Color And Fashion; How To Match Outfits With Complementary Colors

(This site sells and is sustained by MyClothingHelper. The product that tracks and organizes what you wear.) In an earlier article, I explained that the trick to matching clothes based on color was to think of color as a kind of family bloodline. All colors have either a small or large portions of other colors in them, and the mix reveals their color bloodline. Understanding the bloodline will tell you which colors are a natural match. Colors that share a common bloodline are a natural match, but what about colors that don’t share common bloodline? Complements are colors that are opposite each other on the color wheel and they do not share a common color bloodline. Complements stand out very distinctly against each other and, generally speaking, are more difficult to match compared to colors that do share a common color bloodline. The complements of the primary colors—red, yellow, and blue—are, respectively, the secondary colors—green, violet, and orange. Complements represent visual dissonance in that the eye will not readily flow from one to the other. Because of this effect, complementary colors in clothing are generally perceived to clash.

Left: yellow and purple are complementary colors and create a stark contrast. Right: modified complements of orange and purple-blue make for a more pleasing match.

The complement of a color represents the missing primary color that is not part of its bloodline. Green—a mix of blue and yellow—is the complement of red because red is the missing primary color that was not used in creating green.  When you consider the bloodline of green and red, all three primary colors are found. In this sense, green visually completes red, ergo, it is the complement of red. Traditionally, complementary colors were used mainly in graphic arts and advertising. However, contemporary fashion sometimes takes advantage of the dissonance of complementary colors to draw attention to an outfit. Matching Color Complements in Outfits and Modifying with Another Color While the color wheel is objective, color matching is subjective. That means there are always ways to make colors a better match. For example, the relationship between blue and orange can easily be changed by adding another color to both. Add a bit of yellow to orange and you get a yellow-orange. Add a bit of yellow to blue you get a yellow-blue. In the image below, yellow has been added to both the blue top and the orange bottom. Since both colors now share a bit of a common color, and have been reduced in intensity, they are now more easily matched. The same holds true if you add a bit of red to both colors; the resulting red-orange and a purple-blue would be a better match.

Complementary colors blue and orange become a better match when yellow is added to both.

Modifying with Tints, Tones, & Shades You can create a tint of a color by adding white, a tone by adding grey, and a shade by adding black. Making any of these adjustments can also help to increase the visual harmony between colors. All of these mixes affect the color and thereby modify its relationship with other colors. You can also modify a color by adding a bit of its complement. For example, if you add some green to red you will soften the red and push it towards a red-brown.  The resulting muted red-brown is more in a traditional harmony with the green because the two colors now share a part of a common bloodline. Visual Proportions Affect Color Relationships A large bright orange article of clothing against a bright blue can be overwhelming. On the other hand, a smaller portion of one color against another can be quite appealing. The proportion of one color against another is part of their overall color relationship. Below, a yellow purse with a purple dress (two complements) can be a visually interesting dynamic and a blue shawl on an orange dress is also workable. Check out our next article on getting the most out of your wardrobe by understanding warm and cool colors.

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