Style Notes: Mixing neutrals with color

When it comes down to it, “does it work?” for outfit colors should simply boil down to “do you like it?” If the colors in your outfit have absolutely nothing in common but they make you happy together, then they work! Put on the clothes, look in the mirror, and listen to your gut reaction.

However, if you’re used to only wearing traditional neutrals or a small set of colors, sometimes it can be hard to pin down why you do or don’t like a combination. For many people (including myself), “better” in terms of “do these colors work better” usually means “feel unified in some way.” With that in mind, in today’s post I go over some rules of thumb that you can use when figuring out how to add a little color to a neutral outfit, or how to choose a neutral piece that will work with a mostly colorful look. The tips here can apply to any colors, not just neutral+colorful combos, but I’m approaching it from there to give the examples more focus.

In general, palettes that have colors with a common shade (e.g. white or brown) mixed into them will feel more unified. Colors that share some other color attribute like value (how dark it is) or saturation (how pure the color is, i.e. cobalt blue vs powder blue) will also feel more cohesive.

For example, whites and pastels are a classic pairing, as pastels are pure colors mixed with white, so that is a unifying element.

Similarly, with an earth tone palette, the shades of greens, yellows, and reds will all have brown (red+yellow+blue, if you haven’t messed around with paint for a while) mixed into them, so they tend to look nice against a pure brown.

Earth tones are my go-to palette 😸

To build a better intuition for this without having to physically try on a ton of clothes, I recommend playing around with a color mixer like trycolors.com. You can try to match the color of an item in your closet and see how much black or white, or cool or warm colors it has and use that to inform what you pair it with. Or just go ham and mix stuff up until you’ve saved some color combinations that you like, cohesiveness be damned.

All that theory is nice, but are always more helpful with demos! Here are some examples of outfits I’ve done that I think demonstrate some of those concepts.

Match cool or warm tones – Hopefully pretty self-explanatory in these two outfits! And in addition to color the skirt + shoes also have coordinated style elements such as metallic materials or autumnal vintage aesthetic respectively.

black, navy, pewter gray
black, brown/red/cream plaid, reddish brown

In this example, the cardigan is a warm toned burnt orange and the dress is a very slightly cool toned black (in some lighting it will read navy). The derby shoes are a very warm brown, practically burnt orange as well, so the overall this is a pretty warm and saturated palette. The sunflower socks, while they do have brown, have a cool toned gray base. The grid pattern socks are cream with brown, so they feel a more cohesive. On this particular day I actually still went with the sunflower socks cause I was feelin’ the florals, but I do think the cream socks look a tad more intentional.

Match saturation – Here I’ve got a white and blue stripe dress and white sneakers, and I wanted to keep that serene airy feeling instead of going for high contrast, so I wore my washed green hat instead of the orange one.

High contrast black + cream with a colorful print on black, paired with a very saturated brown cape that you could probably argue is just straight-up burnt orange. Bonus peek of orange socks. If I went with a khaki color like on a classic trench coat, I think it would feel a bit washed out against the bright floral print. Then again, because khaki coats have such a “goes with everything” cultural connotation, I still don’t think that would make anyone look twice.

Go with a print or fabric that includes the neutral – So for an popular example, leopard print with black. For fabric, you can look for items like marled sweaters or spacedye knits that use multicolor yarns including the neutral you want to pair it with.

Here I have a white sweater with pink floral embroidery, paired with white/gray sneakers and subtly spacedye gray leggings that include a bit of white (I know the lighting here is terrible)

On the topic of multicolor fabric, classic blue jeans often look particularly sharp a white shirt because standard blue denim is made up of blue and white threads, which white clothing will pick up on.

wikimedia

This applies to a lot of “washed black” denim as well. I really liked this item combo since there’s a bit of white (the sweatshirt is a very pale pink) running through all the pieces.

Match accessories to make more disparate shades feel intentional – In this outfit I have a muted turquoise dress paired with a beige-y cream cardigan and headband, and a similarly muted brown sandal for a uniformly low-key palette. If I’m not feeling like making up a whole outfit, I often wear this dress with just these sandals for an easy look.

Now, if I had the same base and wanted to add a bright red bandana, I …. actually personally think that would be perfectly fine, since ruby red and teal make a nice complimentary (or somewhere in that range) color combo and the sandal color is so neutral on me that it basically disappears. But, I think that adding a second accessory in the accent color takes it to the next level by showing that red was chosen as the accent and not just added in one piece as an afterthought.

Do you have any favorite ways to pair a color with neutrals? Let me know in the comments below, or leave a note on whether this was helpful or interesting, even if you don’t elaborate. I love feedback!

7 Comments

  1. This is a great explanation! I hadn’t thought about the white threads running through denim, but you’re totally right. One of my favourite “colours + neutrals” combos is orange and black, because IMO it creates excellent contrast 🧡🖤

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great examples, though all of these are muted, and curious to see some examples with bright or saturated colors. I follow the founder of Tibi’s Instagram and she talks about “one ton or none” when it comes to wearing bright colors, which I think you would find interesting!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the rec! I just checked out Amy’s instagram stories and those were SOLID. She has such catchy acronyms or sayings for her concepts, the one/tone/none makes sense for a lot of statement elements. It’s interesting to see style advice that’s tailored towards a more high-fashion/S T Y L E sort of aesthetic since most of my fashion bubble is very much in the “wear what you want!” ad infinitum camp, she seems to have an aversion outfits that are more on the pedestrian side.

      Yeah, I think this may have been better suited to the blog post style where I curate images instead of use just my outfit pics since my wardrobe doesn’t have much neon or pure colors in it. I think for that the @fashion.biologique account is pretty great because a lot of their nature-based examples combine brights with black/white/brown.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Im obsessed with Amy’s Instagram stories, even though I don’t dress completely like that, it’s eye opening to see how to look more elevated and stylish.

        It’s useful to see how you think about color, feels more down to earth and approachable 🙂 That Instagram account is pure eye candy!

        Like

  3. I like the idea that colors have different visual weights based on lightness and saturation, so in order to create a balanced composition including less-impactful and more-impactful colors, you need a larger area of the dull one and a smaller area of the bright one. It’s basically a codification of the “pop of color” concept. IMO this is why (very generally) bright-top-neutral-pants looks better than bright-pants-neutral-top, and why accessories are a common place to incorporate an eye-catching color. It just works!

    In order to have two similar-weighted colors feel balanced, they should cover similar areas in the outfit.

    I spent forever assigning the colors in my palette values and mathematically balancing their ratios in potential outfits, and it definitely agreed with my gut-instinct so… I could have just gone with that XD

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s a great explanation of “pop of color”! Color theory can be SUCH a rabbit hole. I feel kinda like that with the wardrobe tracking stuff, but I think in the end it was still helpful to spend all that time immersing myself in it even if it ended up being overkill to keep up in the long run.

      Like

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