How I Style: Outfits with Brown Items

Two posts in one day! I’m a roll! Or more like, I had two 95% finished posts that were sitting around for weeks and decided to finalize them out during a break.

Back on my Thoughts on styling sneakers with wide-leg pants and culottes post, I got a request to do a post about my thoughts on styling outfits featuring brown items:

Margaret, I really appreciate your attention to detail in these style analysis and synthesis posts. Would you ever write one on the topic of WEARING BROWN? I see it over and over on /r/ffa, posters saying they hate brown, don’t know how to wear brown, sticking with black or grey instead. Personally I have a pair of russet brown cords that I struggle to style with anything but a teal t-shirt or cream sweater. Conversely, you’re so confident and creative with different pieces and shades of brown, I’d really love to know your method behind it.

I don’t really think of brown differently than other colors when I’m getting dressed, so  I was surprised at the thought I was doing anything interesting with it. To be fair though, my wardrobe has mostly earth tones so it is pretty easy to mix and match browns (vs if I had a lot of neons or something that would result in more unconventional looks when paired at random) so I think that gives me a lot of confidence that whatever I come up with will look fine.

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Some of my brown pieces, many of which are accessories

I’ve been seen a lot of sepia-toned looks on Instagram (thinking particularly of popular minimal style influencers and hashtags like #mybeigelife or #neutralaboutit). Also there was that whole “stick of butter” thing that Man Repeller brought up this past season lol. But now that I think about it, there’s definitely a discrepancy between the ochre wave on instagramland vs how many brown monochrome of brown-feature looks I see day to day.

I can’t say why brown isn’t quite as popular of a neutral (at least in most parts of the US, as far as I can tell), but I can say that you can take the same approach to figuring out how to integrate it as any other new color.

That said, one of my pet peeves on reddit ffa is when someone asks “How do I wear X? I am uncomfortable wearing X even though I like the idea of it” and people just answer “you just wear it, duh“. To that end, here are some specific things you can do to inch your way to confidence in wearing a new color.

How to integrate literally any new element (color, fabric, silhouette, etc) into your wardrobe so you don’t feel like a pretentious hipster / kid playing dress-up wearing it

The examples here are about shades of brown, but this can be applied to any new element in clothing – polka dots, a loose-loose silhouettes, culottes, mid-height heeled shoes, leather jackets, etc. Heck, I did this for something as innocuous as sneakers with wide-leg pants.

  • Get your brain used to seeing the thing in a variety of looks, on a variety of people (if possible – I know from experience it can be very frustrating to find fashion photos of less conventional-model-type people). You want to be able to think of it as simply another outfit option, and not something daring or rare.
    • Make a Pinterest board or simply save photos on your phone. If you are frustrated getting the same images on Pinterest, try checking online stores with photos of the item styled in a full outfit on models. You can also try searching on a store aggregator shopstyle or google shopping search.
    • You can go for collecting photos of more variety or try and find more wearable stylings from the get go. I find that styled stock photos tend to be a bit more wearable than random “model steps out” street style pins.
  • Try on the thing yourself in a bunch of styles. Figure out what aspects of it you do and don’t like. Take a bunch of sample photos with existing pieces and/or go to a store to try things on.
    • Try and identify specific things that you do and don’t like, e.g. “I muted, cool-toned browns are a more comfortable ‘transition’ shade of brown and look nice with my cool toned complexion” or “I like vibrant browns that are barely brown – more like orange/red with a tiny bit of complementary color mixed in”.
    • Think about colors in your current wardrobe – e.g. will very saturated browns that will have a bold contrast to black and white pieces work better, or something more muted?
    • For new colors, also consider how textures affect how you like them. Do you like browns in fabrics like linen or chunky knits in a more bohemian vibe, or in luxe thin knits or silky dress fabrics?
    • To that end, it may help to learn some color theory vocabulary (or descriptors for styles of coat, types of heels, etc). You don’t have to become an expert on it, but even spending 20 minutes reading up on it or watching a video (link to Zoe Hong’s channel on color theory applied to fashion) can help give you a vocabulary to better express how you feel about the thing.
  • Once you have a thing or two with the shiny new detail, get your brain used to seeing yourself in the thing. The new color or silhouette or whatever probably feels weird on at first, but you just have to get used to seeing it, both on yourself and other people. Wear it around the house, to the groceries. Spend 30 minutes in the evening playing dress up and just try it on with a couple of different items from your wardrobe. Have fun with it and fiddle around with combos you might not be your first instinct to reach for.

And you know what? Maybe at the end of this you will still decide that the thing is not for you. But now you can say specifically what you don’t like about it and can be confident in your preference, and not just feel like you’re being a sartorial wimp. More power to you

Okay, but brown? This post is about brown, right?

I don’t usually go by any seasonal rules or “never pair X with Y” rules for colors (i.e. I think any color can be worn in any time of year), but some things that I personally look out for when considering brown pieces:

Avoiding shades that clash with my skin tone. This tends to happen when the shade of brown is a similar value to your skin tone but a different undertone and it can make you look sickly or like a weirdly colored mannequin. For example the yellowish clogs here clash more than the darker brown clogs.

How do you know if something clashes? Annoyingly, I don’t have an exact answer for this, but I always find that being able to compare things makes it easier to decide how you feel about one of them vs just squinting at the single item. If you can get a photo of yourself with the item and another in a similar colorway (preferably in the same lighting) that can help you make a more objective judgement (also you can show it to people for their opinions more easily).

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I think the lighter yellow-orange sort of brown clashes with the brown of my legs. The t-strap clog has more contrast and doesn’t.

The pantsless look (from a distance) that can result from wearing nude tone pants in a stretchy skinny jegging fit. This is a personal peeve, and I haven’t seen this in the wild recently, but I went to a middle school that had khaki pants required as a uniform during the time when the cool kids wore their pants as skinny as possible, and many a girl sported the mannequin legs look.

On brown and black/navy – I agree with what seems to be the general sentiment (at least on reddit FFA) that it isn’t a faux pas to wear this color combo. The only thing to be wary of is making sure the colors are different enough (e.g. medium orangey brown with a saturated navy vs deep chocolate brown with a deep value of unsaturated navy) that there is no doubt that you actually meant to wear that combo. When they’re very close shades it can look like you were trying to wear matching pieces but it wasn’t quite light enough yet when you were getting dressed. There isn’t actually any consequence in too-close color pairings generally but I suppose I’d avoid it in job interview outfits (show that sweet, sweet attention to detail).

Easy ways to start incorporating brown into your outfits

Items that are brown by default, especially in accessories. Leather, suede, straw. Belts, hats, bags. Wool “camel coats”, brown khaki pants or trench coats.

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As you may have noticed, I really like this rich tan color. I’ve seen it referred to as “saddle” or “cognac”.

Start with a more conventional color palette that includes a shade of brown. Common combos: denim/chambray blue and medium brown with warm undertones, and earth tones – various greens and browns together.

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Earth tones! 🍂🍃
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A similar outfit ft more buttons and socks with clogs

For monochrome outfits: Think in terms of color values for monochrome outfits. Cream and tan and chocolate brown is a combo I like because the variety of the color values means that even if the tones are a bit different it won’t clash as much. Wearing a wide range of values also tends to feel like less of a statement than wearing head-to-toe the same color (at least, less of an I’M WEARING BROWN TODAY statement).

For items whose colors are closer together in value, I’ve noticed that I tend to like how things look more when the main pieces are all warmer toned or all cooler toned vs a mix, e.g. greyish taupe cardigan with very warm tan pants. I am no applied color theory expert though, so this is more of an example of the type of observation you could make about some rules of thumb for building outfits that you personally enjoy the most.

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An older 70s style monochrome brown outfit. I kept the belt and purse to a darker shade to break the silhouette up a bit and give the eye something to be drawn to throughout the outfit. I find that fully monochrome looks feel neater to me when there are a few smaller distinct visual elements (color or texture or change in shapes) through the whole look.
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Didn’t have any outfit pics on hand that were monochrome brown with these pants, and this cardigan, but here’s an (unfortunately grainy) example where I think the brown tones aren’t the most pleasing together. Especially with the rich goldenrod color emphasizing warmth, the taupe cardigan feels a little off.
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The opposite end – strong colorblocking. (These pants are more of a light beige/off white, at any rate clearly not a pure white in person). Here the brown pieces have the most texture and can feature even without the outfit being overwhelmingly brown. I don’t own any dark brown clothing so this was the closest I could get for an example.

Get inspired by some themes that traditionally feature brown. Not even specifically fashion themes (e.g. mori girl earth tones or old-school professor tweeds), but anything, like desserts or plants can help you think of more color combinations.

Here are two more fancifully themed Pinterest boards I made a while back that feature some fun brown pieces:

Edit: seems like the auto-embedded boards don’t show up in emails. Probably too late to fix the email list posts now, but here are some clickable text links:

Botanical Fashion
Dessert Style

It’s been a while since I’ve done a more how-to sort of post. As usual, I hope that was helpful without being overly prescriptive. Do you have any favorite tips for styling brown items? Are you partial to (or hate) any particular shades?

6 thoughts on “How I Style: Outfits with Brown Items

  1. Hi Margaret! I’ve been saving this post to read until the end of the week (which is Thursday night lol). Can’t wait to get into it. Thanks so much for taking up my suggestion!

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Oh wow, that pin is… impressively into leggings-hate. The flesh tone thing is definitely more just a point to consider (e.g. most people probably don’t want that look to wear to an office) but I’m not opposed to showing a lot of leg generally.

        That pin is one of my favorite of the wearable (i.e. not couture gowns) looks from that board!

        Sorry for the delay on approving this comment, it had gotten into the spam filter (I’m guessing because it contains the phrase “nudity” 🤔)

        Like

  2. From various fashion related conversations, I learned that many people consider brown to be a color associated with “earthy” or “hippy” fashions. It’s not something I ever considered but I suppose I enabled this sterotype when I went through my brown-heavy mori girl style many years ago. In contrast I think of brown as a classic, rich color that compliments many styles. I agree on your comment about wearing shades of brown that do not clash with ones skin color – and I can not tell you how irked I am at the neighbor on my street who wears pinkish-nude skin tight pants ALL THE TIME! She looks bottomless and it is not a good look (from a passerby perspective).

    This post kind of made me realize I do not own much (or any) brown clothing anymore, probably as an end result of said mori girl phase. I should challenge myself to seek out something brown for my current style. Another inspirational post!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hmm the earthy/hippie thing makes sense! I guess that isn’t exactly an aspirational look for the general population. Lol hopefully your neighbor doesn’t freak out too many passersby.

      I realize I’m in a pretty strong bubble from spending so much time in online fashion communities + working in a major city, but I like to think that we’re all slowly making all styles more approachable as the internet makes things more available from both an inspiration and a purchasing standpoint.

      It’s interesting to notice swings in personal preferences like trends. I’ve felt the same about wearing a lot of black after I went through a minimal/witchy style phase a few years ago, even though I still wear the occasional monochrome black outfit now.

      Like

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