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Color Combinations for the Tonally Challenged


Raise your hand if you’ve been guilty of wearing a black shirt, black pants, and brown shoes.

Am I really the only one?

I’ll admit it; I haven’t always been the most match-savvy guy. Like most gentlemen, I didn’t have an in-depth sense of fashion until my girlfriend told me. There seems to be something in the male brain that doesn’t quite function when it comes to building outfits.

At the same time, you probably know when an outfit looks bad––like my black/black/brown combo––but you probably can’t say exactly why it looks bad. After you’ve read this simple guide, you’ll have some more insight into the wide world of matching.

If you’re a fashion-forward guy, you might not need this guide. But if you’re “tonally challenged” at times like me, here’s a short and sweet how-to on foolproof color combinations that will take your ensemble to the next level.

Here are three basic levels of color combinations, from the easiest to the most difficult.

Level 1: I Have No Idea What I’m Doing

If you’re completely new to color combinations, this is a great place to start. There are some classic combos that are almost impossible to mess up.

There’s some basic color theory at work here. Certain colors are considered neutrals because, well, they’re neutral. The neutral colors are black, white, and grey. These can provide a solid base for your outfit and can’t clash.

You can also go with safe colors like earth tones and dark hues. Khaki-colored pants and dark denim will go with almost any outfit.

Pairing neutrals with a single color is an easy color combo for novices. For example, you could wear black pants and grey shoes with a green shirt.

Level 2: Color Me Fashionable

If you’d like to enhance your matching expertise, start by examining the color wheel. While you might think this is only for budding painters, it plays a vital role in fashion. By studying how colors relate to one another, you’ll develop a better eye for building your outfits.

You’ll see twelve basic hues on the color wheel. Most clothing will come in either lighter or darker tones, which are respectively called tints and shades, or neutrals.

So why do you need to know all of this? The color wheel displays all of the relationships between colors and tells you which colors pair nicely. Here are three basic color relationships:

  • Analogous colors are next to each other on the wheel. These are simple to coordinate and provide a low-profile look to your outfit.
  • Triadic colors are the same distance from each other on the wheel (like blue, red, and yellow, the primary colors). These give a vibrant feel, so they’re best for outfits that have several pieces (like a suit).outfits that have several elements or pieces (like suits).
  • Complementary colors: These are colors that are directly across from each other on the color wheel (like blue and orange). These create a sharp contrast, so it’s best to use complementary colors in small doses.

Level 3: Andy Wear-hol

Once you’ve mastered basic color theory applications, you can move on to more adventurous hues. Colors like purple and orange can be potentially dangerous to your outfit, especially if they’re bright.

For more vivid colors, try pairing them with neutrals to tone them down. You’ll also need to consider the articles of clothing in question. Obviously, bright yellow pants will attract much more attention than a bright yellow tie.

If you’re looking to enter bolder territory, Real Men Real Style has a great guide on advanced color combinations. There’s also an interesting Reddit post about natural color combos that’s a fun read.

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