To help men improve their mastery of color, we have created a five-part series in which we address basic color theory, how to analyze your skin tone, and how contrast works. If you’re unfamiliar with the concept of primary, secondary, and tertiary colors, we recommend that you read An Introduction To Color Theory, though it’s not integral to understanding the information below.
Any of these articles can be read as a standalone piece or chronologically in the series. The other articles can be accessed below:
- An Introduction To Color Theory For Men
- How Complementary Colors Work In Menswear (Currently Here)
- Monochromatic Colors & Menswear
- Understanding Skin Tone For Men
- Understanding Contrast For Men
Learning about basic color theory is a necessary foundation for exploring and mastering color in your wardrobe. Now that we know which colors are which, what are we supposed to do with them? Sure, rudimentary knowledge tells us that primary and secondary colors go well together, but how can we build on this?
This is where learning to manipulate complementary colors comes into play. If you learn nothing else about color after reading this article, you’ll still be ahead of most of the pack.
What Are Complementary Colors?
Looking at the rudimentary color wheel above, we see all primary, secondary, and tertiary colors. Conceptually, complementary colors are colors that cancel each other out. Practically, they’re colors that are opposite each other on the color wheel.
There are six sets of complementary colors (numbered 1-6 above):
- Red and green (1 and 1)
- Red-purple and yellow-green (2 and 2)
- Purple and yellow (3 and 3)
- Blue-purple and yellow-orange (4 and 4)
- Blue and orange (5 and 5)
- Blue-green and red-orange (6 and 6)
Interestingly, each primary color’s complement is a secondary color, whereas each tertiary color’s complement is another tertiary color.
Split Complementary Colors
When picking out complementary colors in your clothes, it’s important to remember that they don’t have to be perfect complements to work. This vastly opens up your color choices when getting dressed.
In the below example, we have blue (5) paired with yellow-orange (4) and/or red-orange (6). This concept works all around the color wheel and becomes easy for anyone who doesn’t see color particularly well when you look at the numbers. 4 pairs with 3 and 5, 3 pairs with 2 and 4, and so on.
Classic Examples In Menswear
Anyone can get dressed, but a working knowledge of complementary colors is crucial in dressing well. Here we see blue and orange being paired on the color wheel. This is one of the most classic color combinations in menswear.
Here’s a real-life example of the blue and orange mated together:
Getting to play around this much with color tends to happen with a man’s shirt and accessories: ties, pocket squares, braces, cufflinks, etc.
Above we have an orange tie with blue pocket square on a light bluish-grey shirt. You could even make the argument that this tie is sort of yellow-orange, making these colors split-complementary as opposed to complementary.
NOTE: Blue is a mainstay of menswear. It doesn’t just work well in the context of complementary colors, it works well across ages, skin tones, hair colors, and professions. Blue suits, trousers, ties, and shirts are all highly recommended as it pairs beautifully with yellows, oranges, greens, and reds. It works super well as a complement! Grey is similarly versatile.
This is a loud one due to the brightness of the tie, but here we have a green and red combination. Tread lightly here, as you can run into Christmas-y territory fast.
Why Is This So Important?
If you were to dress everyday in primary colors you’d be fine. Nearly every American politician dresses in a blue suit, white shirt, and red, blue, or yellow tie. It’s safe, and that’s fine.
Safely dressed men, however, rarely turn heads. They don’t tend to make lasting impressions. Men who take greater sartorial risks surely have a higher chance of failure, but the reward is also higher. Mastering complementary colors is one of the key components to dressing particularly well. Not only will your color palette expand, but the way in which you mix and match those colors will go through the roof. You will be able to create pleasing contrast within your ensembles, which is a key element in avoiding a matchy-matchy color scheme that won’t have you looking your best.
Feel free to use the numbered graphics above, especially if you have a bit of trouble perceiving color. As always, we’re more than happy to chat in the comments section!