A Man’s Guide to Combining Colors

We’ve already written on this site about the basics of color for men — what colors match well and different ways to combine them. But how does that translate into an actual outfit? It’s not enough to know that red and green are complementary colors that go well together.

Even though the colors are good in combination, the wrong shades or the wrong amounts of each color will just make you look like a Christmas decoration. Menswear has to find a good balance between the dominant colors of the suits and shirts and the accent colors of things like neckties, pocket squares, and jewelry. Combining colors tastefully is one of the hallmarks of the truly well-dressed man.

Base Colors: The “Canvas” Clothes

Color comes from every item you put on your body. Your suit has a distinct color and so do the frames of your eyeglasses. Try to have a good understanding of what each piece brings to the relationship between colors. Large, visible pieces like suits and shirts are your “canvas” — the color that serves as the basis for whatever accents you add. These are the most visible piece of clothing but don’t necessarily have to define the outfit.

A neutral canvas like a dark gray suit or a white shirt will let the viewer’s attention move to other details. If you want people to notice a particular accent — new eyeglasses, or a status watch, say — you can grab their eye by leaving the canvas clothing simple and muted. Wear neutral canvases with colored accents for the most balanced look.

A blue-tone canvas (navy blue suit or lighter blue dress shirt) is a traditional base for menswear and is often seen as a “youthful” look. It adds more color than a completely neutral base, which is more eye-catching but also more limited in matching options. There are a few colors that just won’t look good with shades of blue. Wear blue-tone canvases with colors like brown or dark oranges for the most flattering contrast.

A colored canvas (brightly colored/patterned shirts or colored sports jackets) can be striking but difficult to match. They’re also not very appropriate outside of casual settings. Wear accents of complementary colors to make a colorful base work without clashing (you can visit our article on A Man’s Introduction to Colors for more on complementary colors and the color wheel).

Have a good sense of your base or canvas clothing before you start adding accents. Some pieces may fall into more than one of these categories — a tweed jacket, for example, might be predominantly gray (neutral) but have traces of blue woven into it. That would make it a better match for shades that go well with blue, even though it can theoretically work with any accent colors.