While I consider myself pretty expertly adept at working with color, I don’t wear a lot of it. While I am not your typical New Yorker who adorns themselves in all black, I do dress a lot more subtly than most. If you were to peer inside my closet and drawers, you would find the majority of it being navy, grey, cognac, and olive. When I do wear color, I wear it in small doses or choose colors that would be described as neutral-adjacent, like burgundy, mustard yellow, or teal, and I would never wear a color like light blue, lavender, or a true pink. I have tried to wear these shades but whenever I do I don’t feel like myself. In the warmer months, there is a slight uptick in how many colors I wear, but comparatively speaking, it’s not a lot. When it comes to shoes, I have lots of colors. I have shoes in red, yellow, gold, orange, in addition to all my neutral shoe shades like grey, cognac, tan and brown. Pieces like scarves may have some pops of color thrown in too.
Despite the fact that my wardrobe is full of neutrals, I don’t feel like the palette I wear is necessarily lacking in much, bland, or boring. People often found how I pair neutrals pretty compelling.
I have spoken a lot about color theory and color combining in recent weeks and I decided that I wanted to do a post about neutrals because whether you wear a little or a lot of them, neutrals are still the cornerstone of most wardrobes. Unless, of course, you prefer going full-on color. Admission: whenever I am in Florida, the idea of head-to-toe color always feels unusually right. Geographic style preferences can be funny influencers.
How to Work with Neutrals in Your Wardrobe
So let’s talk about getting the most out of your neutrals in your wardrobe whether you wear a little or are more like me and your wardrobe is almost entirely neutrals driven. Part of the reason why I think so many women are so beholden to black is that they haven’t gained a full understanding of how to work with other neutral shades. Here are some tips on how to work with neutrals in your wardrobe.
First, Let’s Establish What Neutral Colors Are
The first thing we need to get out of the way is exactly what a neutral color is in terms of fashion speak, or at least how I would define them. Neutrals extend beyond black, grey, and white/ivory. You have the whole entire brown spectrum which falls into neutral territory as well as shades of olive. I touched on this in a post I wrote about color theory.
As I mention in this post, neutrals can act like black in your wardrobe. If you can wear a color with black you can most definitely wear it with navy and, for the most part, any color you can wear with black can be worn with all neutral shades.
All Neutral Colors Have a Range
Next, think of neutrals not as singular colors but a range of shades. You can say brown or you can say grey but within each of these neutral colors, there is an entire range of shades of that color that is practically endless.
The above graphic of some of the different olive shades that exist is to show you when you think in terms of working with neutrals think about the range of that shade. When working primarily with neutrals in your looks, adding different shades of different neutrals into one outfit creates a neutral based look that is more compelling.
This is a client outfit that is comprised completely of neutrals. There are two shades of brown in the scarf and the shoes, the blazer is navy and jeans count as universal and the ivory blouse is neutral. Despite there not being any true color in this outfit, the range of neutrals keeps it interesting.
Neutral Ranges is What Makes Working with Black so Tricky
One of the reasons I bristle a bit when people get too stuck on black clothing is that it’s a hard color to work with when working with neutral ranges as there really isn’t a neutral range of black shades. There really is only one way to go if you are looking for variety in range is grey, which is fine but can be limiting. When you think of different shades of brown or olive the range of colors are much greater. You have shades like cognac, tobacco, camel in the brown family and, as seen above, plenty of different olive shades ranging all the way to a color like warm grey that reads almost like muddy olive.
This is why black can sometimes be jarring in neutral based outfits because it’s hard to work harmoniously unless you are pairing it with shades of grey. However, a shade like grey can pair beautifully with other neutrals. I’d sooner choose charcoal over pure black when styling if I am looking to create a cohesive neutral look. It’s slightly softer and not so stark. Of course, if a strong, bold look is what you are aiming for then black will work just fine. However, if you ever feel like your looks have a choppy appearance it could be the black in the outfit that is doing it.
An interesting side note about navy. While it has the same clear starkness as black does, navy can look softer in appearance than black. It just plays nicer with other neutral ranges. Navy is also considered a universal color which means it is rare for navy to not look flattering near the face. Navy and grey is a beautiful neutral combination and I love mid-browns like cognac with it too.
How to Choose the Right Neutrals for Your Wardrobe
If you want to dive deeper into the world of neutrals and use them in your wardrobe, the next step is choosing the right neutral shades for you. Clients are always surprised when I tell them that they can wear all colors because it’s been drilled into so many of us that there are colors that are off limits based on our own personal coloring. And to a degree, this is true, but not entirely.
Revisiting Hue, Value, and Chroma
We’re going to step back for a second and revisit color theory, which I touched on a few weeks ago here on the blog. hues, including neutrals, have value and chroma.
Colors are Also Warm or Cool
Colors are also warm or cool but it’s not always as straight forward as that when we stray from the classic colors on the color wheel. When you start getting into ranges of colors you could find a color classically known as cool with a lot of yellow in it and vice versa.
Both these shades are grey. Grey is usually considered a cool color. However, when you compare these shades side by side you can see that the warm grey pictured left has a lot more yellow or warmth to it while the cool grey on the right is cooler looking with more blue.
This is why it is technically possible for anyone to wear any color as long as the components of the particular shade of that color is a match for your personal coloring. In an attempt to avoid nerding out too hard on this, the reason why everyone can wear some version of every color is that there is such a tremendous range to all colors. When identifying any color, you want to look at these three components. #1 is the color warm or cool, #2- the chroma, and #3 the value.
These are all camel shades despite looking quite different. Camel color #1 is a lacks depth or value and when compared to camel shade #2. Camel #1 is much less yellow looking and has slightly less clarity or chroma. Camel #2 has a lot more yellow and makes camel #1 look more red-cast. The chroma is clearer than camel #1 but not as clear as camel #3. Camel #3 has a deeper value than camel #2, higher chroma, or clarity than camel #4, and camel #4 has less yellow than camel #3.
Remember in this post where I fixed this reader’s outfit and noted how a camel shade with more clarity and vividness would be better than the downcast shade she is wearing in her photo? This is a perfect example of how much difference the right shade of a particular color can make.
How to choose your neutrals
Because it’s the most widely used and a method I have training in, I am going to use the classic seasonal color method to help you figure out where you would fall in the range of neutrals based on your seasons, let’s refer back to this chart that was in my blog post about color theory.
If you are familiar with seasonal colors, then you know that each season has particular components that make up each one. What I have always found fascinating is that each season shares something with all the other seasons. Using spring as an example, spring shares a high chroma value with winter, a warm base color with autumn, and a light value level with summer. As a spring, I have often borrowed from the rich autumn palette as well as the vivid deeps from winter because winter and spring are both high chroma. I have also worked with summer tones that share the characteristic of being light with spring. The point is, when you think more in terms of choosing colors, knowing your season does not mean you have to be totally rigid with your colors. All seasons share something in common.
When choosing neutral colors, instead of thinking you can’t wear a certain color, think in terms of looking for color ranges that share qualities as what is most flattering on you. Let’s take a look at colors that are all olive but capture the qualities of the different seasons.
Each olive hue captures the qualities of each season. The autumn olive is dark with lower chroma and the warmth of the color is visible. In the summer olive, there is less yellow in the hue, the chroma and value are both low. For the winter olive, the olive shade is clear and deep and while the spring olive has the same chroma level as the winter olive, it is lighter and much more yellow as compared to the winter olive which has way less yellow or warmth in it.
Not all Neutrals Will be Worn Near Your Face
Another thing to keep in mind is that you won’t be wearing all neutral shades near your face, many shades will be worn on the bottom. This means that you can be much more flexible with the neutral shades you select. This is not to say you should wear unflattering neutrals but that you do have more wiggle room. Additionally, with this flexibility, when dressing in neutrals, you can create more compelling combinations when you broaden the range you can select from.
Just Because You Can Wear Any Neutral Shade Doesn’t Mean You Have To
This should go without saying, but I can hear some of you thinking, “but I don’t like camel.” or “I don’t look good in tan.” So I will state for the record, just because there is the perfect neutral shade out there for you doesn’t mean it belongs in your wardrobe. The point that some colors just aren’t us shouldn’t be ignored. The important aspect remains, if a color just isn’t your thing, even if the shade is right for you, don’t wear it. It’s important to keep in mind that often the reason a color doesn’t work isn’t necessarily the color itself but what colors you are pairing with it.
How to Work with Neutrals in Your Wardrobe
So now that you are braced with this new knowledge, what do you do with it? How do you make neutrals work?
#1- Get Diverse with Your Neutral Ranges
The key to getting more out of your neutrals is to think in neutral ranges. My wardrobe is primarily navy, olive, grey, and brown. Within those colors, with the exception of navy which doesn’t have much of a range, the ranges of olive, grey, and grown are quite diverse. As I am writing this post, I am wearing a camel sweater with olive pants and cognac shoes. By keeping my neutral choices tight but the ranges diverse, I can grab just about anything and it will all work together while the range of different shades keeps the looks interesting. Establish which neutrals belong in your closet and then broaden the range of the shade so you can create looks that are more interesting.
#2- Think of Colors as Accents
If you are someone who is thinking of going stronger with neutrals in your wardrobe, then think of color in terms of being just an accent. And here is the very cool part of this plan, because all neutrals can be just as versatile as black, you can accent your neutral outfits a variety of different shades to change up your neutrals.
This client’s outfit is entirely neutral based and an option I offered was these red and burgundy pumps but I could select any color to go with this outfit.
Like this. Here is the same neutral base and an alternative color combination I gave my client.
Camel Styled a Variety of Ways
Here is another example of using different colors with a neutral shade. This is a variety of different ways I utilized camel in a client’s wardrobe.
Following that, by using different accent shades with neutrals, I was able to create several different looks with one pair of neutral pants.
#3- Try Colored Neutrals
Colored neutrals are what I describe as colors that work like neutrals. They’re incredibly versatile and play well with neutrals and each other while also being able to stand on their own. Having a few of these colors in your wardrobe will give you more variety while still being neutrals driven. I have a burgundy cardigan, burgundy jeans, mustard yellow shoes, and plenty of teals. I’m also knitting a mustard yellow sweater that will play really well with all my neutrals.
#4- If You Want to Keep it Tight, Make Sure The Neutrals You Select for Your Wardrobe Work Together
If you are looking to blend different neturals together in your wardrobe while keeping it tight and cohesive, then make sure the neutrals you add work together. For example, if you have a lot of black in your wardrobe, stay away from too much navy and brown as they won’t blend together in looks. Instead, consider a brown range like camel or cognac and shades in the brown family that look beautiful with black.
I gave you a lot to think about in this post. Hopefully it will give you some fresh perspectives when considering creating a neutral based wardrobe or even just branching out a bit with the neutrals you use in your colorful wardrobe. If you are still confused or this post has confused you more, hit me up in the comments below.
If you have learned something in today’s post, consider buying me a cup of coffee in support during these trying times.
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I have been working on upgrading frumpy haus frau for a few years and I’m am certainly looking better. I have some things figured. But THIS post has been extremely illuminating! Thank you!
How exciting! I am glad to hear you are making progress and so happy to know that this post helped you take another step. It’s so wonderful to know that something I share helps something click for a reader! Good luck with your progress and thank you for your readership!
Another fabulous post. Most helpful!
Btw can I buy you a coffee from Canada, or is that just a US thing?
Hi Barbara, I think you can. I live in Europe and it works for me.
Hi Barbara! Thanks so much! Yes, you should be able to buy a cup of coffee from any country. Thank you for thinking of me!
Great post! I disagree about one thing though: I find that black and navy do work together as long as I throw in some light grey. Amazing right? I think it has to do with my personal coloring and the relative properties of color, which is another very useful concept I learned from you Bridgette.
Black and navy can work sometimes but it isn’t as easy of a mix as other neutrals. But, you’re right, when it is done right it looks purposeful vs. dressed in the dark. I am glad this post was helpful and I appreciate your loyal readership!
So much to chew on, and yet validates certain ideas. Excellent coffee value. Coffee, or brown-black, is such a great neutral by the way, except it’s really hard to find.
Ooh I love that. You’re right, all those stunning coffee shades all the way to light mocha. So many stunning browns to work with! Thanks for the comment and readership!
Living in South Florida has many advantages, well mostly just the warm weather. But, when it comes to clothing, layering is tough (too damn hot and humid) and we don’t have the seasonal color changes (there is no Autumn) so it is pretty much bright and colorful all the time. Navy/blues and white/cream seem to be the best neutrals. Although I have seen some very nice linen outfits in light shades of camel/beige.
You are so right, Sharon! One time I fly to Florida I feel like my wardrobe is so somber! I remember one time wearing a lavender sweater, olive pants, and a chartreuse scarf on the flight and I thought I was super colorful. I got down to Florida and my outfit completely depressed me. When I was a fashion designer, we used to make sure to have colorful pants for places like the south and Texas because that is what people wear. You’re right, there definitely are some neutrals that are Florida-friendly but color does reign supreme down there. I think if I was living down there I would be wearing a lot more color too.
Bridgette… I love your color combos with cognac which is a color I’ve never really considered with my cool skin undertones. What’s the cool version of cognac? Does it relate to the camel photos above?
Hi! Cognac can be tricky because it does skew yellow so look for shades of cognac that aren’t as yellowy. It’s hard to describe in writing but if you search hex codes in google, try this color #ab6b51 that falls in the cognac spectrum but isn’t as yellow. I hope that helps
Yes it does. Thanks! I can totally see what you mean now.
Great! Glad it helped!