Dressing for complexion and skin colour: Should you care?
Readers regularly ask about whether they should wear certain colours, and why certain clothes might appear to ‘wash them out’.
My opinion has always been that skin colour and complexion is less important than most think. There are many reasons for this, but the most important are that men’s colour options are so limited, and that they rarely wear the large expanses of strong colour that women do.
However, I’ve never written in depth on the subject, so this is a more detailed examination of the view.
What are the ‘rules’?
These are pretty consistent between different writers. Most refer to Alan Flusser’s breakdown of it in Dressing the Man, but the same ideas have been around for a while.
They state that men are largely one of three ‘contrasts’:
1 High contrast
- Dark hair and pale skin.
- Most Asians are high contrast, though not all, as skin colour varies.
- Includes men with dark-brown skin, because they’re so dark overall
- Contrast is increased by having light-coloured eyes
- (In general, hair colour is most important, then skin colour, then eye colour)
2 Low contrast
- Light to ruddy skin, mid-brown to pale hair
- Includes anyone with red or blond hair
- Light-coloured eyes generally decrease the contrast
- Everyone in between. Which in a European country, is probably the majority
There’s also a point about reflecting some aspect of your colouring in your clothes, but that’s more straightforward and intuitive.
The idea with contrast, then, is that you should wear clothes with a high level of contrast if you are in group 1, and a low level if in group 2.
Those in group 1 will be washed out if they wear clothes with low contrast (eg a mid-grey suit with a blue shirt). Those in group 2 will be washed out if they wear clothes with a high contrast (eg a navy suit with a white shirt).
What effect do they have?
This all seems fairly logical.
However, the images that are often used to demonstrate this are rarely that striking. And when you see people with different levels of contrast wearing the same thing, that difference seems to be further reduced.
Fortunately in classic menswear, we are blessed with several ‘couples’ that have this difference in skin types, and can be used for illustration.
Take Jake and Alex from Anglo-Italian, for example. In the image above, both of them are wearing navy suits with pale shirts and dark ties.
Jake has red hair, and so is low contrast. Alex has dark-brown hair, and so is higher contrast.
Yet they both look great. Perhaps Jake might suit a mid-blue shirt in that combination a touch more than a light. But it’s marginal and - in my opinion - less important than the other effects of the colour, such as formality and style.
The same goes for the example below: both are wearing similar levels of contrast (in different ways) yet both look good.
There are several reasons I think this effect isn't that strong:
1 Most are middling
A large number of men - probably the majority in Europe, though not in Africa or Asia - are not sufficiently high or low contrast for their complexion to make a big difference. They are somewhere in the middle.
2 Men don’t wear strong colour
As far as classic menswear is concerned, colours are generally quite limited and muted. Navy and grey, with white or grey shirts - going into brown, tan and green with more casual clothing. Bold colour is usually limited to small things like knitwear, ties and other accessories.
3 Men don’t wear blocks of colour
Colour has most impact when there is a lot of it, and it’s against the face. In a classic combination, men have several things around the face, including a jacket, shirt and perhaps tie. Even in more casual combinations, they often have a shirt under a sweater. A blue shirt does much to soften the impact of a brightly coloured shetland.
4 Which means you can balance colours
As men wear different things together, they can control contrast by changing what one item is worn with. Like switching a white shirt for a blue one, or going for a charcoal tie rather than black, for instance. As a result, it makes no sense to say a navy suit doesn’t flatter someone. You can say that an outfit overall does compliment their skin type, but not just one item.
So that’s why I think complexion has limited importance. Certainly, it has less for men than for women.
A woman will wear a strong purple crewneck, or a bright yellow one, with no shirt or anything else between it and the face.
She will even wear strong colours like that for the entirety of an outfit - as a dress. Men never do that.
My aunt used to work for a company that analysed skin colours. You sit and have different shades of a colour placed against your face, to see which compliments it most. People are divided into Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter, and then further sub-divided.
My siblings and I had it done at one point. It was very interesting. But not that useful.
First because what it did was allow you to pick between shades of a single colour, which rarely happens in a shop. And second, because the importance of the colours was largely dependent on them being worn over half or your entire body, and being next to the face.
How important is this effect?
If that’s why these colour rules have little effect, here’s why I think you shouldn’t give them too much importance, even if they had a big one.
1 Colour affects formality
More important than colour flattering you is the messages it sends about the person you are meeting, or the place you are going. Black tie is the highest-contrast clothing there is. But if you’re invited to a black-tie event, you respect the host and where it.
2 Colour affects personal expression
Just as important as whether colour flatters you, is whether you like it and feel it suits your lifestyle. I love muted muddy versions of classic menswear colours, like cream, dark brown and olive green. My only consideration of whether they flatter me might be what those colours are worn with, or in what proportions.
3 Other things are more flattering
In my opinion, fit makes more of a difference to whether clothes flatter you than colour. Proportion makes more of a difference (big double-breasted jackets on short, wide men). And style makes more of a difference (wearing something that seems awkward, anachronistic, or just not you).
4 Nothing is necessarily ‘bad’
Finally, none of these effects on your complexion are necessarily bad. They just have a certain effect. Observe that effect and see if you like it or not. In some cultures, looking paler is seen as a good thing; in others, looking darker is.
Perhaps the biggest thing to take away from points 1 and 2 is that skin colour shouldn’t rule anything out.
Wear a navy suit, white shirt and dark tie if you think it really suits the situation. Even if in general, you tend to wear more grey suits and blue shirts.
In general, Alex from Anglo-Italian wears more navy and cream, while Jake tends to soft browns and greens (above). But they both wear a similar suit too.
The same goes for someone like Michael Hill at Drake’s. He’s always wearing green cotton suits, brown-suede shoes, and warm-toned accessories. Which makes sense, given his colouring.
But he’ll still wear a high-contrast outfit like a navy jacket, white shirt and grey trouser as well.
Men have a tendency to take any ‘rules’ to extremes - to make them rules, in fact, rather than tendencies. And complexion is one of the easiest to take too far.
I don’t wish to suggest that complexion and skin colour are not important. Most men aren’t even aware of the effect certain colours have, and they should be.
Flusser makes the point that flattering colour and balanced proportions are what drive attention towards the face, and make it look good. I doubt most guys have even thought of clothing that way.
Being aware of the thinking around skin colour will definitely have beneficial effects. Some men might find it hard to wear certain colours, and this will help explain why. It might make them wear those colours with different things, as a result.
And thinking around colour can suggest things that work particularly well, rather than ruling things out: such as the way green compliments those with red hair.
But for me, skin colour is a long way down the list of why you should wear certain clothes. It comes somewhere near the bottom, below propriety, fit, style and personality.
For a good article on the many cultural messages that colour sends, read Derek’s piece on Die Workwear! here.
For anyone that wants to dive a lot deeper on colour, the best place to start is Carole Jackson's Color for Men.
Pictures: Jamie Ferguson, kerloaz/Tumblr, treviorum/Tumblr, Hein Fienbrot/Tumblr, Mark Cho, Style Forum, Hein Fienbrot/Tumblr