Our fifth and final installment in the Menswear Color Primer deals with understanding the concept of contrast. This doesn’t deal with colors per se, but rather the difference in color value amongst two or more colors.

If you haven’t read the rest yet, you can access to other articles in the series below:

  1. An Introduction To Color Theory For Men
  2. How Complementary Colors Work In Menswear
  3. Monochromatic Colors & Menswear
  4. Understanding Skin Tone For Men
  5. Understanding Contrast For Men (Currently Here)

Color Contrast

It’s not enough to just understand color. To truly look our best, we must first understand the general concept of contrast. In a nutshell, contrast refers to the difference in color value between two or more colors. See below:

Black White And Grey Blocks Showing Contrast

These color blocks represent color contrast at it’s most basic.

  • Two white blocks give you no contrast because there’s no difference in color between the two (the same would be true for two black boxes)
  • A white and grey block give you medium contrast because there’s some discernible difference in value, and
  • White and black block give you high contrast because the colors are absolute opposite values

Now, let’s take the next step and see how this system works with some typical hair and skin colors.

Tan Brown Beige And Black Blocks Showing Contrast

If we take three Caucasian men and give them blonde hair (left), medium brown hair (middle), and dark brown or black hair (right), we see the concept of contrast at work in the real world.

How Does Color Contrast Relate To The Face?

It’s incumbent upon us to know our skin undertones so that we can select colors that make us look our best. But past that, the concept of contrast as it relates to color is very important.

We’ve explored this a bit in our article on complementary colors, but that only covers pairing different colors or different values of colors amongst themselves. Did you know that contrast also applies to your face, regardless of what your undertones are?  Consider the following three things:

  • Skin tone (both surface and undertone)
  • Hair color
  • Eye color

When it comes to this all-important concept, you would be well-advised to familiarize yourself with the haberdasher/menswear historian Alan Flusser. His method, outlined in Dressing The Man (a must-own for any man who’s read this far), is preferable because it manages to group men not based on specific coloring, but rather on contrast. Take a look below:

  • Low contrast: Little difference in color among hair, face, and eyes. Typical of most fair-skinned blondes.
  • Medium contrast: Black gentlemen are best-dressed as medium-to-high contrast faces. Other medium contrast visages are olive or medium brown skin with dark hair: men of Middle Eastern, Indian, or Central and South American descent.
  • High contrast: Stark difference among hair, skin, and eye color. Typical of East Asian men who often have very light skin and very dark hair. Also found on Caucasian men with dark brown or black hair.

An important thing to remember is that contrast is skin color-agnostic. Take a look at the infographic below.

Contrast Infographic For Men

We have various skin tones and hair colors across different ethnicities, but nothing necessarily locks you into a particular contrast level.

Black Men & Contrast

African American Face Contrast

Based on what we know of contrast, it would be safe to assume that most dark-skinned men fall in the low-contrast category. While many do, this is not a hard and fast rule. The reason for this is not just that there are a wide variety of skin tones that we refer to as “black.” It’s also because when you put most clothing next to dark skin, there’s automatically a higher level of contrast than there would be on a lighter-skinned man.

For this reason, it is best for our African-American readers to treat themselves as medium-to-high contrast men, at least at the start.

Real World Examples Of Contrast

Here’s our Founder and Creative Director, Paul Anthony. Paul has a low-contrast visage with fair skin, blue eyes, and blonde facial hair. We’ve seen photographic evidence of blonde hair on his head in the past, but that’s neither here nor there at this point:

Man In Low Contrast Outfit

Though Paul fears no color (you should see some of the jackets he picked up in Thailand), opting for a dark navy jacket with a dark tie and dark trousers gave him a relatively low-contrast outfit. This allows his face to maintain the attention it deserves. As a lucky bastard someone with a neutral complexion he can get away with wearing almost any color he wants.

Below is Editor-In-Chief Michael Oxman. Paul’s physical opposite in many ways, he has fair skin and blue eyes, but rather dark brown hair. His is a classic high-contrast appearance, and wearing bright, contrasting colors frames that kind of face well. Pairing blue and pink underneath his blue-eyed, pink-cheeked mug lends a radiance that he simply won’t get with warm oranges or reds.

Note the shirt and tie combination is the same as the photo at the beginning of the article. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!

Man In High Contrast Outfit

The takeaway is this: Mirror the amount of contrast in your face with that of your clothes, especially the clothes that frame your face. This harmony will entice the viewer to look at your face and see it at its best. One of the biggest goals of getting dressed is to draw the viewer’s eye to your face. If you succeed in that, you’re ten steps ahead of everyone else.

In other words, if you’re a high-contrast guy, wear high-contrast clothing -dark suits, light shirts, bright ties. If you’re a low-contrast guy, wear clothing that’s more tonal -a good example of this would be a medium gray suit, light blue shirt, and medium blue or medium red tie.

This is a continuum, so there’s a good chance you fall somewhere in between the two extremes. Many guys are considered “medium” contrast. Like men of average build wearing whatever silhouettes they want, medium contrast men can wear whatever level of contrast they like and still look good. The world is your oyster, sir.

Finally, there’s room for improvisation and experimentation here. Try out different combinations, and really pay attention to what brightens your face versus what flattens it. Over time, you’ll develop a wardrobe that has nothing but all-stars in it.


<< Return To Part 4 of 5: Skin tone