The Science of Color Coordination: Quick Tips for Men's Fashion

The Science of Color Coordination: Quick Tips for Men's Fashion

For most guys, choosing the right color to wear is more a matter of luck than science, especially since roughly 70% of men have some measurable degree of color blindness. Ouch. But you know that when you pick just the right shirt, someone (most often, a woman) will tell you that your eyes look amazing, or that the color brings out natural highlights in your hair.

color coordination for men's clothing

And those women are right. The first key to dressing well is to know which colors make you look amazing. And the secret to that is an actual, objective, measurable science that even Bill Nye can grasp: figuring out your skin undertone.

WHAT IS A SKIN UNDERTONE?

In real life, women are generally more attentive to the shades that flatter their skin, but the first person to develop a science of skin tones was actually a man—Robert C. Dorr (1905-1979), an American artist who argued that, regardless of surface skin tone (fair, dark, tanned, golden, etc.), every person has one of two undertones—blue/purple or yellow/orange. And, since then, science has offered us an explanation for Dorr’s artistic instincts. Basically, all human skin has three layers of colors that matter:

  1. The surface color of your skin, which depends on your skin cells’ unique quantity of melanin (responsible for varying shades of brown tones).
  2. The color of your muscles and blood vessels under the skin (which add primarily red tones, due to the tint of your blood hemoglobin).
  3. The underlying shade of melanin (melanin quality), which depends on your ratio of pheomelanin and eumelanin. The color of these melanin tints lying against your blood vessels gives your skin an underlying tone that is easiest to describe as dominantly brown-blue (cool toned), dominantly brown-orange (warm toned) or balanced between brown-blue/brown-orange (neutral). It’s this undertone that matters most when you’re color-matching, and the good news is that even if your surface skin color changes (tanning, etc.), the undertone never changes, so once you figure it out, you’re set for life.

 

SO HOW CAN I TELL?

TIPS FOR YOUR SKIN UNDERTONE

Unsurprisingly, most of the first easy-to-use tests were designed for people with very fair skin, and people who do not have primarily Caucasian ancestry may find the phrasing of the traditional tests completely unhelpful because they don’t account very well for different surface skin tones. So here are some quick alternative hacks that should help clarify. If you’re a do-it-yourself, figure-out-the-science kind of guy, start with Quick Tip 1, but if you’re the I-don’t-have-time-for-this, just-give-me-an-answer kind of guy, skip to Quick Tip 5.

Quick Tip 1: Group Photo

The absolute best way to figure out your underlying skin tone is to look at pictures of yourself standing next to a group of people with similar surface skin coloring because the underlying tones will be much more evident in contrast.

For example, Black Panther stars Michael B. Jordan and Chadwick Boseman have similar surface skin color, but Jordan has a much warmer undertone (more brown-orange than brown-blue like Boseman).

color coordination mens clothing - oteromenswear

For Asians, however, warm tones tend to show up as a rich gold, and cooler tones tend to look more icy. In the image below left, Tao’s skin undertone is much cooler than that of her Railroad Tiger co-star Jackie Chan. But, in the image to the right, you can see that Jackie Chan and Darren Wang have similarly warm undertones. 

fair-skinned-color-clothing

And in this shot below, from the Shanghai International Film Festival, you can see the contrasts between warm and cool tones quite well, but also that the contrast isn’t absolute. Some people who have a balance of warm and cool tones are neutrals. Can you see the differences?

color-coordination-examples-otero

This works for fair-skinned people, too.

Jeremy Renner and Chris Hemesworth both have warmer-toned skin than Chris Evans. It’s not just a tan thing, they really have more rosy/gold shades in their skin tone. But if you look at Samuel Jackson in the same picture, it’s hard to tell his skin tone (FYI, warm), because the contrast is harder to see when he’s standing next to people with different surface tones.

warm and cool skin color tone examples - otero menswear

If, after looking at all of these images, you have no idea what we’re talking about, skip to Quick Tip 5—Call in the Cavalry. Or, if you really want to figure it out for yourself and you don’t have a lot of group pics to bust out for comparison purposes, here are a couple more hacks for determining your skin tone:

Quick Tip 2: Hair Color

Remember that cool-toned people have dominant blue-brown melanin tints, and warm-toned people have dominant orange-brown melanin tints and these will come through in your hair follicles, so if you have blonde/brown hair with reddish or auburn highlights, you’re probably warm toned. If you have blonde/brown hair that is fairly uniform in color but has absolutely no reddish or auburn highlights under direct sunlight, you’re cool toned. Neutrals have a balance of blue and orange melanin, and so their hair is often naturally streaky (blonde with very light streaks to dark brown with dramatic natural highlights). Similarly, if you have the glossy black hair characteristic of people with Asian, Polynesian, or Native American ancestry, see whether your hair has blueish highlights in sunshine; that’s a better indicator of underlying cool tones; neutral tones may appear as iridescent highlights.

Quick Tip 3: Color Test

Test your skin against fabrics in basic colors: black, white, brown, and tan. If you definitely look better with blacks and whites, you’re cool toned. If you look better with browns and tans, you’re warm toned. Neutrals will be able to pull off all of these colors. (For Asians, the color test is sometimes done with grass green, orange, emerald green, and deep teal. If you look best in grass green and orange, you’re warm toned; if you look better in emerald and deep teal, you’re cool toned.)

Quick Tip 4: Jewelry

Similarly, metals contrast with your skin in dramatic ways. If you tend to look best (healthier and more awake) in gold, copper, or bronze jewelry, you’re probably warm-toned. If you look better in silver, white gold, and platinum, you’re probably cool-toned. (Remember that the jewelry you like best may not be the jewelry that looks best.) Neutrals can pretty much wear all metals equally, but might need to be a little careful about strong accent colors from jewels/beads, etc.

Quick Hack 5: Call in the Cavalry

If you, like most guys, have some degree of colorblindness, this whole thing can feel impossible. So, we’re going to give you a piece of advice that may sound crazy and counterintuitive, but has the potential to pay off big: go back to Quick Tip 3, but ask the nicest, best-dressed lady in your life for advice.

Bonus Points

We know, we know. You’d rather rip off your eyebrows with duct tape than have a conversation with women about colors. But here’s the sneaky secret—you know how you feel like the king of the world when your lady asks for help, and you can fix the problem? It works both ways. When you ask your lady to help you with something that she can do well, she’ll feel valued and respected. This sounds dry, but women who feel valued are more likely to feel affectionate, and that ends well for everyone.

And, bonus, you know that she thinks you look good in the colors that she likes on you. However, one caution. If she says that a color does not look good on you—remember that she’s criticizing the color. She’s not criticizing you. Be chill. The fact that she’s taking the time to invest in your look is a huge compliment. And, remember, this doesn’t have to be an epic shopping trip, just a quick question about colors.

What About Hair Color?

Good question. Once you’ve figured out whether you’re warm, cool, or neutral, the other factor that matters is whether there’s a high contrast between your hair color and your skin, or not. If you have very fair skin and very fair hair, or very dark skin and very dark hair, you’re low-contrast, and if you have relatively fair skin and dark hair, you’re high-contrast. (Note: unlike your underlying skin tone, which never changes, your contrast level may change in the summer if your hair gets lighter and skin gets more tanned, or if you choose to dye your hair.)

And that’s it. You’re done. Painful part over.

Once you know your skin tone, you can just take a quick look, and then keep your best colors in mind for future clothes-acquisition purposes. The key here is that, while you can wear any color that you want, the recommended colors will be most flattering next to your face. If you’re a spring who likes vivid colors, save those for accent points—your tie, your hatband, your shoes, etc. When you’re shopping for shirts, jackets, scarves, or hats, you’ll want to stick pretty close to the colors that work best for your skin tone.

 

Warm Tone High-Contrast

 

Warm Tone Low-Contrast

Rich, earthy tones are going to look amazing on you, but, unless you’re signed up for a zombie walk and want to look like the undead, you’re going to want to avoid icy blues and most pastels.
You can pull off more muted tones than people with warm tones and high-contrast skin, but some of the stronger tones will make you look pale and ill.
warm color tone high contrast warm color tone low contrast
 

Cool Tone High-Contrast

 

Cool Tone Low-Contrast

Strong colors will work for you (and the classic tux will look amazing), but only in the right shades. Almost any shade of orange or yellow will make you look like death warmed over.
Most really strong colors will wash you out, and make you look ill (especially strong oranges and yellows). Aim for mellower, icy colors in your shirts.
cool color tone high contrast cool color tone low contrast
 

Neutral

The good news is that you can wear any color, and any jewelry, but the really strong hues won’t work as well for you as muted shades. (Which is very convenient when you’re shopping for dress shirts, which often come in these colors.) If you get bored with muted colors, punch up your wardrobe with strong accents in brighter colors.
neutral color tone - clothing color coordination - otero menswear


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