The Importance of Contrast

Mad Men hi contrast

There are so many contradictory rules about using colour. One expert declares earth colours should be worn with pale skin, another recommends pastels. These rules are as arbitrary as they are unreliable. So is there any useful advice for men regarding colour? I believe there is and it concerns contrast. The idea is the colours of any outfit should match the degree of contrast between your skin tone and hair colour. This creates harmony in your appearance and allows the eye to be drawn to your face. We all fall in to one of three groups which are affected differently by the rules of contrast.

High Contrast:
High contrast individuals are those with light skin tones and dark hair, including many Caucasian and Oriental men. The high contrast between hair and skin tone means that a man looks best wearing similarly contrasting clothing. Jon Hamm is a great example of a high contrast individual. Compare the two pictures below:

Jon Hamm in White Suit

Jon Hamm in Contrast Suit

The first picture shows John Hamm wearing a white suit with a light shirt. The lack of contrast makes him look pale and the outfit unbalanced. Now look at the second picture and see how the striking contrast between his dark blue suit and white shirt complements the contrast between his skin and hair.

The issue of contrast affects those of African or South Asian descent differently. While there may be little contrast between skin and hair colour there is a significant contrast between, for example, black skin and a white shirt. These men should regard themselves as high contrast individuals and dress accordingly.

Tyson Beckford High Contrast

See how Ralph Lauren uses high contrasts in this outfit to compliment Tyson Beckford’s skin tone.

Medium Contrast:
The vast majority of men fall in to this category. There is a contrast between your hair and skin but it isn’t stark. This group has more leeway with colour combinations but should still take contrast seriously. Bradley Cooper is a classic medium contrast man. Compare the photos below:

Bradley Cooper in a Tuxedo

Bradley Cooper in a Medium Contrast Suit

In the first photo Bradley Cooper is wearing a Tuxedo with a white shirt. The outfit, although well cut, detracts from his face. Now compare this with the second photo where a lighter shade of blue lowers the contrast bringing with it a greater sense of balance and harmony.

Muted Contrast:
This is the group who is most affected by contrast. Most Caucasian men with blonde or grey hair fall in to this group. The aim here is to ensure your clothes do not visually detract from your face. Take a look at the photos of John Slattery below:

John Slattery in a Black Suit

John Slattery in Green and Grey

The first picture shows John Slattery wearing a black suit and tie with a white shirt.  The eye is drawn to the contrasting colours of his suit rather than to his face. Compare this with the picture from his GQ photo shoot where they dressed him in a low contrast grey suit with a green shirt matching the colour of his eyes. Although muted contrast individuals should take care when choosing an outfit it does not mean they should avoid colour, only high contrast combinations.

As you can see contrast plays a significant role in our appearance. Knowing which contrast group you belong to will help you choose better colour combinations and bring greater balance to your outfits. It’s also part of building an awareness of what makes you unique and allowing you to reflect that in your individual style. So go ahead and try on some outfits using these rules and see what works for you.

H & B London - Stephen Brister

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  1. Seems like our dapper fellows John Hamm and Slattery need to hang onto their head stylist from the Mad Men series outside of work as well! Haha great read!

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