Reader Request: Styling Difficult Colors

tricky colors

Reader Ruth submitted this question in a comment:

What do you wear with ‘difficult coloured’ or in this case ‘difficult plus white’ coloured clothes? I recently bought a skirt from Boden which is bright orange and white. The model is wearing it with a light blue shirt but that looks rather random to me. Her shoes are orange too, but you know that in reality they would be a different orange. So what do you wear with something two-coloured without it looking random – especially if it is a shouty colour that doesn’t go with its near neighbours (unlike say greys or blues which often go well together). I was really dull and settled for a white t-shirt and black sandals on first wearing. But I think it is a general problem with clothes where there is no way to pick up the main colour. It’s always somehow difficult as well to incorporate clothes which aren’t your ‘core palette’. You might feel adventurous, but they just don’t go with anything. 

This isn’t Ruth’s exact skirt, but it’s from Boden and poses similar challenges. Namely that it features two unusual colors that are tricky to match exactly – coral and chartreuse – that have been used a pattern that’s quite busy entirely on its own.

Now, naturally, how you deal with similar styling conundrums will come down to your tastes and wardrobe items, so your solutions may be quite different from mine. But if I were styling Ruth’s skirt or the one shown above, here are a few things I’d try:

Pull out the main neutral

Ruth tried this and felt it wasn’t terribly creative, but I see it as the quickest and most elegant solution. Nothing wrong with doing a white top and a skirt with white and two bold colors! Of course, this isn’t foolproof: All neutrals – even black and white – have undertones, so your white top and the white background in the skirt may clash a bit. Also some tricky pieces are all colors and no neutrals. But assuming at least one neutral is at play and you’ve got other garments that match relatively closely, you can definitely start here.

Use blue denim or chambray

Blue denim is an agreed-upon neutral, which means it may look clashy to some eyes … but if you consider it to be a fiber and tone that plays well with everything, it can be a life-saver when it comes to styling difficult patterns. A light blue chambray shirt would look lovely with the skirt above, and if you’re dealing with a top that features loads of tricky colors you can’t go wrong with blue jeans.

Try gray

Again, gray has undertones … so super warm or super cool grays may look funky with colorful items featuring opposite undertones. But relatively cool, light charcoal gray will look fantastic with items like the skirt above, and can work in pant or jacket format as well as sweaters or tees.

Warm with warm, cool with cool

If you want to be super adventurous, you can definitely play around with color-on-color. Yes, consulting the color wheel will work if that’s your inclination, and you can get some dynamite combinations by doing so. But if you’re lazy (like me), you can just focus on undertones. If we’re using the skirt above as an example, the undertones are mostly yellow/red, so warm. That means that other warm colors like camel, orchid, or magenta might work.

For accessories: Metallics or cognac

Gray accessories are just plain tough, in my opinion. Most gray shoes and bags are so warm they’re almost taupe, and the ones that are cool tend to be incredibly light grays that skew toward pale blue. Metallics, on the other hand, are less prone to be overly warm or cool, so investigate bronze and gunmetal for sandals, flats, and pumps. For bags or boots, cognac brown is the neutral that works with nearly every color in the rainbow.

Image courtesy Boden.

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5 Responses to “Reader Request: Styling Difficult Colors”

  1. Sonja

    I agree, blue denim sounds good, both with white and orange and other strange colour combinations. In this particular case I’m also envisioning yellow (very summery), turquoise or brown (very 70s).
    Generally I would always recommend black for strange colour combinations. I know many people think that’s too easy, but there’s a reason why it’s so easy – because it works. Use the garment with the strange colour combination as a single standout piece and then create an outfit with lots of black around it – a black shirt and black shoes, maybe with a necklace that picks up one of the other colours.

  2. Kim De Smet

    Navy blue is also a color that goes with almost everything. It would look good on this skirt.

    • Kelly Simmons

      I agree. I own the same skirt from Boden that Ruth has too, and I wear it with a navy v-neck tee.

  3. Nique

    Great ideas, Sally. One more option is to admire these pieces from afar. I am very attracted to pieces like this, but I have learned that they often become closet orphans for me, and they end up taunting me while in my closet and eventually in the “Donate” pile.