Next in our continuing series on how to wear various hues in menswear is the color purple. We’ll explain why it should be one of the first shades you reach for when you need a pop of color in your outfit.
Many of the colors we’ve touched on (pink, orange, and green, for example) are either neglected, underused or consciously avoided, and purple fits these descriptions. However, purple used to be the color reserved for the garments of kings and emperors, made with rare and precious dyes. Today, purple is not hard to make, so its use should not be limited to a chosen few. You don’t have to be a dandy or the late Prince to work purple into your wardrobe. Here’s how to do it.
A Brief History of Wearing Purple
For much of Western history, the color purple was worn only by the aristocracy, primarily because making it was so difficult. It was a unique color and only produced by extracting the juice from a variety of sea snail; the quantity produced was so small that it took up to a quarter of a million snails to make an ounce of dye. This process was first developed by the ancient Phoenicians, with the color being used in the garments of royalty throughout the Near East and the Mediterranean, including by the Roman emperors.
In Rome, no one but the emperor could wear the color, and violators would face death. Only in the mid 19th century did industrial processes enable the production of artificial dyes to create purple. Since then, the color has become accessible to the mainstream though it has remained fairly rare, but now it is more from lack of popularity than exclusivity.
Shades of Purple
It’s useful to remember that purple comes in a variety of shades or gradations, some with more red or pink in them, others containing tones of brown. It’s fairly easy to wear maroon or burgundy, which can be seen as reddish purples, in menswear, but we want something new, not easy, so we’re talking more about the other colors in the chart below.
General Principles for Wearing Purple
Many of the guidelines for wearing purple pertain to any bright or unusual color in clothing. First, such colors should be combined with contrasting muted hues. If your tie is green with purple stripes, wear a dark grey suit. Purple socks? Wear beige pants and brown suede shoes.
If you wear one item that’s purple, it’s risky (but not impossible) to wear any other bright colors; you take the chance of looking clownish. Instead, you can wear purple readily alongside navy, gray, and beige. In other words, it’s compatible with three of the most classic and versatile menswear colors out there and with other staid colors like olive green. Blue, which is a cousin color to purple, makes for particularly stunning combinations.
In terms of seasonality, purple is particularly versatile because it exists “at the meeting point between warm red and cool blue.” So, depending on whether your item leans more toward the maroon and magenta side (hot) of the purple spectrum or more toward the violet and lilac side (cool), you can wear purple all year long. Interestingly, maroon and the hotter shades work best in winter while a cooler violet is perfect for spring.
Purple doesn’t have too much impact when worn by those with light skin, though it can bring out more pink in your face if you wear a lot of it close to your head, as in a bright purple shirt or sport coat, though this is not usually recommended. Stronger versions of purple are worn better by those with browner skin, which is also true of any bright colors, as there is less of a harsh contrast in tone.
Accessories: The Easiest Option
1. Pocket Squares
Like most bright or atypical colors, purple is best (and most easily) worn first as an accent in small doses. You can think of yourself as maintaining the traditional scarcity of the color and begin with a pocket square that contains just a smattering of purple mixed in with other tones rather than a completely purple one. In the charcoal pocket square from Fort Belvedere pictured directly below, the purple is there but completely subtle, especially when peeking out of your jacket’s breast pocket.
Afterward, as you gain confidence and get excited about the color you can increase the amount of purples, such as in a pocket square with a purple border or one that contains purple as the main color.
2. Purple Ties
From there, you can take purple out of your pocket and put it front and center in the form of a bow tie or necktie. The same principle applies–start with a dash of the color, like a purple paisley or stripe before you go for a tie that is mainly purple unless you like to jump in with both feet, in which case, go for it! Be careful never to wear a shiny satin silk tie, however, as it will come across looking cheap. Always select a high-quality silk, which will be worth the investment.
3. Purple Flowers and Shoelaces
Two unique accessories that will elevate your style are a purple boutonniere and purple dress shoelaces. A purple flower in your lapel buttonhole is special because it reminds us that purple is a natural color.
If you want a boutonniere that is maintenance free, one from Fort Belvedere that is made of a realistic silk will do the trick. It’s also a great way to inject a dose of springtime into your outfit when purple flowers are not in bloom and therefore not easy to find.
Something you won’t see every day is purple shoelaces, which are an inexpensive way to show personality while still appropriate to dress shoes. Like a pocket square these are a small dose of the color, but in an unexpected place, and for under ten dollars they liven up a pair of black shoes without looking too aggressive. Showing the flexibility of the color, purple laces are also special as a sign of springtime, paired with a warm weather shoe, like a pair of white bucks.
4. Purple Socks
Continuing on the subject of footwear, we at The Gentleman’s Gazette aren’t fans of bright “crazy socks,” but ribbed purple socks are surprisingly low-key in the right shade, combined with another tone, such as the purple and dark green shadow stripe pictured below. They won’t immediately direct everyone’s attention to your ankles like cheap neon purple ones but will offer an added bit of interest to your look. You can capitalize on the versatility of purple by wearing them with a variety of pants and shoe combinations: brown, beige, navy, gray, and others.
Intermediate Difficulty: Purple Shirts and Sweaters
To bring a larger and more visible amount of purple in your wardrobe, try wearing it on your torso in the form of a shirt or sweater (cardigan or knit vest), ideally under a sport coat or suit jacket. The first rule with purple shirts is to go light.
Bright solids make you look like you’re a twentysomething playboy ready for the club. If you want to wear a solid, what you desire are shirts commonly labeled “lavender,” but an even better choice is a white shirt with a light purple windowpane grid or thin stripe over the top. In other words, keep the purple in the pattern. All of these are actually conservative enough that they are fairly common as business wear in the UK, though you’re less likely to encounter them in North America.
A shirt with a lavender tattersall check, perhaps combined with a second color in the pattern, adds a dose of spring color to any outfit. In the example below, the main grid is in a classic navy, and there are fewer purple lines interspersed. Tattersalls are perfect for a “smart casual” or “business casual” look, as they straddle both urban and country style.
If you’re talking more casual shirts, the field opens up, again with the caveat that lighter, subdued purples are preferable to loud ones that hurt your eyes. In warm weather, especially, a lavender gingham or Bengal stripe shirt can fit the bill nicely.
On the other hand, in winter, bright knit cardigans or vests have been traditional for some time within usually staid British style. Having a shock of orange, cobalt blue or purple is accepted as a way to bring some happiness into cold winter days. In such cases, the hot color on the sweater is still covered by a jacket and accompanied by otherwise sober clothes. For instance, the image below, two purple items appear conservative under a gray jacket. The outfit at below left might be worn similarly beneath a brown or olive tweed sport coat.
Advanced: Pants, Sports Coats and Suits
When talking purple pants and jackets, we’re entering more treacherous territory. Purple trousers will inevitably be of the extreme “go-to-hell” variety, and those in the grape family can be especially shocking. Really, the best chance of pulling off purple pants is to lean toward the maroon side of the spectrum. These will still get a lot of attention but are less “in your face.” As a bonus, maroon pants play really well with navy and gray and look more formal.
2. Purple Jackets
Even more daring is the purple sport coat. Because it is often a top layer, it is guaranteed to be noticed and can quickly make you the center of attention. This goes against Beau Brummell’s often quoted maxim that a man who is truly well dressed isn’t noticed for his clothes, only for the general aura he projects of being well put together.
Unless you’re an entertainer or want to be looked at, uphold the same principle used for purple shirts and keep color in the form of a windowpane check, like Wei Koh does in the photo above. Your jacket’s base color or pattern, such as a Prince of Wales check, will then be conservative, and you’ll just have some purple lines–an overplaid–on top of it. This is
3. Purple Suits
The most purple you can wear would come in the form of a suit. This is also the most difficult to achieve successfully. You can very easily look like a large grape or the Joker. For those who feel compelled to go so far, one key is to get the absolutely right shade of purple, and the other is to have the right skin tone.
Just search Google for images of purple suits, and you’ll quickly realize that men with brown skin rock the purple suit. Of course, once you wear a purple suit, you have entered into the world of contemporary fashion. You can still apply the principles of good tailoring, but, strictly speaking, you’d no longer be wearing classic style.
Once a forbidden color reserved for royalty, then commonly associated with dandies and showmen (all of the above in the case of Prince), purple has a lot to recommend it for classic menswear. It can be worn in a number of ways and coordinates with a surprising range of other colors. Purple really offers something for everyone. If you have conservative taste, you can wear it in the form of an accessory or in the pattern of an otherwise staid dress shirt, while the bold can experiment with the boundaries of traditional style with larger doses of the color.