Forget the goddamn colour wheel already.
In terms of fashion, I think many men don’t trust their own judgement, and need some rules to tell them what’s right and acceptable, and what’s not. That’s especially true in terms of more classic menswear, where those rules are abound. And just like you can find plenty of guides on how a suit should fit, there are many guides on colour coordination. Not all of them are good.
There’s this thing called ‘colour theory’. It’s not a theory in a scientific sense, but a series of guidelines, as well as some definitions used in visual arts. Part of it is the colour wheel – a diagram presenting primary, secondary and tertiary colours in a certain order, and one of its purposes is to help create aesthetically pleasing colour combinations. Two main ways for that are combining complementary and analogous colours. Using complementary colours you to take the colours from the opposite of the wheel, as the most contrasting ones, and thus pleasing. The other means you use neighbouring colours, in safer combinations.
And while in some areas of design that approach might work, some try to transplant it to colour coordination in menswear outfits. Which I don’t find terribly helpful.
Say you have a piece of clothing in a colour that is not very universal and seems rather difficult to introduce to your outfit. Purple, perhaps. What happens if you follow those rules? The complementary colour for purple is yellow or green, depending on shade. Analogous: colours from red to blue. None of those combinations make for an outfit that looks good just slapped together without any further thinking. And you’ll encounter this issue a lot if you try to apply these rules, when you discover they make you look like an action movie poster.
Let’s see an example. You got yourself a pair of purple trousers you don’t know what to do with. If you decide to go with complementary colours, you’ll end up with an outfit in which you might as well just go around town doing your best Heath Ledger as Joker impression.
The analogous combination is a bit better, but I would still avoid using any red, as the trousers are loud enough, and adding other intense colours doesn’t really make for a tasteful combination.
So I would instead forget about those rules altogether, and go for a subdued gray jacket and a plain navy tie.
Someone might say it’s just a starting point, that you might have to play with shades to achieve some balance and avoid looking garish. It is, however, also true with different colour combinations, which don’t necessarily fall into the two categories described above. Plus it adds a layer of complexity, which makes the whole thing much less useful for a beginner or a person who isn’t that interested in clothes, but just wants to look good without going into too much detail.
Working with colours in an outfit is a matter which doesn’t lend itself easily to being summarised in just two sentences. A lot comes down to personal taste and preference, and this is something that develops over time. And with it, develops a trust in your own judgement, which is often a much better guide than simple rules like those.
If you don’t feel confident in your sense of colour coordination though, let me say a few things I believe work much more often than this unfortunate colour wheel.
- Navy and gray work with almost anything. There’s a reason they’re the most popular suit colours, so when in doubt, stick with them.
- Ditto white and light blue shirts.
- Brown is an underrated colour in menswear. For shoes, you can’t get any more versatile than mid- or dark brown, and a brown linen or tweed jacket is one of the easiest things to wear.
- If you want to play with less obvious colours, start with accessories like pocket squares and ties. It’s much less likely you’ll accidentally end up looking ridiculous if you don’t let the failed colour choice dominate the whole outfit.
- The darker or less saturated the shade, the easier it is to wear, usually. Think bottle green or burgundy vs. lime or crimson.
Not satisfied with these? Feel it’s boring, too safe and doesn’t express you well enough? Experiment. Find your own aesthetic. There’s no shortcut which will replace actually having developed taste.