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Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Color Theory Chapter 5: Monochromatic Combinations and Coherence

Alrighty, let’s take on some actual fashion goals. Today we’ll look at how monochromatic color combinations can be utilized to achieve a common fashion goal:


We say that an outfit if coherent if all of its pieces follow some theme, combining to form a singular visual image. Basing an outfit around a single hue seems a pretty reasonable way to accomplish this. But why should we desire a coherent look? Well, it stems from the most nebulous fashion advice each of us has ever been given: things should match. Of course, this seems like we’re just passing off the question; why should things match? This is the real heart of the goal of coherence.

Coherence tends to imply that thought was placed into the construction of the outfit. It’s a simple application of the concept of entropy; things with order are much less likely to occur by chance. This means that what people see your outfit, they will tend to infer (subconsciously in all likelihood) that you spent some time “designing” the outfit. A reasonable conclusion (though not necessarily true) is that you care about your appearance, and this reflects well upon you. Further, in general it is easier to create an attractive outfit with like colors than with high contrast colors. The rewards are not as high (in that most people expect your clothes to match), but nor are the risks. Especially for beginners, this is a great fashion goal to begin with, as it will ensure at the very least a presentable style and build confidence in mixing colors and articles of clothing.

Now, we’re only looking at monochromatic combinations, which makes our job a bit easier, but certainly not every such combination will be effective. First, let’s recall what a monochromatic combination can consist of. Monochromatic colors are those with a very close relationship, with no restrictions on value or saturation. This means we have a base color, from light to dark, gray to vibrant, including white, black and most grays (as in general, it’s difficult to discern the true hue of a gray). We’ll also allow (but not rely on) browns, especially dark ones, since they are seemingly hue neutral, (this is, of course, not technically true, with most browns leaning towards orange or red).

Before we embark on construction, we should probably consider a few things that just won’t work, right off the bat. Rarely does an outfit composed of exactly the same color work. The pieces of clothing tend to run together as one entity, often obscuring the human form beneath. We also lose a bit of the “implied thought,” given the complete lack of complexity. Similarly, try to avoid using two colors which are very nearly identical, especially if they appear adjacent to each other in the visual field. When colors are almost the same, but not quite the same, it seems like a mistake, that the intent was to use the same color, decreasing the overall coherence. The name of the game is intentionality. The effect can occur when the near colors appear in different parts of the outfit as well, but it is not nearly as drastic. Finally, when creating a monochromatic outfit (for that matter, any outfit), there should not be an overabundance (really, even a dominance) of very powerful, bright colors. For example, an orange-monochromatic outfit, using consistently high value or saturation, would be a bad call. The problem is overloading the visual system. Strong colors are best taken in reasonable doses, otherwise they either lose their effect or create an unpleasant viewing experience.

Excellent. Let’s put together two monochromatic outfits, one casual, the other a bit more dressy. We’ll start with a color most people have an abundance of clothing in: blue.

Casual: We begin with a staple piece of clothing, the denim jean. I’m using a relatively dark wash jean, which will closely match a pair of blue, white, and gray sneakers, but contrast with a shirt with very high value. The shirt has a dominant color which is nearly white (a very, very light blue), with thin vertical blue stripes, also with high value. Note how we’ve placed the weight of the outfit, the darker colors, at the bottom, forming a base of sorts. Now, the undershirt is a more standard blue, not quite as dark as the jean. This provides another layer of complexity. Buttoning the shirt about halfway, we safely separate the two darker colors, creating some nice contrast. If we were feeling a bit more adventurous, the undershirt would be a good choice to stray from the monochromatic scheme (perhaps with a light pink, matching in value but contrasting in hue).

We can add a nice Duke football hat as well, since the colors remain analogous.

A closer look at the shirt and undershirt.

Finally, a closer look at the denim and the shoe.

Dress: Now begin with a pair of navy blue slacks. In more formal situations like this, we need a belt and “nice” shoes. Brown is the way to go here (recall the problems we had pairing navy and black), so we use a simple brown belt with matching shoes. The socks will also be navy, as a light color would create unwanted jarring visual attention at foot level. Let’s pair the navy slacks with a distinguished looking gray dress shirt, tucked in, and buttoned nearly to the top. Underneath is the flair, a light (in value), bright blue undershirt which brings energy to the overall look, without being overbearing, or detracting from the formality of the rest of the clothing. Pictures here are forthcoming (I need a new pair of navy slacks, having torn a hole in the knee last semester!).

So there we have it, our first real foray into outfit construction, and look what we can do with just a single color! Try some of these techniques out on your own, using some other colors. Good places to start are green and red, both of which work well with blacks or browns. Good luck!

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