Even those who are new to classic men’s style can look sharp by relying on fundamental two-color pairings like navy and grey or blue and brown, with a suit in one solid color and a tie in another. But, once you develop an interest in the nuances of dressing well, you’ll be looking for ways to add greater richness and complexity to your outfits. One way to achieve this is by working three or more colors into a single outfit. In this article, we’ll show you how to carry off multiple colors without looking like a peacock.
How to Use Three or More Colors Successfully in an Outfit
As a wardrobe develops, it’s easy to go for a solid worsted wool suit and a solid silk tie: it’s simple and straightforward, requiring little thought, and it looks good. Simply add a white shirt and brown or black oxfords, and you have a smart outfit that fits most professional workplaces and urban settings. However, the same few colors can get boring over time! So, here are six tips to add more color to your tailored style, some that involve boosting your overall color use and others on how to bring in multiple colors quickly with a single item.
Increase Your Overall Use of Color
1. Change Up the White Shirt
While a white shirt can serve as a standard backdrop to your tie and jacket, it is just that–very standard. To go beyond basic, try a light blue shirt with a navy suit or a pink shirt with gray. You’re immediately adding a third color that also reduces the stark contrast that a white shirt can create.
To take it a step further, look for shirts in other pastel colors such a lavender, salmon, and pale green. They make excellent backdrops for the brighter versions of their colors – purple with lavender, orange with salmon, and hunter green with pale green. This subtle addition of color will help you tie together your other accessories.
2. Add a Vest or Waistcoat in a Bright Solid
Another easy way to add a even more color to a suit is to put on a waistcoat or vest in a different, brighter color. Odd vests are expected to pop–even highly formal morning dress accommodates robin’s egg blue and buff waistcoats–so go bold with orange, red, royal blue or yellow. For casual cool or cold weather wear, colorful knits are easy to find. In the image below, imagine the same sage green suit with a white shirt and no vest. The purple tie would still show some panache, but the outfit would not have the same richness without the blue shirt and orange knitted vest.
Your vest can also act like a dividing line, which lets you wear a tie that is the same color as your jacket without it looking boring, and if your tie and jacket color are slightly off from one another, the vest tricks the eye into not noticing the difference.
3. Trade the Suit for a Sport Coat and Trousers
Part of the ease of a suit is its uniformity: you don’t need to worry about coordinating top and bottom. Yet, many men, myself included, prefer an odd jacket and trousers to a suit in part because it opens the door to more color combination. In summer, you can go all out and try bright chinos or go-to-hell pants and in winter, colorful corduroys.
On the other hand, the added variable of different colored pants can create the temptation to over-match by trying to match a solid tie to one’s pants. This can be done, provided the tie is very nearly or exactly the same color, or if the items are similar enough in color but different in texture (like a grenadine tie with worsted wool trousers); however, it’s not particularly creative and can make you look like you’re trying. Therefore, you might prioritize wearing a tie of a third color: a maroon tie with a navy sport coat and gray pants, for example.
4. Don’t Forget Your Feet
Colored shoelaces are an overlooked means of adding a single pop of color that ticks all the boxes: it’s quick, cheap and unique. For around $10, which is cheaper than any other menswear accessory you can think of, you can increase the colors you wear. Just make sure you know how to lace your shoes.
5. Add a Boutonniere
The hole in your jacket lapel is meant to be filled, and a boutonniere flower is a perfect choice to do that while adding a spot of new color. If you’re wearing a navy suit with a soft yellow tie, why not introduce a lilac or light blue flower?
Add Several Colors at Once with Patterns
The next step is to add multiple colors at the same time using one article of clothing, which augments the richness of what you’re wearing more than relying purely on solids.
A foolproof method to do this is to replace a plain tie with one that contains stripes or a repeating geometric motif. The elements that make up the pattern have to be a different color in order to be visible and often include multiple tones. The beauty of a patterned tie is that it can act as a bridge between the other pieces you are wearing. In the image below of Sven Raphael Schneider, the red tone of his tie works with his trousers, while the lighter stripe pattern coordinates with his gray jacket. The presence of a pattern also breaks up the ground color and therefore de-emphasizes any variation between the main color of the tie and something else you’re wearing, such as trousers. Therefore, an exact or precise color match matters less for coordination.
Small repeating geometric patterns on a tie are also fantastic because they often include multiple accent colors. The one below from Fort Belvedere contains purple, white, light pink, teal, and yellow, so you’d be adding touches of up to five colors with just one tie.
If you want a more casual tie that provides an infusion of several colors at once, try a two-tone changeant silk knit. This is made up of two different colored yarns, such as brown and gold or blue and light blue, knitted in such a way that the tone looks like it’s changing depending on the light and viewing angle (thus the French term “changeant“). Mottled knits are a variation on this, mixing two colors. Lastly, you can find slubby shantungs that display secondary shadow colors, giving you multiple subtle tones in one tie.
2. Pocket Square
Accessories as a whole are a safe way to add multiple colors at once because you only get them in tiny doses. While you can add just a single new color with a pocket square, one with a pattern will give you the most bang for your buck, packing more color than any other item you can wear. In the images below a paisley pocket square contains at least eight different tones, yet, despite this, it never overwhelms. Moreover, even if a hankie contains a complex paisley pattern made up of a dozen different colors, you can manipulate it in your breast pocket, turning it this way or that, to determine which colors you want to show. In one photo, it’s worn in a puff fold to emphasize pink, and in the other, orange.
Pocket squares afford even greater freedom than ties when you want to add color because they are expected to differ from the rest of your outfit. Beginners to men’s style often commit the faux pas of buying matching pocket square and tie sets, but the true connoisseur knows that the handkerchief is the place to introduce an additional hue; it should never be too “matchy.” Sure, there could (or should) be a bit of your tie, shirt, pants or jacket color represented in your pocket square, but beyond that nearly anything goes. In the image below, the pocket square actually repeats the red and gold of the bow tie motif and the red of the jacket’s windowpane grid but highlights gold more than any other part of the outfit.
Scarves and pocket squares have a lot in common, and the former can be considered, in some ways, larger versions of the latter. However, with a scarf, whether silk with a printed pattern or solid cashmere, you’re getting a stronger effect, so consider it an accent and surround the scarf with subdued colors or solids.
Going beyond accessories, my favorite underappreciated technique for adding multiple colors at once is a tattersall shirt. The tattersall pattern is made up of two or more different complementary colors. Some possibilities are blue and black, green and blue, red and blue, or orange and blue to name just a few. In the example below from Cordings in the UK, there are actually four different colors–pink, purple, blue, and black–skillfully combined. The tattersall is versatile enough to wear in most business settings, providing an understated but clearly apparent injection of color. You can find multi-colored striped shirts too, but they can risk being too loud and look more casual than a fine grid.
5. Patterned Waistcoat
We’ve mentioned solid waistcoats above, with an emphasis on knits, but the traditional odd waistcoat is supposed to be one that displays a strong pattern. If you have a solid shirt on, you could make your vest the tattersall. Another thing layering this way with a waistcoat achieves is that it gives you more opportunities to play with colors. Your waistcoat can act like a bridge because it can coordinate with a color in your tie, in your jacket, or both!
6. Tailored Jacket
For your jacket layer, an overcheck is your friend. This is a windowpane grid in one color laid over another plaid pattern. The most famous is the Prince of Wales check, which, by definition includes a glen check in one color over which there is a grid of another hue. For instance, you might find a grey Prince of Wales with an overcheck in sky blue. Just like that, by wearing one of the classic menswear patterns, you have an additional accent color. You can then coordinate accordingly with the colors of your tie and perhaps a vest.
No matter what the season, it’s always the right time to work more color into your outfits. Sometimes, the assumption is that if you use a lot of colors in an outfit you will end up looking like a clown (or a Pitti Peacock).
However, adding one other yet unrepresented hue is easy and shows your stylistic expertise. Of course, restraint and careful consideration should always be part of a gentleman’s sartorial game. Pick and choose where you want to add your colors and how far you want to go. It’s not likely that you’ll wear colored shoelaces, bright socks, go-to-hell pants and an orange knit vest at the same time. Think of the ideas in this article as a buffet of options for you to choose from. Just don’t overload your plate! Accessories enable you tho experiment without fear on a small scale. Meanwhile, tattersalls, Prince of Wales checks, and bright knit vests let you up your color quotient while remaining firmly within established tailoring tradition. Lastly, remember as a rule of thumb that if you are wearing colors that read primarily as neutral (brown, beige, grey, navy, khaki, black), almost any other color can be added freely.