It’s happened to the best of us—you grab a shirt, survey your wardrobe, and realize that you haven't a clue as to what comes next. Does blue go with red? Or maybe black? The abyss is deep, and it can confound both novice and veteran alike. Thankfully, a firm grasp of matching can be achieved with some basic wisdom, and a simple set of ground rules. To review the fundamentals, we examined the modish wardrobe of Justin Livingston: writer, menswear guru, and founder of style blog Scout Sixteen. Here’s what we uncovered.
Before we tackle clothing, a quick lesson is in order. The graph at left is a standard color wheel: When it comes to color matching, this is your one true resource. Your port in stormy seas. Keep a copy close at hand, and commit these terms to memory:
Primary Colors: Red, Blue, and Yellow—the three foundational colors on which all others are based.
Analogous Colors: Colors that fall next to each other on the wheel, e.g. Indigo, Blue, and Aquamarine.
Complementary Colors: Colors that fall across from each other, e.g. Blue and Orange, Red and Green, Magenta and Chartreuse.
If you’re walking the path to visual harmony, the primary colors are a good place to start—they’re simple, versatile, and ever on-trend. Since all three are fairly common, they make good candidates for a monochromatic look, like this all-blue ensemble, or its red counterpart. Better yet, you can combine two colors (or even all three) without fear of failure.
Before we return to the color wheel, we need to mention neutrals. The established neutral colors are white, black, and gray, with brown making the list as an honorable mention. These four colors are your wardrobe workhorses—they go with absolutely everything, and can be used to fill the gaps between your technicolor garments. Also, as Justin demonstrates, they look smashing together. Take note: In the world of menswear, denim and khaki fall into this camp, so use these materials to balance out striking colors and offbeat hues.
Once you’re comfortable with simple outfits, you can make the move to Level Two—analogous colors. These occupy adjacent spots on the color wheel, so they’re fairly easy to identify and match. Just don’t stray too far in either direction, and remember: One of the colors will always be dominant, so try to vary the intensity, and limit one color to accents and accessories.
Once you’ve hit your stride with analogous colors, you can move on to the granddaddy of combos: complementary colors. While the results may seem daunting, the rules are refreshingly simple—just pick two colors that reside on opposite ends of the color wheel, and remember to keep one dominant. To do this, you can limit one hue to accessories, or select a shade that's more subdued (like a dark green to match a brilliant red).
Camouflage was one of last year’s top menswear trends, and while the bubble is primed for bursting, this classic look will certainly stick around. If you’ve got some fatigues that you’re ready to rock, khaki will always matches, but our pairing of choice is denim—as Justin aptly demonstrates. Wear a camo top with some crisp, navy jeans, or camo pants with a light chambray shirt.
If you watched this month’s shirt and tie tutorial, this point will sound familiar. To incorporate a patterned garment into your outfit, examine its palette, and identify the dominant color. Then, choose some accessories that feature that color—just one or two, to avoid going overboard. The parallel hues will tie the look together, while avoiding the appearance of a matchy-matched dandy.
At the end of the day, every wardrobe has that one errant garment that simply stands alone. But that doesn’t mean your lime green sweater can’t find a place in your lineup. The solution: Assemble an outfit with neutral colors (black and white, brown and beige), and add that outlandish item as the icing on the cake. You might need to cycle through a few combinations, but this tactic can apply to almost any garment, from a pink hat (left) to a red flannel scarf.
Copywriter, cold brew advocate, purveyor of handcrafted birthday haikus since 2009.