How I Think About Color

I used to think that I didn’t have a real philosophy on how I wear color. I just picked what I liked and used it to evoke certain style aesthetics. And then I realized that is a philosophy!

Before you start reading, listen to this podcast episode! It’s a good listen that sets up the rest of my essay and the photos I’ve included. Our faithful patron Eric (who suggested this topic) was also kind enough to write us this guide, which helped in the first half of this pod! We aren’t color scholars ourselves, so we took him at his word.

I remember the days when I first introduced color to my menswear wardrobe. No, it wasn’t about ties, socks, or pocket squares, but shirts. Mind you, this was during the days when suits were navy, black, and grey, with no room for checks or separates. In other words, I dressed like I was going to prom (even though my Christian high school didn’t have prom). For a long time, this was the extent of how color and fashion worked for me. It was basic, with simple color swaps meant to stand in place for actual interest or taste.

I’m not sure how I grew out of it, but it must have been quite early, as I went from that prom look (and a brief period of #menswear) to jumping into period clothing, culminating in my vague form of classic menswear. In retrospect, I had [fortunately and amazingly] skipped over a lot of the oft repeated color rules that you see across blogs and youtube videos. No Brown in Town. Black is for funerals. Red signifies power. I’ve said it plenty of times before, but it’s pretty sad to see how many guys are beholden to these old notions of color and menswear. It’s not even used in the “type” of menswear that my friends and I practice; though obviously thanks to the amount of normies non-menswear people, these color ideas still persevere.

We still hear that oft repeated suggestion of “adding a pop of color” in many a menswear blog and youtube. Most of the time the pop is a too strong, done for attention and contrast, rather than for a deeper meaning pointing toward an aesthetic. Tailoring is seen as “formal”, which often means that it should be boring- bar that pop of color (which could be as subtle as a pocket square or a vibrant as a satin tie). After all, color is often used in the place of personality or true subversion, where specific pieces are involved to subvert the vibes of the root outfit. They aren’t there yet, though so all they can rely on is color.

I don’t blame them though. As Eric points out in his notes, color can represent a lot of things. I suggest you read it (if you didn’t do so at the top of the post), but it basically points out how many of the non-earth tone colors we see today are novel. Purple, yellow, and orange were historically difficult to create. As a result, the use of colors signify luxury and in some cases, royalty. Obviously dyes became easier to produce, but these colors have retained some of their social and cultural connotations. For example, red is tied quite heavily to royalty, from the capes worn by kings to the Red Carpet or the bottom of Louboutin shoes. I could be wrong, but I think people think about how colors play into perceived aesthetics, rather than to try and evoke a certain emotion. (Or maybe those two ideas are the same thing)

For me, color is rooted in aesthetics, just perhaps removed a bit further from those social connotations. Certain menswear vibes and outfits use certain colors (in various shades and hues). As a guy who dresses based on a POV or a desired aesthetic, this is where color fits in. IThere are some basic color ideas that that I like to adhere to. Navy and grey are corporate. Black is edgy. Browns and other earth tones are casual. Other colors like yellows, purples, and oranges are for fun. But as you’ll later gather (and see in the photos I’ve included), these ideas are quite loose.

I’m sure that deep down, I have some sort of internalized rule about what works for my skin tone or how some colors can feel “aggressive”, but the defining factor is how colors tie into the specific look that I’m doing. Some colors are just more conducive to certain fits than others- I’ve probably turned this into a micro decision when buying clothes or crafting outfits. In other words, I don’t think that I spend much time thinking about clothing that much, since it’s just…inherent in my closet already.

As you know, I look at historical attire from the 1920s-1970s as a source of my inspiration, both for vintage and contemporary outfits. And as you might have guessed, color plays a big part in characterizing the aesthetics of the decades contained therein, connected not only to the cloth but certain pieces. For example, the Bold Era/Post-WWII look embraced vibrant colors, usually in conjunction with crisp wool gabardines that flowed nicely when dancing. This was a contrast to the more muted colors pre WWII, though to be clear the 1930s were vibrant as well- just in a different way (more earth tones and plaids). Even the ivy era was full of color, with red blazers and GTH pants being a popular choice for casual trads of the early 60s, before utilizing more flecks and browns later into the 70s.

Even in broad terms for classic menswear, where you don’t necessarily want to dress like a certain era, color can still play a role depending on your POV. Corporate attire tends to lean heavily on blues and greys, which to me reference the rigidity of military clothing (the roots of the suit). We can even expand this to city attire, where cold colors can echo the skyscrapers and man-made city life. Alternatively, country attire and sportswear (non-business clothing) leans on earth tones, most likely to reference how browns and indigo blues were seen as “working class” or casual; it could also just be used to reference more of nature, as tall metal buildings are absent from this setting.

Of course the easy way is just to signal that you’re not dressing for formality. For most people wearing classic menswear, formality is the guiding force, which results in a lot of color-less attire: black suits, white shirts, minimal ties. However for menswear enthusiasts, color is a bit of cheat code to show that you’re having fun with clothing. You don’t need to dress “boring” because you don’t have to be. This is probably why a iGents start out with fun socks, but as they turn into more discerning menswear enthusiasts, you start to see them play with color across jackets, trousers, shirts, ties, and knitwear. The best ones are done in conjunction with casual details and texture, but overall, it’s just about having fun. It’s jauntier and artistic. Think of it like those 1960s modernist art paintings that make use of vibrant color. They could be more restrained, but they decided not to- even if its a bunch of shapes on a canvas.

Now thanks to the many components of tailoring, color can be played with or subverted in varying degrees. For example a country brown suit could be made a bit more “city” with a sobering black crunchy knit tie; a sold navy or black repp would evoke this sleeker look due to the literal smoothness of the silk, playing into how texture can also play a role of subversion with color. Or a charcoal suit can go against the typical corporates connotations if worn with a fun foulard; the use of a soft yellow shirt or a vibrant Bengal can further that action. It’s also up to you whether or not you want to envelop loud colors with solid tailoring or break it up with separates.

The more I write about this, the more I realize just how color plays an equal part in my tailoring choices, even if it is quite internalized. After all, even certain patterns just look better with color, using contrast (bengals) or doing something tonal (like a tonal seersucker or plaid). I’ve even highlighted this in previous essays, like how GTH utilizes color to make something boring more “fun” or how jewel tones can be awkward to wear unless done in corduroy ( I’ll admit that this isn’t always true).

I also noticed how much I use color to evoke the ideas of other garments. You guys know that I’ve always said that a navy sport coat is just like a chore coat- they’re both a blue jacket with pockets. Using color as a common ground helps make their versatility (and practicality) much more palatable, providing even more context behind my theory of casual alternatives to tailoring (and fun pants). Olive military chinos are easy to wear since they’re just like a regular pair of green wool flannels. A chambray shirt, a blue OCBD, and a denim sawtooth are quite interchangeable with my style, guided only by what POV I have for that particular day (though there is obviously a throughline).

Subverting is also a cool move, which is why vibrant colors for milspec, workwear (which includes chore coats, workshirts, and work pants), or overcoats are also quite a move to do as those pieces are traditionally quite muted. There’s a bit of dandyness (bordering almost on safety/caution clothing) involved in the mindset, but that’s one of the ways to signal an intentional POV. Now that I think about it, the color doesnm’t even have to be vibrant- dull power blues or pinks look quite interesting on chore coats or trousers. The entire idea about using color on “regular” menswear is a bit similar to my GTH mentality, which is rooted in how I’m able to mix a few pieces that stodgy guys would say doesn’t work with the ideas of “classic menswear”. Though as we know in Esquire, the 1930s had a variety of cool clothes in a variety of colors (they even had leather jackets in different colors)- the precedent has always been there. They even did the dark shirt + tailoring look before teenagers at H&M ruined it.

Now that’s not to say that going all in for pop or dressing to emphasizing a particular color is a bad thing. Well dressed men have done it for ages, across all eras. Usually most of these involve more casual outfits, such as wearing a vibrant red westerner (instead of the classic indigo blue) with black jeans. It just depends on what vibes you want to create. Want something normal? Stick with navys and greys and muted versions of typical clothing. Want to go fun? Inject color into it. Or, as you guys remember from last year, if you want to go edgy, add in black. Or go for black in all of it. It’s always going to go for the vibes you want to creat from your outfit. And with a vague notion of menswear, you don’t have to worry about how formal or casual it is because chances are, your outfit will have a little bit of both.

Even if the outfit isn’t inherently casual, color still seems to work best with “casual” pieces (non-tailoring), ranging to small accoutrements like beanies and berets to larger things like a Cassentino overcoat, a wonderfully plaid mackinaw, or a saturated barn coat. With that said, I do like the idea of injecting color within tailoring. For a while, that came in the form of having fun with socks, where the saturation on a small piece of hosiery was justified. Who doesn’t want to feel like royalty by wearing red socks or to feel like a jaunty huntsman with a bit of yellow peeking out between derbies and cords?

That mindset was later expanded to include knitwear, suits (my purple cord suit anyone?), and shirts. Shirts I think are the hardest to inject color into since it ties right back to the story I related in the beginning- it reminds me of prom shirts. But maybe that’s because the shirt itself was bad. A solid black or purple cotton-poly non-iron shirt with a skimpy collar is just bad. But a shirt in black linen or a green gabardine shirt? That works for me. The more intentional details help show an evolution in taste and execution, but honestly, the mindset didn’t change too much. I wanted to wear that color because I liked it, so finally decided to use it as a shirt.

Even if pushing for one color is a great move, I actually think that my preferred of playing with color focuses on combinations. It’s less about emphasizing one color but rather how different ones work together- and what cultural or social messages they can bring. The use of color seems to be a battle between how playful you want to be and how much you want to lean into it. Certain colors (with varying degrees of saturation and brightness) can evoke seasons or allude to a personality, which is why I’m interested in how it works together. Let’s not forget some pairings can make one seem bolder than the other, which still plays into the POV you have.

Pairing a color with extensive connotations (which can be vibrant or not) with another to change up the message is all the fun. Casual attire is usually easy but tailoring (as you could expect) is where the true fun comes into play. You can routinely see old Drake’s photos making use of colorful striped shirts and abstract ties against muted tweeds, echoing how the Esquire men did it during the Golden Era. It’s a classic, which I’ve done myself, leading to how I like striped shirts for their ability to play with multiple colors in various shades; it’s much more interesting than just a solid (though solids have their place). And let’s not forget how I’ve stated repeatedly that dark brown (in solids and checks) just looks older and more “mature”. It’s why I prize it over lighter shades, which often feel too “young” or iGent.

Outside of specific shirt and tie combinations, one major way of how I combine colors comes through in how often I like pairing navy jackets with brown pants. Now obviously this is a classic combination that has precedent across different eras; it’s also quite harmonious (probably the only reference to color theory I can think of). However my extensive use of this combo is due more to the fact that I don’t want to default to navy + grey (security guarding/#menswear) or navy + khaki (too preppy). To me, darker shades of brown trousers feel like an intentional choice, one that goes against the grain of a typical menswear choice. Of course, it’s also fun to play into those traditional pairings.

Different combinations occupy different things in my mind. Green + brown feels vaguely militaristic. Black + brown is 70s. Green + white is peter griffin. Khaki + red is Target (light blue + khaki is Best Buy or a Helpful Honda Person). Red and blue is patriotic. I’m sure if you think hard, you’ll find some sort of unfortunate connotation that a combo can have. But that only applies when the colors are so prominent. In reality, we have so many different pieces within one outfit that color can be diluted across. This is where the fun of dressing begins, where you get to try things out and see what works, not only based on color harmony but on the look you want to create.

Navy and grey are great options for a suit, but I prefer navy simply due the depth and versatility I perceive from that particular shade; brown is a second for me due to the same reasons. Grey just isn’t as useful to me in comparison, even as many others seem to be able to use it just as much as navy or brown. Though as I now stare at my sea of blues and browns, I actually feel like grey would be a fine addition. Wild how color can come and go in our tastes!

Overall, like with all things I ramble endlessly on in the pages of this blog, the use of color within menswear really just depends on your own taste. After all, color is what could turn a suit look from being corporate (like J. Mueser with their use of somber solids) to something more intentionally fun like Drake’s (who uses color quite often in their looks). With all the messages that color can have, there isn’t a right answer on how to incorporate it into your style, but rather a right answer for you, leaning on the connotations that you develop on your own as you navigate your style journey. For me, it leans into dark colors in suiting and saturated casual pieces like knitwear. I either play into it or subvert it at will.

I firmly believe that everything in menswear is an exercise in POV and color plays heavily into that, even if it is internalized. We all have a sense of what colors we like and after while, you know what clothes and aesthetic you like. It’s totally possible to have some fun with color in menswear (or at least vague menswear). You just have to get the taste right.

Podcast Outline

  • 08:19 – Topic Start
  • 10:47 – History of Color and Menswear
  • 15:51 – Eric on Color
  • 37:38 – Color and Formality/How it Translates Now
  • 41:47 – Colors Tying to Eras/Vibes
  • 53:40 – Color for Aesthetics
  • 56:27 – Modern Cloths
  • 1:00:30 – How Deeply Do We Think About Color
  • 1:09:44 – Skin Tone
  • 1:13:53 – Color Combos
  • 1:23:48 – Wrap-up

Recommended Reading

We followed up the pod and essay with a discussion on stream. Eric actually joined us for it and used his knowledge of graphic design to give us more insight on how people think about color. We also muse on how difficult it is for guys to use it effectively.

Having fun with color is not new thing! Here’s some AA illustrations.
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Red is one of my favorite colors to wear. I prefer it in darker, burgundy shades (and in checks or stripes) to remove political or prom connotations.
Of course a vibrant red jacket is quite ivy! Love it here against the soft browns and the unexpected use of black shoes. Color is fun!
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Red florals and green. Quite 70s when done together.
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Vibrant colors were pretty common on casual shirts in the Golden Era. A bit of a “safety” vibe, but it’s made more severe against the use of black.
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Soft red against blue and khaki.
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With its vibrant hue, a good red is great for ivy looks (especially when done as stripes).
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Red ties are easy to wear. I prefer it as stripes or foulards (burgundy though).
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The red/black houndstooth sleeves is one of the things that makes the sportvest cool.
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Red as knitwear is a good move. It’s fun!
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The red beanie gives a trad tweed suit some needed novelty.
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A red 1960’s short jacket. You could spot me in a crowd.
There’s something quite apparel arts about this with its use of color.
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Burgundy and brown.
A red beanie against denim is quite Marvin Gaye, but the blazer and burgundy pants gives this more of an ivy mood. You can always put the vibes together!
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My 1960s burgundy blazer.
A red denim jacket! Kenji wears his with black jeans, similar to my workshirt fit early in the post.
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Red beanies just might be the easiest way to wear the color, especially if you’re intimidated from using it as a top or bottom.
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A soft red as outerwear is nice.
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Deep red sportshirt. Makes for a groovy fit when done against other light pieces.
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Red gingham. A bit Americana, but it’s refined here when worn with a blazer.
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Of course leaning into Americana (by using red on a varsity jacket and against denim) is fun too!
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Drake’s vibes.
I’m not sure what aesthetic this points to, but its still cool.
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Burgundy linen pants. GTH in a soft way.
Love the colors here.
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Red + khaki is a bit target employee but the blazer and paintsplatters help set it apart.
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Red dinner jacket. “Punk” in the best way.
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The use of red checks (a fall color) against lighter tones is cool juxtaposition.
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Red on outerwear feels very “safety”! Those vibes contrasted against trad tailoring is a fun way to signal an irreverent attitude as well as some practicality.
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Can’t forget my love of burgundy ties. A very trad move.
It doesn’t always have to be worn with poplin shirts!
Red tailoring is bold, but after Joker, I think we can do it. It’s best done in textured clothes in order to soften the boldness of the color.
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A good “going out” color too, though make sure you have patterns to make it more interesting.
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Juxtaposition.
Not only is red knitwear fun (better than picking something dark), but it’s even cooler with contast: against cream and black.
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I do prefer wearing dark colors against a vibrant red.
Red blazers always feel very preppy.
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Green! It’s like blue, except…green. Great for softer contrast and pairings instead of red.
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It can also bring a helping of milsurp vibes to an outfit that isn’t exactly military in general. Works with denim/western looks.
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It’s also interestign when done with tailoring. Khaki and green feel military but the shirt and tie feel quite trad.
Green can work for “safety” fits too. Saturated colors always look good on outerwear.
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Olive chinos here, but less military when worn with knitwear and dark casual jacket.
Green is also nice in a two tone. Here it is on a vintage western shirt.
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It brings military vibes, but then contrasts against white (and shorts in general).
A dark green jacket can be seen as an alternative to a traditional navy one.
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Of course, leaning into the utilitarian vibes with the colors is nice too.
Green in westernwear is underrated.
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Green shirts. A great way to add some variance to blue and white. It’s jauntier!
Not outerwear, but an accessory.
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Green and blue are good bedfellows.
Green can also be quite formal (or at least bring that vibe).
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But most of the time, it’s fine just worn as an alternative to khaki and blue pants.
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Not my favorite shade, but still cool, especially against black and brown.
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It’s also an underrated repp stripe variation.
This could be grey, but I’m calling it green-grey.
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When worn with blue, you can really see how green it is.
Soft green on Andre.
I love this shade. It’s just so fun!
Socks are a good move too, if you don’t want to commit to a shirt or knitwear. Tony does it well.
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It’s also a good choice for a tie, when red feels too corporate and blue is too matchy against blue tailoring.
Lovely green on this cassentino wool.
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Green suit! Also note the purple.
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Green pants, but not military chinos.
Green checks are a convivial alternative to the browns and greys you normally get from tweeds.
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It’s become my favorite color to wear as a shirt.
Green cord is an instant ivy classic. Most green suits will exude this vibe, even if its not in cord!
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Subtle green on a checked tie.
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A vibrant green on a vintage summer tie.
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White and cream are still colors!
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I like leaning into the tonality of it with the shoes being the point of contrast (and the beret).
Dark shirt and light suit.
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White/cream odd trousers always feel quite #menswear, though I do my best to make it more “me” and less blogger-chic when I do wear it. It’s done here with black shoes.
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I like white in workwear attire, just for some fun.
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Cream in summer tailoring is a classic. Perhaps it’s use signals warm weather no matter how it’s worn?
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Nguyen plays into the cream with the two tone pennys.
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This sweater is more brown than a true cream, but I’ll count it here. Nice to bring a vibrant color to dark fall shades.
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One of my favorite looks of all time.
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White knitwear.
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White pants always have a luxurious vibe to it, which is fun to lean into. Here, it feels more 60s chic rather than Italian iGent.
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Echoing Chase from earlier, but with a dark turtleneck.
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#menswear all around.
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White shorts and hat make it nautical.
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I like white pants with trad fits since it injects a bit of contemporary charm. It’s not quite iGent but it’s not full trad either. Maybe it’s Esquire Man.
The white polo is preppy but so are the white buttons.
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White scarves! I like taking them out of their evening attire roots and pairing them with more “everyday” clothing.
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A cream tie is tough to wear, but it finds itself at home with somber tailoring.
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Khaki. As a suit it can feel ivy, but that’s not always how it was done!
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Khaki and a dark blue. Everything together feels like a modern take on 70s tailoring.
Soft browns are a good choice for monochromatic outfits.
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I like pairing deep blues with khaki.
A reddish brown, but I like it, especially against a darker trouser. There is that soft blue again!
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Khaki and black are great.
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Khaki against dark trousers is a cool move.
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Khaki odd jackets tend to feel very 70s, since they echo camel hair (even if its not made of camel).
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Vaguely military.
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The khaki tie.

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Let’s get into brown, my favorite color to wear in tailoring. It’s just different than navy or grey.
Of course, a lot of menswear already shares that mindset. After all, none of us have to be extremely corporate!

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Brown is really good on cord.
An early example of a black tie with a brown suit!
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I even wear browns as separates.
Love that purplish brown trouser against the green.
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Marco and Jonny.
The Anthology.
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A lighter mixture of browns.
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I actually got rid of this one because the color felt a bit too iGent. It just wasn’t the right shade of brown!
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Dark browns are best. They’re somber, but they aren’t as corporate as navy or grey.
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Accessorizing with brown is an interesting move.
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Yellow is similar to brown in my book, just as how green is to blue. It’s just….yellower, shouting its personality rather than exuding a mood.
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Great for tee shirts.
Yellow checks are cool.
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Another choice color for workshirts.
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Tattersall is a trad way of wearing color.
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I’d also argue that certain suede jackets can give of similar vibes to yellow.
Yellow striped ties are very ivy. I sometimes find them intimidating, but I do appreciate their use outside of the expected navy+red ones we see all the time.
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I got this from Uniqlo a few years ago. I wish it was more yellow!
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Just like green, yellow is a fantastic color to use in linen shirting. Though this time the power comes through in it’s vibrancy rather than depth.
I didn’t forget about the pale yellow shirt.
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Good for knitwear, unless you’re wearing khakis.
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I love it for striped shirts- I actually don’t have one yet!
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Yellow and green.
The yellow stripe is what makes this tie a good one.
Not a beanie, but a cap!
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Maybe yellow and khaki do go together.
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Yellow as a base layer amongst other dark colors is one of my favorite things to do.
More proof that the 1930s were fun.
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Orange! Bigger fan of these as trousers rather than tops.
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A burnt orange.
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To me, it’s more about leaning into the prep angle rather than the pop of color. Or maybe those two things are one and the same!
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I don’t own an orange tie, but I’d like the challenge.
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Ski jacket.
A lovely orange check on this sportcoat. Certainly different than my beloved brown checks.
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Color and pattern pairings in Apparel Arts.
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Purple is my favorite color. It’s tricky to wear, but I like the challenge.
A good choice for ties when you’re already exhausted from the others. It has a dandy persona, which is why it’s best done with other somber pieces (or the purple can be done in a subtler shade).
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This purple beret is tricky. I’m still figuring it out since it was much brighter than I expected.
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Socks are usually the way to go.
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To me, it’s all about doing Drake’s.
Purple cord suit from John Simons.
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My purple cord suit from Atelier Fugue.
Lavender knitwear.
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Purple and green, all in one tie!
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Lavender shirt. Reminds me of the 2000s.
Pink!
Preppy meets vacationing European.
I think of it as an alternative to a light blue or white shirt, but unlike greens, it retains the same shade and intensity, making it remain “business” oriented.
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Pink trousers (not Nantuckets) always give me 50s rockabilly vibes.
Menswear has always embraced color!
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A quick appreciation for dark grey shirts. To me, they are an alternative to denim shirts.
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I used to find this shirt difficult to wear, but I love it now.
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I don’t think I have to say much about grey trousers in menswear.
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Color combos in stripes! This is just pure fun (though it has a sense of collegiate style somewhere in its roots).
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In block pastels, stripes feel quite 80s.
Patterns are also a great way to combine different colors without having to wear more than one piece of clothing.
Patchwork madras.
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Plaids.
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The fun shirt. A great example of a regular garment- just with color.
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Soft contrast.
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Bolder contrast.
Negroni Tweed makes great use of reds and oranges together.
Color makes this CPO shirt go from being a menswear staple to a hyped garment.
I love stripes surrounded by solid colors.
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Plaids too.
I loved this because it uses a “summer” stripe against a fall check
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Bold awning stripes give me Hockney vibes- or an extra in a 90s sitcom.
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A quick set for camo.
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Black. Great for patterns.
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And on its own. Here, this is mainly about bringing in the dark color rather than a full aesthetic.
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Its always going to be edgy.
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Black and khaki.
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Black and blue.
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Black and blue.
The hint of red against black is pretty awesome.
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Black and brown.
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Blue, an easy menswear color to wear.
When navy is too expected, its time to jump into jewel tones.
The 1930s liked playing with blue too.
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Blue is safe.
But blue can be fun too.
A blue suit, blue striped shirt, and blue tie.
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All blue.
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Power blue- signals 70s vibes.
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Blue can even be used for “safety”.
Love the blue as terry cloth here.
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The red only helps to emphasize the blue. Or is it vice versa?
Soft blues against grey. Almost makes the grey seem bluer, huh?
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Blue on blue.
A classic example of 1930s style, with the dark shirt and light suit.
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My take on the summer blues and fall jackets.
Drake’s seems to like to do that.
You can always mix blues.
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Blue outerwear is boring, unless the pieces underneath help contrast it.
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Blue and brown is my favorite combination.
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It’s just different than a typical iGent look. Maybe it’s too boring for them?
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Flipping it is also a cool move. I like how Spencer does it here- the work pants are different than jeans (because then he’d just look like an English professor).
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Oh and I had to shout out my love of brown jackets and grey pants, the superior version of the navy jacket and grey pants. I’m pretty sure I like this just because it’s not “security guarding”.

Thanks for listening and reading along! Don’t forget to support us on Patreon to get some extra content and access to our exclusive Discord. We also stream on Twitch and upload the highlights to Youtube.

The Podcast is produced by MJ.

Always a pleasure,

Ethan M. Wong

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