One of the most intimidating parts of fashion is matching. On the surface, knowing what matches and what doesn’t seems like a subjective art—a skill one naturally has, but can’t be learned. To an extent, this is true.
Some guys have a natural flair for matching colors or patterns, and thus, they can get away with some crazy combos. However, for the average guy without a clue, there’s hope. There’s a series of basic rules and concepts that, once learned, can help you master the art of matching colors, patterns and layers like a pro.
The best way to understand color is by exploring a color wheel. The wheel is divided in half by warm and cool colors. Warm colors are the brighter hues like orange, red and yellow. Cool colors are the blues, greens and purples.
You’ll also notice the wheel is labeled by primary, secondary and intermediate colors.
Primary colors are the simple colors you’ve grown up with—the ones that are used to build and create other colors. Yellow, blue and red are the primary colors in the color wheel.
Secondary colors are hues like green, violet and orange.
Intermediate colors are a combination of primary and secondary colors. For example, red-orange or blue-violet are intermediate colors featured in the wheel.
When you attempt to match colors, you should pick colors that complement each other. Ideally, you should match warm colors with cool ones. Cool on cool or warm on warm can lead to boring looks without depth. They can wash out an entire look or leave it looking flat. This is why a navy and red tie looks vibrant while a navy and light blue tie is subtle. Wearing an all-blue look or an all-green look might seem initially adventurous (monochromatic looks were trending for a while), but it ultimately works against you.
Furthermore, primary colors shouldn’t be worn together. Primary and secondary colors often balance each other out in the same way cool and warm colors do. And one other color to keep in mind is the color of your skin.
If you have light skin, this gives you a warm background to build an outfit upon. Wearing warm colors on top of your skin color can wash you out. The same goes for guys with dark skin who wear cool colors. You need to mix in complementary colors from the other side of the wheel for variation, depth and texture.
The best way to master this skill is to get familiar with the color wheel and start playing with combinations. It may take some time to figure out what works best for you, but use the wheel as a guide. It’s a timeless tool that will always be relevant regardless of trend.
In mixing patterns, exercise caution. You should never combine more than two or three patterns in one look. The more aggressive pattern should dominate the smallest piece. As you work your way outward, subtler patterns should be used. For example, if you’re wearing a windowpane blazer, your shirt pattern could be gingham and your tie could have busy polka dots. As you work further into the look, the boldness of the patterns is increased—strong statements work best in small doses. You wouldn’t want to wear a windowpane blazer with a plaid shirt and a striped tie. Each pattern here is bold and works against each other.
A great way to get the hang of mixing patterns is to start with the same pattern in multiple places. Try stripes on stripes or check on check. To pull off this look, choose the pattern in different sizes. You can wear a woven dress shirt with a tiny polka dot pattern paired back to a tie with a bigger, more aggressive polka dot. The look works because the size of the dots varies, creating a sense of texture and contrast. If the polka dots were exactly the same size, your torso would look like a polka dot billboard—a sea of sameness. The variation in size is key to wearing the same pattern in two different pieces.
Once you feel comfortable with mixing the same pattern, move on to mixing patterns that are rooted in the same color family. Then, once you’ve mastered this, start experimenting with different combos. Start small and then move on to more adventurous choices.
When you start layering, it’s important to employ the principles involved in matching colors and patterns. You should pick complementary colors, and if multiple patterns are used, their boldness should decrease as you move inward or outward.
You’ll have a shirt layer, middle layer and outer layer. When looking at these various layers, the complexity of the look should increase or decrease with each look. For example, if your shirt layer is plaid, then each progressive layer should be less complicated. Your middle layer could be marled, or textured, instead of patterned. Your outer layer could just be a solid color. And in reverse, if your outer layer is plaid, then your middle layer and shirt layer should become progressively simple.
Your layers should work in tandem to create a cohesive look; they shouldn’t compete against each other for attention.
Typically, a great strategy is for the outer layers to be cool and the inner layers warm. Cool colors root your look in sophistication while warm colors provide a splash of personality.
Another general rule to follow in layering is to ensure each layer is something that can stand on its own. You should be able to remove a piece as the temperature goes up and still have a complete look. So, avoid layering in pieces with holes or stains that need to be covered up to work effectively. Additionally, your outer hems should be longer than your inner hems, and you should only use one or two pop colors.
It’s important to get layering right because a misguided look can make you look clueless and bulky. You need to layer for warmth, but you need to do so in style.
Matching can be a tough skill to master overall, but with some guiding principles, you can pull it off in style.