If there’s one aspect of getting dressed that scares the daylights out of most men, it’s color.
This is understandable if you think about how we’re socialized versus how women are socialized. While we aren’t experts on feminist theory, it’s important to note that while young boys are generally taught to go outside, get dirty, and play sports, young girls are taught to be concerned about their appearance.
Our mothers taught our sisters how to apply makeup when they were perhaps 13 or 14, and they’d been color-coordinating outfits since long before then. On the other hand, when was the last time you saw a man in a store take a shirt and hold it up to his face to see how the color looked?
Stop wracking your brain. It’s never happened.
Between outfits and makeup, women have been trained to see color in an abstract sense and how it relates to their own coloring. Men, on the other hand, have been able to go through life getting extra credit anytime they put on pants that fit. We can do better than this.
To help us be better, we have created a five-part series in which we address basic color theory, how to analyze your skin tone, and how contrast works. Any of these articles can be read as a standalone piece or chronologically in the series. This article is the first of the series, and the other articles can be accessed below:
- An Introduction To Color Theory For Men (Currently Here)
- How Complementary Colors Work In Menswear
- Monochromatic Colors & Menswear
- Understanding Skin Tone For Men
- Understanding Contrast For Men
If you plan to read the entire series (and we encourage you to do so!), we suggest budgeting 45 minutes to an hour of your time to solidify your understanding. If you plan to read just one or two, have at it.
Please keep in mind that it’s called color “theory” for a reason, as opposed to color “law.” There are, in fact, numerous color theories, created by artists and color scientists. They debate minutiae as, well, minute, as what the primary colors actually are. There is far too much literature available to be presented here in its entirety. Because we’re neither scientists nor artists, we’re going to take the most common information that’s most easily applicable to clothing and give it to you. We are by no means claiming to be the be-all-end-all source of information for this topic. There is a vast world of resources for you to consult if you wish to do so. In the meantime, you can get started here.
What Is Color Theory?
Color theory isn’t just one theory. It’s an entire body of practical guidance on mixing colors and the visual effects of certain color combinations. It covers color psychology, additive and subtractive color theory, color harmony, tints, shades, tones, saturation, and more. It’s a sprawling, somewhat unstandardized school of thought. There’s a fair amount of disagreement in the color community, between and amongst artists and color scientists.
This article will focus on rudimentary concepts in color theory. We’ll explain primary colors, secondary colors, and tertiary colors.
There are three primary colors: red, blue, and yellow.
There are three colors because human vision is trichromatic, which means that we possess three independent channels for conveying color information, derived from three the cone types (photoreceptor cells) in our retinas.
There’s an easier way to think about this for those of us without an advanced degree in theoretical physics: all the colors we see are somehow based on the three primary colors. In other words, all colors are derived from these three in some way. They also tend to play very nicely with each other.
Next time you’re out shopping, notice how many ties you see that have blue/red or blue/yellow stripes. You might even find red with yellow dots, or a yellowish background with red paisley.
Check out these following tie color combinations:
Fun fact: When you mix all three primary colors, you get a muddy brown.
There are three secondary colors: purple, orange, and green. Note their placement relative to the primary colors.
To achieve secondary colors, you combine two primary colors. You may remember witnessing this as a kindergarten finger painter. When you mixed red and blue, you got purple or violet.
When you mixed red and yellow, you got orange.
When you mixed blue and yellow, you got green.
Just as the primary colors play well together, the secondary colors do the same amongst each other and with primary colors.
You can once again take a look at color combinations in ties and shirts. Note the purple combined with blue on the left and the red, blue, and green combination on the right.
Another easy way to visualize this is to think about your favorite sports teams. Blue and orange is a phenomenal color combination, and the New York Knicks know it. Purple and yellow look fantastic next to each other, and the Los Angeles Lakers are fully aware. Manchester United utilizes red and yellow logo together, and Real Madrid primarily uses a blue and yellow logo.
If it looks good on your favorite football club’s coat of arms, it’ll probably look good on a tie.
There are six tertiary colors: red-purple, blue-purple, yellow-orange, red-orange, blue-green, and yellow-green. You can see that when we place them in relation to the primary and secondary colors, we have a basic color wheel.
Tertiary colors are made by mixing one primary and one secondary color. In other words, it’s the next logical step after creating secondary colors.
When you combine red and orange, you get red-orange:
When you combine yellow and orange, you get yellow-orange:
When you mix red and purple, you get red-purple:
When you mix blue and purple, you get blue-purple:
When you mix yellow and green, you get yellow-green:
When you mix blue and green, you get blue-green:
While there are specific names you can use for these (amber, magenta, vermillion, and God knows what else), they vary a ton in the clothing and accessory industry. One man’s chartreuse is another man’s avocado, but they’re both yellow-green.
Because of that, we’re sticking with their basic names, which is more helpful anyway because it’s a systematic approach. When you mix red and purple, you get red-purple. When you mix blue and green, you get blue-green. It’s not sexy, but it’s logical and self-explanatory.
How Color Theory Relates To Menswear & Lifestyle
Primary, secondary, and tertiary colors are all building blocks on which we can make sound sartorial decisions. Though we go into more detail in our articles on complementary colors, contrast, and dressing for your skin tone, color theory plays a central role in everything that we wear. When shirts and ties work together it’s because they’re adhering to some guideline in the world of color theory. When they don’t, they’re likely breaking one of those guidelines.
The same concept applies for your luggage, how your home is decorated, and more. Once your eyes are open to it, you’ll see that it’s everywhere!