Color Coordination for Men: The Basics

Choosing proper color coordination in men’s clothing is both an art and a science. This article will offer you a simple, practical guide to matching color so you dress smarter, look sharper, and become more confident in your outfits.

What is Color?

Great question. Put simply, Color is a visual effect resulting from the eye’s ability to distinguish different wavelengths or frequencies of light. Red has the shortest wavelength; violet, the longest.

Color Theory in Brief

All color theory is based on the color wheel:

Credit: decoart.com

The color wheel has three primary colors: Red, Yellow, and Blue.

Within these colors are secondary colors, which are combinations of primary colors: Blue and Yellow make Green, Blue and Red make Violet, and Red and Yellow make Orange.

Each of the primary and secondary colors can be measured by three basic properties:

  • Hue – the name of a color
  • Value – the degree of lightness or darkness in a color. It’s expressed by tones, tints and shades
  • Intensity – the degree of purity or strength of a color (hue) or how bright or muted the colors are.

So, an intense red is a very strong, pure red color. We can lessen the intensity of a color by adding another one to it. For example, adding white to red makes pink.

We can visualize the term in a more in-depth chart below:

Simple Color Wheel for Color Coordination: Shade, Tone, Tint, Hue.
Simple Color Wheel
Detailed Color Wheel

Two additional terms to know are core colors and accent colors. A core color is the dominate color in your outfit- a blue suit, for example. Accent colors, then are the second and third color in an outfit.

With this understanding, we can start talking about color coordination and how to combine colors for dynamic and interesting outfits.

Triadic

A triadic is color combination of three colors that are equidistant from one another on the wheel. It looks something like this:

Color Wheel: Triadic | 3 colors that are equidistant from one another

Visualized in a outfit, you could have a blue suit, yellow shirt, and a red tie. However, having each of these in their purest forms would create quite a lot of contrast. So, playing with hues and shades is very important.

A better application for this outfit of primary colors, then, would be a darker shaded blue suit, lighter shaded yellow shirt, and a darker shade of red for the tie.

Complementary Color Coordination

Complementary colors are directly oppose each other on the colors wheel. Take Red and Green, for example.

Color Wheel: Complementary Colors

Because there’s such a stark contrast between the two, they stand out more intensely when paired together. A very intense red and intense green pairing may make for a very loud combination and elicit suggestion of Yuletide holidays. (Which may-or may not- be what you’re going for!)

The way to make these work beautifully together is by softening their hues. So, a deep, hunter green mixed with a rich burgundy can be a very classy combination indeed.

Analogous Color Coordination

Analogous colors sit adjacent to each on the color wheel. So, in the scheme below, we get: Green, Yellow-Green, and Blue-Green (otherwise known as teal).

Color Wheel: Analogous Colors

These are, frankly, more difficult for color coordination since they sit so close to each other on the wheel.

However, combining colors with cooler undertones- like blue, blue-green, and light purple- is much easier than combining colors with warmer tones like red, red-orange, and and orange.

Warm, Cool, and Neutral Color Coordination

This is an excellent segue into talking more in-depth about warm, cool, and neutral color coordination.

Families of analogous colors include warm colors (red, orange, yellow) and cool colors (violet, blue, green). Designers often build color schemes around two or three related colors.

Color Wheel: Cool & Warm

To keep your outfits both dynamic and interesting, we suggest color coordination utilizing both warm and cool tones.

On the formal end, you could build an outfit with a solid navy suit, a light, baby-blue shirt, and a deep orange tie. On the casual end, you could use a rust-colored suede jacket, a pale yellow OCBD, and some dark-wash blue jeans.

Additionally, we’d be remiss not to talk about neutral colors. Neutrals-defined here as black, white, grey, and tan- are the ‘blank canvas’ of menswear.

These blend well with just about any color, and work well color combination of their own. Some cream trousers, grey cashmere sweater, white shirt, a brown knit tie can look particularly chic for a evening out in Northern California!

Outfit Pairings

To visualize this more completely, we’ve built some charts of some possible combinations you can use to create dynamic and interesting outfits.

Match With Navy Jacket

ItemColors
Shirt (and/or Pocket Square)white, blue, yellow, pink
Tie (and/or Pocket Square)blue, gold, yellow, burgundy, red, purple
Trousers for Sports Jacketsgray, tan
Belt/Shoesblack, brown or cordovan

Match With Grey Jacket

ItemColors
Shirt (and/or Pocket Square)white, gray, yellow, pink, lavender, blue
Tie (and/or Pocket Square)black, white, gray, green, blue-green, burgundy, navy, any primary or pastel colors
Trousers for Sports Jacketsgray, black, navy
Belt/Shoesblack, brown or cordovan

Match With Brown Jacket

ItemColors
Shirt (and/or Pocket Square)white, ecru, blue, yellow
Tie (and/or Pocket Square)tan, black, brown, rust, orange, red, gold, yellow, green, burgundy
Trousers for Sports Jacketstan, gray,a different shade of brown.
Belt/Shoesbrown or cordovan

Match With Tan Jacket

ItemColors
Shirt (and/or Pocket Square)blue, ecru, white
Tie (and/or Pocket Square)tan, brown, rust, orange, red, navy,
Trousers for Sports Jacketsblack, navy, gray, brown, darker tan
Belt/Shoesbrown, black or cordovan

Match With Olive Jacket

ItemColors
Shirt (and/or Pocket Square)white, ecru, gray, pale yellow, pale blue
Tie (and/or Pocket Square)burgundy, rust, green, tan, yellow
Trousers for Sports Jacketsgray, tan, navy, brown
Belt/Shoesbrown or cordovan

Match With Black Jacket

ItemColors
Shirt (and/or Pocket Square)white, light gray, yellow, blue
Tie (and/or Pocket Square)black, white, grey, blue, olive, burgundy, any primaryor pastel colors
Trousers for Sports Jacketsgray, tan
Belt/Shoesblack

Bonus Tip: Matching Trousers to a Sport Coat / Sport Jacket

The bone buttons of a sport jacket have a range of colors. You can choose trousers that match any of the colors of the buttons and they will go perfectly.

Pocket Tie Coordination

Compliment, don’t match, your shirt and/or tie with your pocket square. If you do have a yen to match go for the shirt, never the tie.

For a very conservative look try plain white, even if it is a little stuffy. There was a brief period such as the early 1940’s when men did match tie and pocket square, but thank goodness we’ve moved on.

There is some school that believes that the tie or jacket and pocket square should contrast in fabric. If you’re wearing a silk tie opt for a linen square, or a tweed jacket is best worn with a heavier more casual square of wool or cashmere.

White linen would appear too formal. This theory has some merit, but silk still looks great with any fabric.

Additional Considerations

Seasonal Colors

Some colors are more appropriate at certain times of year than others. Like the pastels of yellow, are usually associated with summer, while autumn colors are rust, brown, green, and burgundy. Wearing rust in the summer, or light yellow in the fall looks out of place.

Think Contrast

Try one light element with two dark, or one dark with two lights, such as a charcoal suit, white shirt and red tie, or tan suit with yellow shirt and green tie. Or khaki pants and a dark blue shirt.

Color Value

Dark colors recede thus making you look thinner, and light colors project, which tends to bulk you up. Dark colors are more formal than light colors.

Monochromatic

All one color, but different shades, tones or tints. All blue attire could consist of a navy suit, light blue shirt, dark blue tie, blue pocket square, etc. Add some contrast to this combination by using texture and pattern. Some of your clothing items should be smooth; others rough in texture. Some items could be patterned; others solid.

Neutral

We talked about neutral colors, but you can dress in shades of white, black, gray or beige. Khaki pants, a white shirt, and a gray dress shirt are all neutrals. It may not be a dynamic look, but it is sophisticated.

Seasonal Colors

Some colors are more appropriate at certain times of year than others. Like the pastels of yellow, are usually associated with summer, while autumn colors are rust, brown, green, and burgundy. Wearing rust in the summer, or light yellow in the fall looks out of place.

Color Value

Dark colors recede thus making you look thinner, and light colors project, which tends to bulk you up. Dark colors are more formal than light.

A Note of Caution

You must pay attention to tone (adding gray), tint (adding white) and shade (adding black) of a hue (pure color). Green and red are complementary colors, but if you match pure green and red you’ll look very holiday like, which is fine for December. But burgundy and hunter green are quite stunning together.

Advanced Color Coordination

For more detailed information about color matching your outfits, be sure to check out our Advanced Color Coordination article.

Curious about matching colors outside of the typical color wheel method? Check out this color wheel alternatives discussion.

Summing Up: Creating “Harmony”

The ultimate goal is to build aesthetically pleasing, harmonious outfits.

Two opposites of harmony are bland and chaotic combinations. A “bland” outfit is one without much contrast. Think of the all-black tuxedos at The Oscars. You can’t remember who wore what- it all runs together.

Conversely, think of the time your father tried pairing olive pants and a teal shirt. That’s a lot of contrast!

So, utilizing these tips and referring to the color wheel, you can create harmonious outfits of triads, complementary colors, and analogous colors.

And, as always, if you’re interested in learning more about color coordination, our online community is a great place to learn and ask questions. Thanks for reading!