Get your own personal stylist to help you find clothes you love. All online, completely free

Sign In

What goes with what

How to wear neutrals

How to wear neutrals

Ah, neutrals. The Switzerland of menswear. They’re the colours with no colour, the shades that can all-too easily slide from safe to boring. At least, they can in the wrong hands. Because worn well, neutrals are a powerful wardrobe weapon, against which other shades seem brighter and which simplify the process of looking good every morning. “When we talk about neutrals, we don’t just mean beige,” says Thread stylist Brooke Philips. “We mean basic colours like navy, white, stone, black, or grey.”

Another way of thinking about neutral colours is to picture the colour wheel. If it’s on the colour wheel, chances are it’s not a neutral colour (with the exception of certain blues and greens). These colours are sometimes called earth tones because they reflect the shades we see on a country walk: muddy browns, dark greens, grey skies.

The range of colours that are considered 'neutral'. Photographed (l-r): Grenson Sneaker 6 (£185)Hudson Alfreton Suede Beige Shoes (£60)Clarks Tan Wallabees (£110)SeaVees Racquet Club Sneakers (£75)Toms Lenox Sneakers (£44); Oliver Sweeney Osimo Tan Calf Leather Premium Trainers (£199)Marks and Spencer Grey Lace Up Trainers (£39.50)SeaVees Huntington Middie (£90)MVP Black Leather Plimsolls (£45)

“These are colours that don’t necessarily draw the eye, which is exactly the reason why they’re great,” says Brooke. “They tend to work with most other colours, so you can ground your outfit by wearing neutrals and a bright top, for instance. Also, we sometimes refer to these as base colours, because you can use them as a base for your outfit.”

Aside from being a good base, there are other benefits to having a wardrobe filled with neutrals. For starters, it means you can get dressed in dark and not end up looking like a children’s TV presenter. You can also pack for a trip when you’re half asleep, content in the knowledge that everything goes together in endless combinations.

That being said, certain garments do lend themselves to neutral colours more than others. A tie, for instance, works well in a bold colour because it takes up so little real estate on your body. It’s the pieces that cover big areas, such as trousers or a coat, that are best rendered in neutral colours. What’s more, because neutrals don’t draw attention to themselves, they’re a good choice for any problem areas you might have.

Anchor bright colours with neutral everything else. Photographed: Selected Homme Navy ‘Dave’ Nubuck Suede Jacket (£230)Wax London Reid T-Shirt Burnt Orange (£30)Wax London Alston Chino Navy (£90); Grenson Navy Hi Top Mens Sneakers (£95)

“For things that you wear often, having them in neutral colours makes sense,” says Brooke. “Think stone shorts, indigo jeans, or a white shirt. This then means that the other pieces in your outfit can be colourful – or what we like to call the ‘hero’ piece, because it’s the thing that stands out.”

Once you've got the basics sorted – that is, your black, brown, white, and grey pieces – it’s time to branch out and start incorporating more daring neutrals. This is where shades like khaki come into their own.

“Khaki is a solid neutral,” says Brooke. “It’s great for menswear because it has military connotations. A lot of classic pieces, such as cargo pants or a bomber jacket, originally came in an army green. As for how to style it, my advice would be to play around with the tones and try to find the best match. Whereas khaki and red – which is a really bold colour – might not work, khaki and pink is such a fantastic combination. That’s because one of the shades has to ‘win’ over the other. This is so the eye isn’t getting drawn to numerous places on the body and getting overwhelmed.”

Or go for head-to-toe neutrals and mix up your shades. Photographed: Suit Off White ‘Simon’ Jacket (£79.95)MVP Grey Lukin Cotton Chino Shorts (£24)AMI Neutral Stripe Vacation Shirt (£165)SeaVees Neutral Maslon Desert Boot (£70)

Another tip is to avoid wearing too many neutrals at once — three or four at the most, says Brooke. Often, the outfit will need a pop of colour to give it balance, so you don’t want to end up with a look comprising black, brown, navy, white, and the accent hue.

From one end of the scale to the other, the alternative is to dress entirely in neutrals. “If you play around with tones, you can end up with an outfit that looks quite chic,” says Brooke. “A simple option is to build an outfit using tan, black, and grey.” By enlisting multiple different shades in staple shapes (e.g. a sand coloured jacket, stone trousers and cream shoes), you’ll add depth to your look and score tonal points that instantly elevate your style game.

A word to the wise: if you are going to do the whole head-to-toe-neutrals thing, it’s a good idea to add some texture to the look. This is the sort of thoughtful detail that upgrades an outfit from merely good to memorable. To avoid going overboard, you should limit your texture to one piece in a classic shape, and anchor with neutral staples elsewhere. So think linen, corduroy and suede for easy, wearable fabrics that lend texture and often come in neutral tones anyway.

In short, the idea here is not that you need to wear neutrals to blend into the background. Rather, it’s about using them to create contrast and depth. After all, sometimes, the best way to stand out is by toning everything down.


Words: Tess Harold