Styling 101: Color Combinations

Inspired by the more vibrant and warm weathered seasons that are approaching us (slower than I would like but whatever), I feel that now is an appropriate time to talk about one of the most basic principles of fashion design and styling: color. Spring and summer garments hold a great deal of color possibilities, and while I’ll admit I’m not a color person, and my closet consists of mostly black and gray, it’s undeniable that understanding color theory and combinations can prove useful for a variety of reasons.

A new color combination can add innovation to a seemingly dull wardrobe and can completely transform a look from winter to spring, spring to summer, and so on. Color theory is relevant to several aspects of style besides clothing as well.  For example, hair color, makeup choices, interior design, and more are all types of style and design that revolve around color choice.

The Basics:


While the color wheel may seem intimidating at first, it really is easy to use and super helpful for piecing together flattering and unlikely color combinations. To be great at anything, you first have to know the rules so you may test them and break them, if you so choose to, and the principals of the color wheel are no exception to this. The color wheel holds a lot of information and, quite frankly, more than I’m willing to discuss within the limits of this blog post. However, these basic elements of color theory are more than enough to get you by and help you understand color relationships.


1. Hue, Tint, Tone, & Shade.

Hue is a color in it’s purest form. Tint, tone, and shade are all derivatives of Hue. Tint = hue + white, tone = hue + grey, shade = hue+ black. These four elements are used to create the color your eyes see.


2. Saturation

Saturation, not to be confused with any of the previously mentioned elements, refers to the intensity/vividness of the color. Colors that are highly saturated are bold and rich, while those that are desaturated lack in vibrancy. For example, saturation could be the difference between wearing a hot pink sweater or a baby pink sweater. Both can actually be the same exact color of pink but are just at different levels of saturation.


3. Primary colors

The primary colors are red, yellow, and blue. A.K.A you learned this in elementary school. These colors can not be formed by mixing other colors together, but can be combined in 100+ ways to make every color imaginable.

4. Secondary colors

Secondary colors are the colors that are formed after mixing each one of the primary colors together. Yellow + red = orange, red + blue = purple, blue + yellow = green.

5. Tertiary colors

Tertiary colors are the colors that are made from mixing secondary colors together along with primary colors. Some tertiary colors you may be familiar with would be orang-yellow, green-yellow (lime), orange-red (coral), blue-green (teal), etc.


5. Cool colors

Cool colors are all derived from shades of blue, also known as cool hues. The easiest way to remember what cool colors are, is to think of what colors would best illustrate a cool temperature such as greens, violets, light pinks, etc. Cool colors look wonderful on pale skin with pink  undertones and silver jewelry.

6. Warm colors

Warm colors, the opposite of cool colors, are based around hues of reds, oranges, yellows, etc. Warm colors look best on warmer skin tones and gold jewelry.

neutral colors

7. Neutrals

Neutrals are colors that do not pop out or attract a lot of attention to the eye such as black, beige, taupe, olive, and more. They literally go with everything and anything, and can be used  to slowly integrate color into your wardrobe by pairing bolder color combinations with them.

So…now what?

Once you have a general idea of what the color wheel encompasses, you can begin to combine the colors together. There are a ton of different color combinations out there. From prints and patterns, to color blocking, accessories and everything in between there are so, so many ways to utilize these combinations. Here are some of the basic ones:

Screen shot 2013-03-25 at 12.14.41 AM

(Michael Kors, Roksanda Ilincic, DKNY)

1. Monochromatic

The simplest color scheme to make, but often the hardest to pull off: monochromatic. Monochromatic is a color combination that is comprised of just one color. Wearing an outfit that is entirely blue, pink, green, etc, isn’t something that you seen often, but if it’s done right it can look super cool. The best way to pull of monochromatic is to mix different elements of a specific color together such as saturation, tint, or shade and design elements like the texture or structure of the fabric.

Screen shot 2013-03-24 at 9.50.46 PM

(House of Holland, Victoria Beckham, Jonathan Saunders)

2. Complementary 

These are the colors that are directly across from each other on the color wheel. Because of their high contrast, as the name implies, they complement each other the most out of any color combination. Because of this not only are they the simplest color combinations to create, but they’re also the most bold. An easy way to add a complementary color combination to your outfit is to start out with a primary color as the base for the look and then wear its complement in your accessory choices.

Screen shot 2013-03-24 at 10.15.47 PM

(Roskanda Ilincic, Gucci, Nanette Lepore)

3. Analogous 

A combination of any three colors that are directly next to each other on the color wheel are analogous. This color combination is the most harmonious out of all the color combinations. It’s important to note that when creating an analogous color combination that you should choose colors that have enough contrast between them, whether that be through shade, tint, tone, etc, so they’re not overwhelming. Although this color combination does contain three separate colors, only one of them should be the dominate color while the other two act as supports.


(Prabal Gurung)

4. Split complementary

This color combination is found by taking a base color then pairing it with colors directly next to it’s adjacent color. For example, in the picture above, a green-blue (teal) is  paired with red and red-orange to create a split complementary. This color combination has much of the same lasting impression that complementary color schemes produce but because of it is split, it’s generally more flattering and dimensional.



5. Triadic 

Colors that form a triadic are groups of three colors that are all equidistant from each other on the color wheel. Because of their placement on the color wheel, when paired together, triadic color combinations tend to be very vibrant. Just like other color combinations, it helps to choose one color as the dominate color and the two others as supporting colors in accent pieces.

And remember,

these are just the beginning of all the possibilities that the color wheel can hold for your style choices. Honestly though, when it comes down to it, don’t forget to just have fun with it and take risks, make mistakes, and do whatever the hell you want.


Emma Klug started The Style Note in the fall of 2012. Her writing has been featured in DBusiness Magazine, Chicago Sun-Times, Nothing Major, The Working Wardrobe, Chicago Talks, Inexpensive Chic, and The Wayne State University student paper: The South End. When she’s not writing you can find her eating pizza, binge-watching Netflix and working her day job as a magazine editor.

38 thoughts on “Styling 101: Color Combinations

  1. Pingback: Styling 101: Mixed Prints | The Style Note

  2. Emma Klug

    Definitely! Gray is a neutral color and can be paired with pretty much any color. Blue, also depending on which shade you’re referring to, can also match a lot of different colors. A pop of a cobalt blue can look really bold and strong when mixed with almost any gray, and a softer blue looks super feminine and pretty when paired with a light gray.

    Check out these pictures: one. two. there. four. five

    & this shopping guide as well.

    Hope that helps!

  3. Artemis

    Primary colors are red, blue and yellow. Your wheel is correct, but the description mentions green instead of yellow.

  4. Lee Wilson

    Aside from White,what else could I wear with a nutmeg/ tobacco/ brownish mustard suede jacket and skirt?

  5. Emma Klug

    I would try a color with equal intensity such as a bold orange, radiant orchid (will pair nicely with the yellow and is this seasons pantone color of the year) or teal/blue. An olive green or a maroon, which are more neutral, could also look really nice and allow the mustard color in the jacket to really pop. Here’s some examples below for inspiration:



    Hope that helps!

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  12. Lilly

    Got Sue Wong cocktail dress in brown and greenish teal The base is brown with teal sparkling flowers on it.. Can’t find matching sandals. Do sandals have to be with exact tint? I mean the dress itself is pretty colorful. Should I get not so noticeable shoes and in what color? This supposed to be wedding guest outfit. Please advice

    Thank you

  13. Emma Klug

    The shoes don’t have to be the same tint. In fact, I would suggest veering away from shoes that are too “matchy-matchy.” There are a lot of different directions you can go with your shoe choice but ultimately the color you choose depends on the vibe you’re trying to give off. If you choose a colorful shoe then it will definitely be bold but if you’re willing to own that then it can also be extremely beautiful. However, on the other hand, if you feel more comfortable in a more subdued look then I suggest sticking with either a neutral shoe or a saturated tone of one of teal’s complimentary colors.

    Here are a few examples of shoes that could potentially look good with your dress:

    1. Nine West in pink $39.99
    2. Tahari in Rose $105
    3. Vince Cammuto $109.95
    4. Michael Kors $134.95
    5. Michael Antoni $44.95
    6. Calvin Klein $49.94

    Overall, it’s hard for me to advise you on exactly what shoe you should choose without pictures or knowing anything about your personal style. Just keep in mind that any of the choices above would most likely look great with a brown and teal dress and whatever you feel most confident in will always look the best.

    If you have any more questions feel free to contact me at

  14. seanymph007y

    Thanks this is great 🙂 but I need HELP!
    What colors work well with very light sage green?
    I look great in bright warm colors (and totally washed out drab/light colors), but I was gifted a beautiful (very expensive) light sage sweater-vest (button up) from my mother-in-law and I want to show it off to please her (she keeps asking about it). Thanks!

  15. Pingback: Q&A: What colors work well with very light sage green? | The Style Note

  16. Lilly

    Thank you. It does helps a lot. I’ve chosen Sam Edelman’s Opal D’Orsay pumps in nude. Gorgeous! Shall refer your blog to my girlfriends

  17. agnes

    can you write in details on the season of each outfit? need it for my college work. this is very useful by the way, thank you so much

  18. Emma Klug

    Thank you for your comment! i apologize that information wasn’t already available to you, and will fix this in the near future to better assist you.

  19. Mercy

    I. love. this. Thank you for such an information rich post about color combinations as it relates to fashion. I’m taking notes! =)

  20. Dee

    Hi! Great job here! Pls what colour blazer/jacket can be paired with a cobalt ivory black colour block pencil dress?? Thanks.

  21. momcloset

    Thank you for this detailed and wonderful piece. While you have provided much of the information I was seeking, I still have a question about saturation vs. hue. You say that the difference between a hot pink and baby pink sweater may well just be one of saturation (i.e. color vibrancy) but isn’t it also an issue of tint (i.e. the hot pink well lightened with a white tint)?

    I still find it challenging to understand saturation in contrast to lighter/darker shades. Let me know if you have any further tips to help distinguish the difference.

  22. Emma Klug

    Thank you for your feedback! We’re actually planning on creating more posts to explain color theory in fashion so stay tuned for that. We’ll definitely take your questions into consideration.

  23. sakshi

    Hi Emma, Greetings from India! Help me out, please. So I’ve a one button slim fit coat made out of green baize which is precisely what snooker/billiards table cloth is! What kind (fabric and color) pants will go best with it? What color shirt to wear under it? Shoes? I’ve been looking for a great answer for sometime now! Thanks in advance.

  24. Laura Daniel

    I love the colors dark red and teal (bluish/green) together, to my eye it really pops and makes sense, What do you think?

  25. The Style note Post author

    Those could be very strong together! Orange and yellow are both warm colors, so they go well together, and a hit of lime green definitely gives the color combination a fun summer vibe. Those colors often appear together naturally as well (in flowers, citrus fruits, etc.), so that’s another good sign that they’re a good match. To make the outfit look more polished, and not too crazy, we suggest picking too of those colors to be focal points and then one as an accent. For example, a burnt orange trouser and light yellow top with a lime green clutch would be very nice.

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