Color Theory 101
Colors have 3 basic attributes that we’ll use to describe them:
- Hue – When people talk about “colors”, this is what they mean.
- Saturation – The intensity of a color. Highly saturated colors are full/rich/vivid. As a color loses saturation, it looks increasingly “washed out” and grey.
- Lightness/Value – The brightness or darkness of a color.
Contrast is the perceived difference between two different colors.
You can have contrast of value – black and white are opposites, and the contrast between them will be stark. Blue and yellow are opposite one another on the color wheel, and the difference between them will be similarly extreme.
Colors that are more similar have less contrast. If the hue/saturation of two colors is similar, they will appear to blend together rather than stand out (like neighbors on the color wheel). The same is true of values that are near to each other.
There’s a LOT more to be said about color theory, if you’d like to google it. Our brains perceive color in some crazy ways, some of which will deeply fuck your mind.
A piece of advice I see here all the time: “Just use the color wheel”. The color wheel is awesome, but it’s a really literal, scientific tool. Choosing colors (and textures) that look good together is far less scientific. It’s very subjective, and the color wheel is not a very useful tool on its own.
Instead, I made this gigantic chart of colors, broken down by season, with accompanying looks.
Now, let’s break those groups down, in order of appearance on the chart.
Blues and reds of any lightness
Bright yellow and orange
Medium – light green, pink, and purple
Teals/robin’s egg blue
Cream or Khaki
The brightest white you can get your hands on
Lighter, richer honey colored leathers.
These colors are more saturated (intense). Just about any color can be amped up to fit in this category. Ever seen the shirt shelves at Express? This shit is their bread and butter.
Be very careful with these. They’re the opposite of pastels. The intensity of these colors needs to be smartly balanced or risk being way too “in your face”. When you’ve got a loud piece of clothing, anchor it by making the other pieces more subdued(onetwo). In both of those examples, there's a really colorful piece, but it's held down by the fact that the vast majority of the outfit is very plainly colored. If you don't balance your crazy colors, you run the risk of looking like this douche.
- In spring
Tone down with whites, cream/khaki, pastels, and light –medium greys and browns. Use unpatterned things as inner layers, and in small areas. I’m really partial to white polkdots, or colored dots on white, but it’s a somewhat feminine look and pretty hard to find items like that. Medium width stripes, especially in pink, green, and medium blue are easier to find and pull off, usually on shirts.
- In summer
Contrast pieces. Pick an article of clothing and make it loud as all hell. Go for big, bold patterns. Thick colored stripes on white backgrounds, large geometric patterns, shirts made of a few big solid blocks of color, etc.
Building entire outfits out of really, really loud colors is hard, but it’s going to be very trendy this year. It was HUGE in women’s style last summer, and carried over pretty strongly into fall, especially jcrew’s women’s line. Insanely bright pants, shorts, and casual shoes are going to be par for the course in summer. If you want to really stand out, get a bright blazer or a buck/derby shoe in something nuts(onetwo). I suggest a melon-ish red/pink or a very saturated blue. It’s trendy for yellows to err slightly on the side of green. Pair any of these with white and a little bit of honey brown and you’re solid.
- In fall
Balance these out with a lot of earth tones. Keep them buried and just let them peek out. The exception to this is vests. You can get away with some pretty intense vests in the fall, as long as you anchor it with everything else.
- In winter
White is definitely the easiest to pull off in winter. Use it generously. Keep the teal, pink, etc in the closet. If you’ve gotta go bright, do so with accessories, and go for the really saturated medium tones –without going all the way neon. Red, not pink. Dandelion yellow, not that greenish one that everybody loves in summer. The fall rule about burying them and just letting a hint peek out applies doubly. If you’re gonna work a crazy bright piece into a winter outfit, I suggest scarves or shoes/laces. Bright socks are a little played out/tryhard IMO, but there are a lot of people who would disagree, so make your own call.
These colors are lighter and desaturated (pale).
Any color can be brightened into a pastel. Because they’re so calm, it’s very easy to incorporate them into outfits without being overpowering. That’s part of what makes them such a safe choice, and such a staple in “the uniform” and business casual in general.
- In spring
Pair with other pastels for outfits that are appropriately light without being as in-your-face as summer. Work in medium browns and blues for contrast. Keep your pastels solid. Patterns can be any size/density. Minimal contrast will feel cooler/lighter, higher contrast will feel more like summer. Lighter fabrics here. Linen, silk, seersucker, etc.
- In summer
Aim for high contrast in either direction. Pair with bright whites or very light khakis and the pastels will look more like midtones. Add a dark belt and shoes to make sure you don’t look too washed out. Example If you have patterns, make them very fine or very bold. Patterns should gravitate to either end of the spectrum: either very fine with low contrast, or very big with high contrast.
- In fall
Texture is key. Thicken all the things! Chambray or heather fabrics are great. Go slightly darker where possible, but keep the paleness. Contrast buttons/stitching are awesome. Keep pastels as a base layer, and bury them in richer, more autumny stuff. Blue and orangered are the best pastels for fall IMO. Keep your greens more towards olive, and your pinks more towards cherry. For high contrast, pair with deep, dark browns, navy, and charcoal. In more monotone looks, pair with like colors or directly contrasting colors in muted tones.
- In winter
Bury them even further than in fall. Layer under sweaters and coats, just let the collars and cuffs stick out. With the exception of whites, blues, and khakis, pastels will probably not be a big part of your winter getup. If you have to have a patterned pastel in winter, steer away from stripes and more towards dots/speckles, gingham, or tartan.
Colors that mirror nature, especially the woods.
- In Spring
Use sparsely, for contrast and to anchor bigger pieces of lighter color. A medium/dark brown belt and shoes with lighter khakis/pastel shirt. Learn from da 'Gos. Browns and blues are best in spring. Avoid using things in the pumpkin and wine color areas, as they’re very distinctly fall colors, and will look out of place. The less patterned, the better. If you have a pattern, try to keep it clean/sharp looking.
- In Summer
Use as high contrast pieces. Navy and deep brown pair very well with the red and blue pastels that are iconic in the summer. You can use more adventurous fall colors like wine and blueberry if you’re pairing them with things that scream summer. Wine chinos + white oxford, with honey brown belt + shoes, for example. Avoid olive colors, and if you’re going for a color that’s yellow or orange, make sure it looks more like an ice cream flavor than a leaf. This is summer, after all. Either flat colors, or big geometric patterns with a very light color.
- In fall
Go nuts. Seriously. Earth tones are easily the most forgiving group when it comes to mixing and matching. Pair browns, greys, and navy generously. Get easy contrast from navy + brown combos. If you’re wearing khaki chinos, make them darker, but things like scarves and coats can still be lighter tans. Brown leather shoes all day every day. In fact, brown leather everything. There are basically two ways to go with fall outfits: muddy and monotone, or high contrast. Both involve mixing a lot of colors, the trick is in making them all very similar or very different. Patterns should be very small/fine (with the exception of things involving squares [flannel/tartan/gingham] – those can be all over the place and still work) or massive, in the form of very thick knits and fabrics. Keep the contrast low within the pattern.
- In winter
Use the least saturated of the bunch. The rich colorful natural things are dead now. Love is over. Browns, navys, and any shade of grey are still fair game. Make them prominent, and use the lighter stuff only for contrast. Creams and khakis can still be used in large doses, but tread carefully, it takes a bit of panache to pull this off. Textures should be chunkier here. Thick knits, heavy tweeds, dense wools.A safe rule in winter is the darker or more desaturated, the better.
These are your blacks, charcoals, and other drab things. The less saturated an item is, the farther it falls into this category.
Use the lighter end of this stuff. Whites, light greys, light-medium khakis and tans. If it has a pastel or earthy equivalent, you’re probably better off with that.
Pair earth tones in big pieces. Balance the dark stuff with rich, medium browns and blues. Greys of all color are great in fall. Don’t try to work a major black piece into a fall outfit unless you’ve multiple pieces to really bring it in strongly. EG: Black coat, boots, gloves. If you have the choice between black and charcoal/dark grey for anything fall, go grey when you can. In fact, that rule applies pretty much forever to everything, until you get into very formal clothing.
This is when these things really shine. It’s the one season when you can go heavy on the black, so make the best of it. Layer lots of blacks, greys, and white/khaki. Aim for either a few layers of dense fabric, or a lot of lighter, thinner layers. Blacks and greys in winter are similar to earth tone in fall, in that you should shoot either for a muddy mix, or crisp, layered contrast. If you have a pattern here, make it in the knit. Herringbone, houndstooth, etc. Subtle plaid/tartans in shades of grey are popular this year, but are fairly formal and somewhat difficult to pull off. White takes so much steez but oh god the payoff is huge.