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How to Know What Colors Work (Man’s Guide to T-Shirts)
Matching your t-shirt with the right clothes can be tough. Not only does the shirt have to match your pants, shoes, jacket, and other accessories, it also has to look good with your skin and eyes. That’s a lot for a guy who wants to just throw on his favorite tee and run out the house.
Thankfully, picking a tee, and eventually a whole outfit that looks great doesn’t have to be complicated. Just follow these simple guidelines and your style will be upgraded from drab to fab in no time.
Before we dive too deeply into fashion, let’s start simple. When it comes to looking great, you need to have a basic understanding of color theory and how different colors work—and don’t work—together. And it’s not just our opinion. According to the Smithsonian, it’s science.
Take a look at this color wheel. It will be your handy guide until you get this color thing down:
This is the scheme we will mostly be focusing on as it’s the most foolproof. Any color located directly across from the other is complementary. That means these colors—plus their shades—tend to look good together. For example, any shade of red goes great with green. Oranges and blues are a perfect pair.
Complementary colors work well thanks to contrast. Allowing the different elements of your outfit to stand out creates an eye-pleasing visual balance. Can’t wait to rock those slick new khakis? Since that color will be in the lighter yellows or golds, pair them with darker indigo or purple tee, tie, or another accessory.
These are colors that sit directly next to each other on the color wheel. For blue, this would mean any shades of indigo and teal. Analogous colors are the most harmonious to one another, but using some contrast is essential to avoid matching colors too closely. It can get really sloppy really fast without a good eye. Also, ensure one color is used as the focus color with the other two acting as support.
As you can probably guess, this is using the same color for an entire outfit. Though this is possible to pull off, it can also be easy to create both boring and/or an overwhelming look. Unless wearing black on black, avoid this scheme if you’re a beginner in putting together looks.
How Do I Know What Color Works for Me?
Between skin tones, eyes, hair, and more, not all colors look great on everyone. Though there are always exceptions, here are some general guidelines on how to pick right color for you.
Remember: Contrast is key. The only hard and fast rule is to avoid matching your clothes too closely to your skin tone. If you have a light or pale complexion, avoid lighter shirts like white, beige, pastels, and yellow. These colors will wash you out. Aim for darker colors like browns, dark reds, and violets.
For darker skin tones, the opposite is true. Too many darker colors will muddy up your look. However, anything bright can really help you pop. Take advantage.
If you have olive skin and/or land somewhere in the middle, lucky you! Most colors should look great against your skin as long as you keep some contrast between your clothes and you.
To find the right colors to compliment your eyes, take a look back at the color wheel. Colors that look best with your eye color will sit next to your eye color. If your eyes are green, then a light blue or yellow will work really well.
If you’re really wanting to make your eyes pop choose a complementary color and rock that contrast. For those blue eyes, an orange or gold will look amazing.
Choosing a color based on your complexion is an ideal way to narrow down your outfit options. Now that you have an idea of how color theory works for clothing, and for you, it’s time finally figure out what to wear.
Practice What Works For You
Believe it or not, even the most fashionable men amongst us will try on countless color and clothing combos before figuring out what to wear before a night out. Very few are born with the sixth sense of magically having an eye for fashion.
Therefore, make like the experts and experiment. This doesn’t necessarily mean wearing an outfit for an entire night to see if you get the feedback you want. Instead, stand in front of a mirror while mixing and matching the wide array of tees, buttons, jackets, etc. that you’ve collected throughout the years.
Don’t worry about literally trying every shirt on. Just hold each one up over your torso and quickly process your initial reaction. Flashing these different shirts in front of you not only makes it easy to see what base colors work—and what colors don’t—it also helps your eye practice picking out for what looks great on you.
Most of the time, you’ll be surprised how quickly your brain will tell you what to keep and what to toss. As you “try on” each shirt, ask yourself these three questions:
- Does this shirt look great?
- Does this shirt make me look great?
- Does this shirt work for the particular occasion?
Make three piles—Yes. No. Maybe. I think you can figure out what to do with these, but being THE comprehensive guide, we’ll break them down for you.
- Yes: This shirt hits all the marks. It looks great, makes you look great, and totally works for the occasion.
- No: This shirt may fit one or even two of the categories. Still, if it doesn’t hit all three, it has to be a no.
- Maybe: Sometimes you’re on the fence. That’s ok. Put shirts that fit in this category to the side for now. As you look at other tees, it should help you make the right choice.
Eventually, you should greatly narrow down your options to a small number of shirt. Continue this process until you have a final winner. This shirt will be the color you’ll base the rest of your outfit decisions on.
When Choosing Pants, Basic Is Better
When putting together a classic fashion style for pants, basic is almost always better. Don’t think this makes it easy though. This still leaves tons of styles, colors, and cuts to choose from. However, if you’re a relative newbie to complementing your tees, we recommend sticking to these three basic colors:
- Black Jeans
- Blue Jeans
Anything outside of those three are usually meant for collared shirts, nicer outfits, or more advances fashions. As mentioned in our T-shirt Matching Article, there are some basic rules to matching your pants with your shirt. Here’s the essential information:
Black + Brown = Never
Nope. Never. Forget it. If you want to wear black t-shirt, don’t even think about wearing those khakis. If you have a brown t-shirt, hide your black jeans far far away so you’re not even tempted. This look simply never has and never will work.
Instead, consider blue jeans for a brown tee. For a black shirt, consider either black jeans or blue jeans.
Another general rule is to never match too much. This means if you’re wearing a blue shirt, avoid blue jeans. If you’re wearing brown, skip the khakis. Contrast usually works in your favor.
However, there are always exceptions to the rules. One of those is wearing black on black. In terms of colors, it’ll will always look great—and will definitely give you a badass edge.
Black + Navy = Probably Not
This isn’t as hard a rule as black + brown. Combining black + navy has turned somewhat trendy and more people are pulling it off successfully. Still, it’s incredibly easy for these colors to look sloppy in an instant if you don’t have an expert eye.
As a reader of this blog, let’s assume you aren’t the most fashion-forward (yet). For that reason, we’d suggest you avoid wearing black + navy together until you’ve become more comfortable putting styles together.
Blue Jeans + (Almost) Anything = Cool & Casual
It doesn’t get much more classic than blue jeans. And luckily for the fashionably challenged among us, it’s pretty easy to look great when pairing jeans with a tee.
The most important rule is contrast. This is a great time to use that complementary color wheel as your guide. For example, with dark blue jeans try a lighter shirt. For lighter jeans, do the opposite. For all those jeans right in the middle, simply avoid colors that match too closely to that shade of jeans.
Keep Shoes Simple
Like with pants, a simple shoe typically is the best answer. Sure. Those Nike sneakers with 30 colors, 14 straps, 8 springs, and an eject button are really cool, but the chances of them actually looking good with your outfit is about one in a million.
Look. Shoes are tricky. With so many options, they’re a bit of a wildcard and we all have our preferences. If you’re looking for easy-to-follow rules though, keep it simple and find a couple reliable pairs that you can always depend on.
Keeping your kicks basic will also make it easier to put the rest of the outfit together and not have to stress much about matching footwear as well. Therefore, we recommend owning:
- 1 Pair of Brown Shoes
- 1 Pair of Black Shoes
Now, don’t think sticking with black and brown has to mean dress shoes or boots, although we’re always advocates of classing it up. Those classic black Converse Chuck Taylor All-Stars work great with many looks. Or try brown Sperry’s Boat Shoes to keep up that relaxed, yet still stylish, vibe.
Also, always match your shoes to your pants. That’s easy enough if you have brown or black pants, but what about blue jeans? Really, it’s a toss-up and most jeans will go fine with either color.
Instead, make sure the shoes work with your shirt. For example, don’t wear brown shoes with a black shirt. Also, ensure your shoe color and/or tone matches the rest of your accessories on the color wheel.
Let’s Get Fancy
Alright. We’ve got the basics down by focusing mostly on your basic t-shirt. That may be a great place to begin, but for most of us, we can’t live life wearing only tees.
Now that you’ve master color theory, classing up the look a touch will be easy peasy. All that often takes is a slick jacket, sports coat, or blazer to put over your nice t-shirt or button-up.
Essentially, if you’ve used all of above the guidelines to create your look, all it should take is a great jacket contrasting in color to your base shirt, khakis, or a nice pair of jeans and boom! You’re ready to hit up the town in style.
Here are a few popular combinations that we love:
- White Shirt + Brown Sport Coat + Dark Blue Jeans + Brown Shoes
- Light Grey Shirt + Jean Jacket + Black Pants + Black Shoes
- Blue Shirt + Grey Blazer + Black Pants + Brown Shoes
- Pink Shirt + Dark Blue Blazer + Khaki Pants + Brown Shoes
Everything Else is a Complement
Any additional accessories like hats, jewelry, ties, etc. should be complementary to that perfect t-shirt you’ve chosen. Take a look back at one more time to that color wheel and all those extra apparel pieces should correspond with the complementing colors. If the accessory you want to wear is black or brown, then like your shoes, base it on the pants.
Overall, looking great in any shirt really isn’t that hard when you break it down to 4 simple essentials: Your Look, Your Pants, Your Shoes, and Your Accessories. When you consider each option carefully, you should be able to make the shirt you want to wear look like a million bucks.
As you feel more comfortable with colors, clothing, and fashion, start experimenting with more risk-taking combinations. Looking good should be fun! After all, aren’t rules meant to be broken?
Most importantly though, be yourself and be confident. That will shine through more than any fashion faux-pas. Now get out there and show the world how damn good you look in your new custom printed t-shirt.