One question I still get relatively often has to do with combining different colors of shirts, pants, and shoes together.

This is a fairly basic concept that we touched upon in other posts, but it makes sense to dedicate a whole article to this idea.

And so, here we are.

The Basic Idea

I’m keeping this as simple as possible. Three things to keep in mind.

  1. Contrast is key. Light top, dark bottom, light shoes. Dark top, light bottom, dark shoes. You want a good amount of contrast among the three.
  2. Avoid tops that are too close to your skin tone. It makes you appear pale and washed out. Read this article for a more in-depth explanation.
  3. Stay away from tonal outfits (all three pieces being the same color, or close in value). It can be pulled off successfully, but also has the possibility of looking kind of terrible. It’s a more advanced style concept which we’ll cover in a different article.

A Few Things To Note

These are basic solids, and technically, all combinations can work. But, to make it easy when you’re starting out, focus on the top three choices I put together for you.

Once you get the hang of it, you’ll no longer need this article and you’ll be able to figure out how to put together any color combination, not just the basics.

We’re discussing color, not illustration accuracy or level of formality. This visual guide contains symbols representing tops, bottoms, and shoes. These are not necessarily representative of any specific type of shirt, pair of pants, or shoes.

Use your imagination. If you can’t, and visualizing all this is too difficult for you, hire a personal stylist so he or she can dress you.

Experiment. Go to your closet, pull similar items, and put them together for yourself so you can see how they look together. It’s a lot easier than you think.

I’ve started building these combos with the pants, but you can start with any item you want.

There will be varying degrees of darkness and lightness in your clothing’s colors, so use your best judgement. You may be dealing with a darker neutral, or a shade of blue that is lighter than the representative symbol you see here. Just keep in mind that contrast is key.

Mixed color shirts—anything from a basic contrast collar shirt to a tartan or multi-colored gingham—are best handled by asking yourself what the overall hue of the shirt is.

Hang your shirt against a blank white wall and walk to the other side of the room. Does its hue read blue? More red / pink? Neutral? Base the rest of your selections on how the shirt reads.

Khaki chinos, gray trousers, and dark denim are safe bets, no matter the color of your shirt or shoes.

Quick And Easy Combos

color combo illustration

Click to enlarge

The whole idea is to show you how easy it is to pair shirts and pants, and how to finish off the outfit with shoes.

Interpreting the guide

  • The top section shows the three clothing types, with every color I’m using in this example.
  • I started each outfit with the pants as the base.
  • Read the bottom section vertically to see the combos based on each pair of pants, B1 to B5.
  • The choices that don’t make the list could still work, though I’m trying to keep this simple.
  • Almost every shirt / pants / shoes combo within each group of three is interchangeable, so don’t feel stuck with these exact match-ups.
  • Remember: 1. experiment, 2. there are no hard-and-fast rules, 3. have fun.

If you remember the three points from the beginning of this article (contrast, no tops too close to your skin tone, avoid tonal outfits), putting together combos from these basic colors is super easy.

Why only basic colors? Simplicity, and also because if you’re following the Lean Wardrobe philosophy, you’ll have all these in your closet.

Additionally, if you’re adding mid- and top-level items based off the Lean Wardrobe pyramid, you don’t have to worry about matching those things (because it’s all about complementing, not matching).

Make Sense?

Study the graphic FIRST, and if you have questions, would love to hear them below.

If you found this article useful, make sure to check out our Lean Wardrobe resources page.

TAKE ME TO THE RESOURCES PAGE

PUBLISHED February 19, 2015


Barron is a Lean Wardrobe Advocate and Founding Editor of Effortless Gent. He's from San Francisco but currently living in New York. Connect with him on Instagram, Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter, or Tumblr.



  • Rob

    ergh imagine white trousers with black brogues – can that be done??

    • Jacob

      I bet with some care it could be pulled off.
      The only one that seemed a little dicey to me, is the black trousers with white top and shoes; needs some color…I suppose he’s just getting at the base, though, leaving room for a splash of color (or two) with a bow tie or bright socks.

    • sure can

  • Nordlund63

    Can you throw some olive chinos in there?

    • olive is similar to tan and grey, as far as color “value”. treat it the same.

  • jbird669

    So I can’t wear gray converse with dark denim?

    • sure you can. re-read the post, especially everything under “a few things to note”.

  • bankc11

    Barron, you might want to check out Reddit. There is an “updated” version of your original infograph.

  • victor

    Barron, would color should my casual jacket then be ? the opposite color of my shirt ?
    should It match my pants ? or a neutral color that is opposite of both ? for example, white shirt, black pants , olive or khaki jacket? tks..

    • something that looks good with your pants (but also works with your shirt). don’t think about it too much.

  • This is fantastic. One of my female co-workers has told me that she can always tell if a man is ‘metrosexual’ or not based on what he wears daily, and whether it matches. There are apparently colors that should never be mixed, so things like this are a huge help for those of us born without the innate ability to match colors together well, or patterns for that matter… or textures.

    • glad it helps!

    • Ken Starr

      Chicks usually define men like that. Women know their men are just well educated

  • This is a great guide Barron!

    One thing I want to mention, never wear and blazer or sport jacket that is too similar in colour to your trousers (e.g. navy blazer with blue/navy chinos). In most cases it will look just terrible, almost as if you’re trying to put together a suite from odd pieces. As Barron mentioned, be careful with these kinds of tonal combinations.

    Manny

  • melmoth

    I wonder if you’ve ever written about this;

    What colors should not be mixed? I mean colors that often are mixed but really should not be. I don’t need the obviously mistaken ones, like salmon with forest green or something.

    That would be an interesting article.

  • Eric Lavin

    First off what is mixed color? I am asking because I have that same color shirt as the reddish purple. Secondly, what about light grey chinos would that fit into white/light colors? Lastly, navy blue chinos is that the same as dark denim?

    • i defined it in the post above.

      Mixed color shirts—anything from a basic contrast collar shirt to a tartan ormulti-colored gingham—are best handled by asking yourself what the overall hue of the shirt is.

      Hang your shirt against a blank white wall and walk to the other side of the room. Does its hue read blue? More red / pink? Neutral? Base the rest of your selections on how the shirt reads.

  • Ken Starr

    Awesome Barron!

  • Eugene Walter

    How do you feel about bright red mixed with black denim? I personally like it, but I wondered if most people looking at it would disagree. I also like doing a dark purple lumber jack shirt with a white-t for contrast.

  • Nasir Devlani

    i have a lemon yellow see through plain shirt and I can’t find something to go with it. Please advise.