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How to wear colors (part 2/2): Man’s guide to contrasts

You just arrived? The first article of this series of 2 is here: How to wear colors (part 1/2): Coordination Rules.

Which colors should I wear?

Blue, brown, gray: the three pillar colors

It’s a bit of a shame, but we have less freedom than women when it comes to the colors we can wear. Generally speaking, a guy’s wardrobe should be based on three colors: blue, brown, and gray (and any tone that’s a combination of these colors, like blue-gray, taupe and camel).

Of course, you can add touches of other colors to your outfits, but I defy you to dress head to toe in purple and not look like a Power Rangers fan… Well, alright, it’s possible. But I want this post to be accessible to as many people as possible, so, for now, let’s focus on the basics. (N.B. If you’re the purple Power Ranger and you’re reading this post, please ignore this paragraph.)

lanvin-suede-beige

Gray, brown, beige – contrary to popular belief, these sneakers are easier to wear than black ones.

Abuse these three pillar colors, especially if you’re a style beginner. Gray is the easiest of these colors to wear, and, contrary to the stereotype, isn’t a “sad” color… Play with original cuts and materials, or use gray to balance out other pieces in bolder tones, like bordeaux, khaki, violet, clear blue, orange, etc.

If you select all of your clothes in these three colors, you’ll never have to worry about clashes when it comes to putting together your outfit!

Tip: don’t overlook pastel shades, especially in summer. Acne, APC or Saturday Surf NYC and more generally, Scandinavian brands, offer some nice pieces.

seal-of-approval

We approve of gray as a base color for your outfits. So does he.

The colors you wear too much of

Certain colors should clearly be used in moderation. I’m thinking particularly of bold shades of primary and secondary colors, like the colors of the poster paints you used in kindergarten. These shades are quite simply too garish and lacking in subtlety. You can use them in small doses, but more than one item per outfit in a tone like this is probably already too much.

primary-colors-secondary

The three primary colors mix to form three secondary colors. Nice for a Mother’s Day card, but garish for an adult’s wardrobe.

The case of black and white

Let’s debunk the myth right now. Black and white are not easy colors to wear. And they don’t suit everyone. Quite the opposite, these colors are tricky to wear well, because they’re at the two extremes of the color spectrum. Often, if the other colors you wear with your black piece(s) aren’t dark enough, all people will see is the black piece(s), which will dominate the outfit. The same goes for wearing colors that aren’t light enough with your white piece(s).

What’s more, these aren’t practical colors. White becomes gray through washing and general wear, and black fades, unless you buy really high-end clothes where everything is done so that the dye holds.

So use them in moderation, and if you do buy black, do so purposefully (i.e. with a specific idea in mind), not by default. For the easy option, go for gray.

Ben and Gill wrote a response to an email from one of our readers on the subject of colors, where they talked about how to wear black. It repeats some of what has been said in this post and the previous one

rick-owens-runway-men

The Rick Owens catwalk shows will give you good ideas if you want to wear black and white. Notice how the colors of the models’ hair/skin/hat have been repeated in their respective outfits. It’s subtle but it’s one of the details that’s key to making these looks work.

So stop worrying about colors and start thinking about contrast!

Now that you no longer need to stress out about wearing the right colors (because, at the end of the day, you can always just stick to blues, browns, and grays), we come to the second key element of coordinating colors: contrast. Don’t skip this part, because it’s the most important one!

If you only retain one piece of information from this post, it should be this sentence:

The level of contrast between the items you’re wearing should be the same as the level of contrast between your skin and your hair.

A hangover from our hunter-gatherer ancestors, the eye is always drawn to contrasts, to the part that sticks out from the rest. As a consequence, an observer’s eyes will always be drawn to the most contrasting part of your outfit. The objective is of course to direct attention towards your face with an outfit that has just the right dose of character.

The problem is that if you have fair skin and light hair, but you wear an outfit with strongly contrasting colors, people won’t see your face.

Conversely, if you have fair skin and dark hair, but your outfit is lacking contrast, your clothes will look a bit like pyjamas, as all the attention will be on your face.

Photo illustrations (I’ve put the photos in black and white to so that you can see the contrasts separately from the colors themselves):

jean-color-style

jean-dujardin-contrast

-> Strong skin/hair contrast: Jean Dujardin.

Left: the black/white contrast is just a touch too strong given Jean’s tanned skin tone.

Right: the gray suit works better because it contrasts less with the white shirt. The outfit is more balanced.

justin-timberlake-style

justin-timberlake-style-b&w

-> Intermediate skin/hair contrast: Justin Timberlake.

Left: little contrast in the outfit but contrast on the face = pyjama effect.

Right: the outfit contains more contrast, the result is more balanced.

ryan-gosling-style

ryan gosling-style

-> Weak skin/hair contrast: Ryan Gosling

Left: lots of contrast in the outfit. The black bowtie and white shirt combo steals the limelight from Ryan’s face.

Right: the appropriate level of contrast to draw attention to his face.

Which colours should I wear if I’m Black, Asian, Hispanic…?

This is a question that guys often ask, and it’s true that it’s a bit of a special case.

If you’re multiracial (like Grant Harris at Image Granted) the usual rules apply: contrast between clothes = contrast between skin and hair. The same goes if you’re Black, Asian or Hispanic and there’s a contrast between the color of your skin and hair.

For inspiration on black man style check also this two blogs Sabir features a lot of looks of his own at Men’s Style Pro whereas Glen Antoine Palmer at Gentlemen Standard a proposes a sophisticated perspective on how men of color are portrayed.

Les-Frères-JO-Paint-on-my-jacket-01

A lightly contrasting outfit (except for the shoes, the objective being to shake up the ensemble with something that cuts through the rest a bit. N.B. As always, rules can be broken if you know what you’re doing.)

If your skin tone is very dark, you can still go by the same rules, but with more freedom. Just avoid outfits with too strong a contrast. I also think that darker colors will tend to suit you best.

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Don Cheadle. A nice palette of colors on the left. The lighter jacket on the right doesn’t look as nice in my opinion.

Also, I don’t know why, but pure shades of primary and other bold colors often work really well with dark skin. So, feel free to experiment! The outfits worn by Congolese Sapeurs are often very appealing (albeit a bit too exuberant for everyday life). These guys often have a real mastery of color.

sapeurs-congolais

Pink, red, royal blue, orange – not sure that everyone could pull this off…

Repeating colors in my outfit – what do I do about that?

Picking up on colors from one piece in other areas of the same outfit is a technique overused by the fairer sex. They don’t just match their clothes with their accessories, but also their make-up, the color of their eyes, or the highlights in their hair. And it suits them.

Without going quite as far, we can still take something from this repetition of colors:

  • Match the color an accessory like a tie or scarf, or an item like a shirt, with the color of your eyes.
  • Match the color of an item of clothing with the color of your hair.
  • Repeat colors throughout your outfit to bring it together. For example, wearing a scarf with red tones means that you can integrate a pair of bordeaux socks into your ensemble.

These are ideas, not set-in-stone rules. Experiment in front of the mirror with different clothes. The rule about contrast still applies here – it’s a really important one.

zara_homme_men2

J-Crew or Zara’s lookbooks are often a good source of color inspiration (even if the quality of the pieces isn’t always that great).

Postscript

If you feel like you’ve gotten the hang of this basic kind of advice, let us know by leaving us a comment. Feel free to send us suggestions for more advanced topics to cover in our posts, too.

 

  • Are you a high or low contrast type of guy ?

  • Frank Holleman

    The face contrast is definitely something I’ve never paid attention to, but it does seem to have a big affect! I’ll start to watch out for this. I’m not sure yet whether I like being light-skinned and blond = not much contrast…

  • kazzir

    i don’t understand, sorry bro.

  • Hi Frank,

    Well, you don’t really have to like or not, just deal with it 😀

    The rules on contrast don’t really apply to your pants. BUT the rules that apply still is that you want to draw eyes toward your face. For this reason very bright or flashy pants are not my cup of tea.

  • I can probably help, thanks for your feedback, can you be more specific ?

  • SiRiLLy

    Idk, sometimes I think I have this down and other times I’m not so confident. Earlier today I wore an outfit composed of a dark brown jacket, a light blue shirt, a light gray sweater, and some dark gray chinos with a pair of L.L. Bean boots. Is that too much contrast to have in one outfit?

  • Hi,

    So basically you’ve got some light and dark items put together. All the colors were neutral an easy to wear and match well. I would say, there’s no big risk here.

    Best, Nicolas.

  • Hi Jonas,
    So you are a high contrasy type of guy. You’ll need to reproduce that in your outfits. Go for
    – white or very light hues of blue and gray.
    – dark blue, dark gray etc.

    Is that clear enough?

  • Jonas Willis

    Yeah thanks. It makes sense i just needed conformation.

  • Guest

    Quick question my hair is silver and my complexion quite pale so my face/hair contrast is very low. In fact my skin tone is actually darker than my hair.

    So apart from low contrast between items of apparel (I assume) should I go light, dark or somewhere in the middle as a base tone? Are there any colours/tones I should absolutely avoid?

    I’d love to see an example or two.

    Thanks

  • Trevor

    Quick question my hair is silver grey and my complexion quite pale so my face/hair contrast is very low. In fact my skin tone is actually darker than my hair.

    So apart from low contrast between items of apparel (I assume) should I go light, dark or somewhere in the middle as a base tone? Are there any colours/tones I should absolutely avoid?

    I’d love to see an example or two.

    Thanks

  • Hi Trevor,
    Thanks for your comment.
    So you are a typical “weak contrast” guy, like Justin Timberlake in the post. Not sure what you mean by base tone, no colors to absolutely avoid, just try to avoid huge contrasts. So that means avoid black and white and go for a palette of grey and blue. Ex: light blue / navy
    Have a good day, Nicolas

  • Trevor

    By base tone, I meant the lightest/darkest shade which sets the base from which the shades of other colours are anchored to.

    For example if I have a navy blue jacket then, in terms of light/dark, I’ll need to stick to the darker greys, dark browns, forest green etc. for other items but not black.

    Just to clarify, I avoid wearing black and white together (high contrast) but I can wear some black or some white as long as other colours are dark or light to match (low contrast)

    So I’ll need to bear that in mind when shopping for new clothes, as well as what colours to keep to.

    My photo is a classic no-no for my type (weak contrast) then, a white T-shirt under dark blue shirt (high contrast). A dark grey/blue or even black t-shirt underneath would have worked better.

    Finally, last question. It’s only a high contrast between the colours I need to avoid. Or does this apply to textures too? i.e. denim / knitted / suede

  • Hey Trevor,
    I think you understand it really well. To answer your first question, there is no base color to especially avoid. Then some colors match better than other. Basics colors for a mena are blue / grey / brown, we have many posts about that.

    About textures, it’s the opposite, usually putting together different textures looks great. It adds a nice and subtle touche to the outfit.

  • Rene

    Hello Nicolas,

    I have some doubts about something you post about the colors. You say,it’s too much if you have more than 2 colors in your outfit ( the basic colors and it’s combinations). I use this colors ,but in the darker spectrum of colors and in my personal opinion if the colors match, then you can wear more than one.(dark red chinos and dark green t-shirt). I really want to know what do you think about this.

    Also, I think the colors like blue, kaki, brown and gray is better for adults. I think in a environment as a office, it’s better to wear the colors I told you before (brown, gray,..). What do you think about that, I think you can’t wear colors in a office like green, red, yellow, etc.

    Thanks