April 2, 2015
Recently, someone wrote to me with an excellent question: she had narrowed down her wardrobe colors to black, white and beige, but wasn’t sure how to combine these colors. Specifically, she was concerned about what percentage of each color could be in an outfit and still be balanced.
A question for the ages, really. There are limitless possibilities for combining simple colors. So I decided to put together the most simple outfits in those three colors, and see how the proportions felt.
For starters, I picked a plain tee shirt, jeans, and a classic cardigan in the three colors my friend mentioned. From these 9 garments, there are 27 possible 3-piece outfits, as well as an additional 9 2-piece outfits. Imagine the complexity if I add in tank tops, long-sleeved shirts, skirts, capris…
I’ve put together all 27 outfits, and numbered them for our reference purposes. I started with the “solid column” of a matching tee shirt and jeans, with the cardigans.
Next, I’ve put together the “suits” of matching cardigan and jeans, with the contrasting tee shirts.
And the last outfits are mixes of two or three colors. Some of these outfits have a “twin-set” effect from the matching cardigan and tee shirt, and other outfits just plain have three different colors in them.
Any of these outfits could be worn, as is, without any apologies to anybody, assuming that jeans are appropriate where you’re wearing them. But I’m curious to know which of these combinations “feel” most comfortable to you, or which would feel awkward.
Tomorrow, I’m going to put some accessories on these outfits, to see how the balance improves or shifts with a little bit of a tweak!
PS – For those of you who like to read ahead, here are all the articles in this “Color and Proportion” series:
- Step 1: How Color Affects the Balance of an Outfit
- Step 2: Adding Shoes, and the Occasional Solid Scarf
- Step 3: Adding Print Scarves and 2-Tone Shoes to Solid Garments
- Step 4: Some Printed Blouses and Tee Shirts
Intriguing- to me they all look good except the black "twinset" on top of the white jeans… do we have this mental thing about light colours looking more n balance on top?
Jo-Anne Keenan says
Jacquelin Kennedy usually wore white bottoms and black top and she is still a style icon…I read she did it so as not to look like a waiter and I must admit I do like for casual wear and the black bottom and white top for more formal outfits…
What an interesting post. I like the first 9 the best. I've been working on seasonal capsules over the last year, and found that 30 garments makes roughly 30 outfits, also for packing 10 makes about 10 outfits, and your post gave me a clue as to why i'm not finding more combination that work out of my capsules. (actually 30 from 30 is ok, it means wearing each outfit average 3 times over a season)
I'm a real numbers nerd (can you tell?), so love posts like this, please do more.
This is interesting…these are the color combinations I have decided on also….I just feel my best in black & beige. I like the black pants with black cardigan and beige tee, or I wear a black tee with a beige cami sticking out of the bottom with a gold & black statement necklace or scarf with beige & black. I am not very comfortable with light colored bottoms. I also have black & white stripe & polka dot tees I wear under the black or beige cardigan or alone with a black, white or beige cami sticking out at the bottom. I am looking forward to seeing how you accessorize. I love leopard print with these colors, but that seems too fall/winter. I am going to Germany in June for 2 weeks with only a carry on and I need to make these basics into many different looks. Thank you Janice – you have been such an inspiration for me.
For me, it seems like any combo where the black piece is the *odd man out* feels off to me. Numbers 8, 9, 10, 13, 15, 19, 20 & 23 all feel very unbalanced to my eye.
I don't think I'd even notice it on someone else, it would only be for myself these combos would feel unbalanced. (if that makes sense) If I saw someone in any of the numbers I named, I don't believe I would think *unbalanced* at all.
I agree with the poster above about the 3-color combos as well. They don't seem as well thought out/put together as the 2-color combos do.
Madame Là-bas says
I don't know why but white and beige are not colours that I wear together. I have't any beige with me right now but when I go home, I will try beige skirt with white linen tee and beige linen jacket. If I added black sandals and black linen scarf…Maybe another outfit!
Interesting post! I agree with others that the 3-color outfits look random, and the odd-man-out-black outfits look unbalanced. For no discernible reason, I don't feel comfortable in column dressing. However, I would wear same color jeans and tee, but contrasting cardigan. Same rule for the "suit" outfits: same color jeans and cardigan, different color tee. The twinset look is also something I would wear, but not as often as the other combinations.
I have read, and for me it is true, that your outfits should more or less match your own levels of value and color contrast. For me, the black makes things unbalanced because my coloring is low in contrast, and I would need accessories not to look washed out. But someone else would look great in the black-and-cream or -camel outfits. The three color outfits also look a bit random to me.
I think the 3 color outfits will look balanced with patterned accessories. Maybe a paisley or plaid or an animal print.
This is fascinating and I can't wait to see where you go with this. For me, personally, I don't like light bottoms that much. Why? well, there's the old trope about black "minimizing" certain body areas… and the even older trope about being stuck at school in white pants at the wrong time of month… Or even just the reality of dealing with kids and not wanting to worry about dirty pants. Looking at my own wardrobe, I do have skirts and shorts that are "bright" (e.g., I have a raspberry corduroy skirt I'm quite fond of), but not "light." In fact, when I recently "Marie Kondo'ed" my wardrobe, I tossed some white jeans because I tried them on and realized I'd never be comfortable in them.
Doré Way says
Hmm – more, please!!! Especially with coloured accessories! Thanks
I agree that the three color outfits look random EXCEPT to my eye, the three color outfits with a white tee (16 and 26) look balanced. I am not sure why…
So much fun to see all of these combinations! And these three clothing items, more or less, are my wardrobe staples year-round. On most days my "uniform" is a simple tee shirt paired with a v-neck cardigan and pants. The only exception to what you show: I prefer regular pants instead of jeans. I like a simple short-sleeve tee as a first layer because it's relatively cool on its own and the sleeves cover my upper arms. (At my age, that's a good thing.) And if I need added warmth, a v-neck cardigan works perfectly. As you've pointed out, Janice, a cardigan can be worn either buttoned or unbuttoned, depending on the temperature. And a cardigan is much easier to put on and take off than a pullover sweater would be. Depending on the season, I do vary the colors for all three items as well as the weight of the cardigan and pants. And in summer it's easy to roll up the pants to capri length. (I'm retired, so casual works fine for me most of the time.) Also, as you show, loafers work wonderfully with these pieces, and that's what I find myself wearing most of the time. And of course I get some variety by adding a scarf every now and then. Undoubtedly many women would go mad wearing these same items every day, but it works well for me.
Again, a brilliant job showing us how many combinations can be formed from a few key pieces.
None of these colors are "my" colors, but this is an excellent approach to a 3-color wardrobe of any kind. Contrary to popular opinion so far, I like the 3-color options and don't find them unbalanced. I typically find that the columnar approach doesn't work for me. It seems to make me look like I'm wearing a uniform. But then, thinking broadly, we all have our own version of a uniform, don't we? One dictionary definition is "dress of a distinctive design or fashion worn by members of a particular group and serving as a means of identification." When I lived in Seattle and now when I travel I have to do it, but I hate layering. I'm not a fan of any kind of jacket with a top and twin-sets creep me out. It's good that I live in southern AZ where for 9+ months of the year, no cardigan or jacket at all is needed. I would only be wearing a top and bottom anyway, so bring on the accessories.
For me, I like the idea of a uniform. I like the column and the suits the best. Twin sets=nope.
I'm really looking forward to your discussion of accessories, proportion, and balance. I have a similar wardrobe (black, grey, white) but have found that it is kind of dull after time. Yes, I always find outfits that I'm comfortable in and are appropriate to my activities. But do I look like I'm wearing the same thing day after day? I have been trying to figure out how using accent pieces can create really different looks.
Gaye Rowley says
An intriguing post indeed. Yes, any of these outfits could be worn as is–but those with only one or two colors look the most pulled-together, don't you think? I especially like the "columns": same color top and bottom, with a contrasting cardigan. To my eye at least, the outfits with three colors look a bit random.
I hope you can spark some life into these outfits with accessories. As they stand now, they are BORING and BLAND.
They all look good to me. They might get dull to actually wear day after day, depending on how much one cares about variety. Not everyone does — some just want to look decent without giving clothes much thought. If these were different-looking garments, instead of essentially the same three pieces in three colors, I doubt anyone would complain.
Vivian Jung says
Being short, I almost never go for three different colors of clothing in one outfit. My "go-to" combo is a column of one color, with the second color (jacket/cardigan) as a cover-up, or the suit look you mentioned, with cover-up and bottom one color, and the top the second color. I find it gives a longer silhouette, and I feel more put together. I can then add a third (or more!) color(s) with a scarf or shawl, which is my everyday accessory anyway…Thank you, Janice, for enunciating what I've never been able to clearly see with my wardrobe!
I'm in complete agreement with you on the concept of column dressing in one color for a shorter frame. I do everything I can to avoid a chopped in half look. That includes avoiding tucked in tops and belts, and making good use of tunics, with jackets and cardigans as cover-ups. One column of color can mean that I will wear a black skinny jean with a grey-based tunic with very subtle swirls of lilac and plum in the pattern. I avoid a blue jean and a colored top because that is generally not a neutral column of color.
For me, a "tunic" top is not a muu-muu style, but a more fitted knit that skims my figure and makes for the longer silhouette I need. It took me awhile to work out what I was doing. But seeing the capsule wardrobe illustrations that Janice puts together makes things so very clear. It's her influence that had me add thoughtful pops of color in the form of scarves and jewelry in ways I would never have done on my own.
Looking at this exercise, I'd probably be able to pull off the all white column, with white shoes, or the all beige column with either a beige or white tee, and of course the all black, with any tee. In a pinch, I could wear the white pants with the beige cardigan, and a white tee. But the scarf/jewelry combo would need to also be very toned down for the white and the beige combos. For the black, I would go for pops of jewel tone colors, or stick with my go-to grey/silver/lilac/plum for jewelry and scarf.
Katrina Blanchalle says
This is a fascinating exercise and a clever illustration of how dressing should be a matter of personal preference and not a rigid set of rules. Each one of these outfits is going to appeal to/look great on some women, less so for others. Personally, I look best in low-contrast outfits. Some of my friends are so striking in high contrast. How nice that we know this! I'm going to check back in a few hours and see how many commenters insist that only a few of them look "right".
Katrina, I also am a low to medium contrast colored person –fair skin, beige bond hair and medium brown eyes. So on top of all that I am short and bottom heavy, so what works best for me is the column of color concept with either a matching top and bottom with a medium color topper, or a matching topper and bottom and a medium value top. I have to keep my contrasts low to medium –medium with dark, or medium with light, no great jumps in value in a given outfit.
I don't really like white (my "white" is natural linen) and high contrast makes me uncomfortable. Also, I'm top-heavy so I usually feel more comfortable a darker top even though it goes against conventional wisdom.
I would definitely be comfortable in 4, 5, 7, and 17, and I might be in 8, 13, 15, and 27. I like the look of 21, but I don't know if I'd feel comfortable wearing it.
irene paul says
Agreeing here. I am short and very top heavy. The white cardigan will only work for me if I wear a white top and bottoms. Light slacks or skirts are good for me. A dark skirt must have a darker coloured top.
The three colour combination will work depending on accessories to 'marry it all together' and if the darker colour is on top part of the body.
Please continue your wonderful work.
My favorites are the column/suits! This could limit the number of outfit options but who cares. I am fine wearing the same clothes twice (gasp!) in a week.
The 'randomness' of the three color outfits doesn't bother me. I would probably wear these combinations too.
However, the twinsets scream frumpsy (frumpy-mumsy) to me.
The only three-color outfits I don't particularly care for are the ones with the black t-shirt on top.
Thank you for your discerning eye and excellent work.
Lori @ In My Kitchen, In My Life says
I like them all. The three color combos may be a little unbalanced "as is," but with the right accessories they can sing.
Jean S says
You're a wizard. It will be fun to see what happens when accessories are added.
I prefer the two-color combinations overall. I think there's a subtle element of asymmetry at work (3 items but 2 colors).
Tish Jett says
You're a genius. What more can one say?
What time to you get up in the morning?
I'm fine with three colors in an outfit. The only issue I have here is white – especially pants! If the white items were replaced with olive or teal, I don't think there would be such a stark contrast and the three color options would seem less unbalanced.
Amazing where the internet (and Janice) takes you… I have just been revising my maths – permutations with repetition. So interesting. Recently I have decided to wear my t-shirts and skirts in rotation, choosing autumn related colors, to get equal wear out of them. 17 t-shirts and 3 skirts gives me 51 permutations. So an extreme Wear Whatever's Clean wardrobe! Its fun because I have a new combination everyday at home. Thanks for well presented example above. Carol S
Drat – I am still learning – I think it is a combination not a permutation :( Carol S
Tanya Swanson says
Janice, I love this! Thanks for your hard work. Questions: I noticed that in this, you just have a basic tee with same length and pants with same length. Is it just me, or do others find it hard to look good in the same top for a skirt or slacks? Do the tops need to be longer for one? Do many people simply decide on one heel length so they don't have to buy multiples of pants to look okay with different heels?
I have a hard time too finding tops that work with both skirts and pants. I like longer skirts, which look better with shorter tops — high- to mid-hip — but I like my pants better with longer tops.
It's funny to me what some people are saying about the 3 color combos being unbalanced. They work well for me. For example, I have a lime green shirt/jacket (button front with a tie belt) that I wear with a black t-shirt and khaki pants or vice versa. Another combo I wear is a blouse (in a color like purple) with a cream color V-neck sweater, and grey (or black) pants. Now that I think of it, perhaps the key is to have one bright color with two neutral one. Thoughts?
Lemon Jelliott says
That's it! You've hit on a winning formula.
The black tee with different colour pants and cardigan looks weird to me and also the beige tee with a white cardigan. I have no idea why as the white cardigan, beige tee and black pants looks quite chic and would be eady to accessorize.
Very interesting -shows why, when we dress, we often try and then discard some particular combo.
Love this post! I do think the 3 color combos are the most unbalanced to my eye. Can't wait to see the rest of your thoughts on this!
Coco Colmani says
Fascinating post, Janice and highly extrapolatable. I'm with Lo, I think the three colours in one outfit look best here, perhaps because the clothes are casual. The ones with matching pairs look a bit try-hard for casual jeans and the three items in one colour suggest uniforms. But I'd react differently if skirts or 'dress' pants were involved, because the two colours work well at that level. Here in Australia we almost never see women wearing matchy suits any more. Even high-profile women with responsible jobs like the foreign minister (secretary of state) who wears Armani, mixes colours. I guess the sense of balance also boils down to what we each feel comfortable in ourselves: dark pants for sliminess, light tops for lightening up, dark tops to slimify a generous bosom, two-thirds proportions to enhance height, and so forth. It's a very good capsule wardrobe here and I too look forward to seeing how the accessories may change my attitudes.
M M Green says
I never wear a black top with anything but a black cardigan or jacket/blazer, anything else would be too imbalanced
These are my clothes….. really, I wear those three color combos all the time. Love them.
As always Dearest Janice, your dedication to helping us get dressed hits a high note here. What should be reasonable to me is sometimes rather complicated. I have learned through your design process to sort out colors and combine others to create a wardrobe of wearable pieces rather than a closet full of mis-matched clothes. Thanks again, this collection is me as well. My current lifestyle is what I refer to as refined casual. I need to build a warm weather wardrobe with a new focus on packing light for travel. I will be checking all your ideas.
Janice, you just saved me from making a purchasing mistake that would have been wrong for me.I was searching for a bone/ivory jacket and now see again why I never got much wear out of this type of item in the past. Like several others posted, I favor mid tones and low contrast. So the light hued jacket would not work as well in person to pair with my darker separates that I am wearing into spring . It would be okay for me to wear with light to mid tones, which are lacking in my closet at present. Now to find a mid to dark jacket option in a summer weight instead.
Where there is a contrast, I don't like to see it repeated multiple times, too busy to me.
White sweaters often appear dingy to me with the contrasting colors showings through like black and camel, swapping this for an accent color would increase the number of wears this piece would get.
Conversely, adding accent tees in grey to mix with the black and white basics and olive to mix with the camel sets would sorta maintain the monochromatic feel and would be easier for many to wear under the white cardigan.
Black shoes are tricky to pull off with white pants, as white shoes with black pants can be.
Three colors are much easier to mix when you have a printed piece that marries them as you have exemplified so many times and ways with printed scarves or tops.
White shoes draw attention to your feet and ankles, less so with full length pants, more so with bare legs or when wearing color, unless you want this area to be the focal point, consider white might be worn less and take more time to maintain than a camel or accent color.
Can you tell that I have also been studying my options for a spring/summer shoe?