shirt patterns and formality.