If your daily uniform is a white Oxford shirt and navy suit, it’s time to take your wardrobe to the next level:
Ten years ago, men had no choice. If you worked in an office, your shirt was white and your suit was navy. Color belonged on the tie. Today, the rules have changed in even the stuffiest of offices. Light blue shirts are as acceptable as white. Suits no longer have to be dark. You can choose from a range of grays, and during the warmer months, a light or dark khaki suit is comfortable and stylish. As for shirts, pink and light purple join blue and white. There’s nothing feminine about these colors in a dress shirt. Pink is masculine, and so is lavender (more commonly labeled “violet” or “lilac”).
If you work someplace more relaxed, you have more options. “There are no hard-and-fast rules for wearing color,” says Daniel Ou, director of product development at Gap. “But the easy way to find a color that looks good on you is to pick shades that complement your skin tone: lighter, brighter colors for dark complexions, and saturated, darker hues for pale skin. Experiment and test out your comfort level first. I recommend trying on a new colored T-shirt or polo shirt with a pair of dark denim jeans to see how they look together, on you.”
A good place to start is with classic colors — blue, pink, purple — but in different shades. There are great medium-blue shirts the color of blueberry juice. Cobalt blue is also popular right now. Baby blue, a longtime favorite, “seems to have run its course and may be best for the toddler set,” says Ou. “Pink is a standard go-to color, but it has a preppy undertone, so try a bolder, dark version to stand out from the pack.” Specifically, look for a dark pink — not red — that’s reminiscent of a faded barn. It’s warm and inviting.
“If you’re worried about looking too bright, use color as an accent,” advises Ou. “Pair it with something neutral like khaki, gray or brown. It will tone down the look.”
Easy places to add pattern include your tie, pocket square or socks. But to take a fashionable step forward, try adding shirts to the mix. Start with subtle stripes, plaids and gingham (a cross between a stripe and a plaid — it’s two colors crossing over to create a small-checkered pattern). “Wearing these patterns will signal your interest in looking like a true gentleman,” says Ou.
With stripes, start with basic color combinations such as blue and white, pink and white, or dark blue and light blue. Pair them with navy pants, jeans or khakis; you don’t want your pants to compete with the stripes. The same formula works for plaid, but avoid overly large patterns and overly bright colors, unless you’re planning to chop wood or go camping.
“I love plaid,” says Brian Bolke, founder of Forty Five Ten, an independent shop in Dallas, Texas, “because it’s going have three colors in it, which gives you a lot to work with. You can add a solid pant and tie and look great.” Note: The pants and tie should match the darkest color in the plaid.
“Gingham is a classic and easy-to-wear pattern that will never go out of style,” says Ou. But as with plaid, aim small. “Smaller-scale gingham in darker colors tends to be dressier and more stylish,” explains Ou, “while too large a scale might end up looking like a giant picnic table cloth.”
Finally, avoid combining multiple patterns. It’s too easy to look like you’re wearing pajamas. But a pattern tie-and-shirt combination can work well. For example, a medium-size plaid shirt with a tiny check tie can look smart when paired with a pair of dark pants.
In the end, the best advice is to experiment and trust your instincts. “Guys are uncomfortable trying new things,” says Bolke. “But they shouldn’t be. As long as you don’t go overboard, you’re going to get noticed — in a good way — for stepping up your game.”
Aaron Krach a New York City–based writer and artist, has served as senior editor at CARGO magazine and features editor at House Beautiful. He is the author of the acclaimed novel Half-Life and a book of photography called 100 New York Mysteries. His artwork can be seen at AaronKrach.com. Aaron’s articles have previously appeared in Men’s Life Today.