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Tonal dressing: what it is and how to nail it

Tonal dressing: what it is and how to nail it

It might sound counter-intuitive, but choosing one shade to wear head-to-toe can actually make more of a statement than wearing a full spectrum of colour. This style move is known as tonal dressing, and it's a great one to have in your repertoire. But to pull it off, you shouldn't run out and buy the exact same coloured shirt, trousers, and shoes. The key is in the combination of pattern and texture that brings visual interest to your outfit, without looking washed-out. Ready to give it a go? Thread stylist Luke McDonald is here to help.

What is tonal dressing?

‘Tonal’ doesn't necessarily mean wearing just one colour,” Luke says. “It's more like a family of colours or shades that are similar, so with blues, you're looking at everything from dark navy, to sky blue, to indigo.” 

As well as considering the full tonal colour palette, texture is an important element of this look. Different materials and weaves are key to adding depth when everything else is similar. The finishing effect tricks the eye into seeing a streamline of colour, making it not only a stylish fashion statement, but a slimming one as well.

“There’s an art to mixing the same tones across different textures,” Luke says. “Fabrics that take to colour especially well are corduroy and wool. They soften the tone, and bring contrast to simpler materials like cotton.”

Which colours work best?

“In theory, you can choose any colour for tonal dressing,” Luke says. “But practically speaking, neutrals are the easiest to pull off.” Blues, browns, greys, and sandy colours are great starting points, as they come in a variety of light and dark shades that will stop your look feeling too uniformed. “Keep things muted as bright colours can be overbearing, and bring in a simple white t-shirt or coloured accessory if you want to break things up a bit,” Luke says.

Blue clothing is another safe bet for tonal outfits, firstly because you probably already own lots of it, and also because the varying shades are easy to match. Strong textures like denim make it easy to piece together an outfit of all-blue items without feeling over the top. 

“For greens, go for olive, khaki, and forest, rather than neon hues,” Luke says. “They act as neutrals in outfits that have more colour, so are easy to bring together without feeling overwhelming.” You could even play with green prints like camos and florals if you want to add extra interest.

Light neutral colours are great for summer and come in a versatile range of shades, from beige to camel to ecru. “This might be the best way to wear a light tonal outfit without looking like the Man from Del Monte,” Luke says. Be careful with greys as they can wash out some skin tones, so focusing on different shades and fabrics is especially important to getting your “groutfit” (or grey outfit) right. 

“Top-to-toe black works well as formalwear, but for a more casual take bring in different tones like charcoals, or even white, to add some balance,” Luke says. 

How do I make it look smart?

Tonal outfits are a great choice for showing off your styling skills for a formal dress code, as the result is more considered than your classic dark suit and white shirt. 

“Giorgio Armani is one of the most famous advocates for formal tonal dressing,” Luke says. “His go-to trick is to match a shirt with a textured tie and a tonal suit. You could do this in greys, navy, or even greens and tans for an 80s minimalist look that still works today.”

How do I make it look casual?

Overall, the considered nature of tonal dressing makes it well-suited to smart casual looks, but its rising popularity as a streetwear trend has made it ubiquitous in off-duty dressing too.  

“Tonal dressing for casual wardrobes has never been more popular, largely thanks to Kanye West's Yeezy collections and his popularising of cult Belgian designer, Martin Margiela,” Luke says. 

 In Kanye's case, tonal dressing comes in the form of oversized pieces in muddy shades of olive, tan, black, and camel. Sometimes they’re all worn together, sometimes they’re worn in a block – like a full grey sweatsuit – or in lightly contrasting tones. The easiest way to incorporate this look into your own wardrobe is with a black, camel, and grey combo. They’re colours that you probably already own, and the muted tones make them easy to play around with.

“Don't try to get your tones too closely matching or it will look discordant,” Luke says. “This style of dress is all about harmony, so if the colours don't look quite right then they probably aren’t. For example, tonal shoes and accessories could be overkill. Stick to what you know – like white, black, or brown – when choosing these pieces.”


Words: Ella White
Photography: Angus Williams
Styling: Freddie Kemp