Adding Color to a Neutral Wardrobe


I revel in colors, both bright and muted, and challenge myself to assemble neutral-free ensembles as often as possible. But I know that many, many women adore their neutral-heavy wardrobes for classic versatility. And there really is nothing so reliably chic as a closet full of whites, blacks, grays, and browns – everything goes together, and it all looks modern and clean and classy.

But I feel it is my duty to push the color envelope, as the BLACK-OUT challenge proves. I try to encourage my neutral-loving friends to add some non-threatening non-neutrals to their daily wear. Here are some tips I’ve passed along to the neutral-minded:



Red shoes: Why red, you ask? Because red is a bright, vibrant color that plays nicely with ALL neutrals. Also red is a color that is challenging to many women, either because it does nasty thing to their complexions or because it is too bold for their tastes. But red shoes will never make anyone look jaundiced, and always add some zip to a subdued outfit without feeling overpowering. I strongly believe that every woman should own one pair of red shoes.

Colorful coat: Even if being covered in color all day long holds little appeal, throwing on a bright coat or jacket can feel fresh and daring. Jewel tones like teal, purple, and magenta work well with warmer neutrals while hot pinks, neons, and cool colors look amazing with black and white.

Colorblock silk scarf, Martin + Osa

Scarves: As a sash, a pocket square, a shawl, a headband, or circling the neck, a scarf works marvelously as the single colorful element in an otherwise neutral ensemble. If you chose this route, place the scarf wherever you’d like they eye to be drawn. Scarves are also a great way for those who fear pattern to dip toes into the water.

Necklaces and bracelets: I’m focusing on these items because they have the potential to affect an overall look a bit more than bright earrings and rings do. A long string of colorful beads, a chunky resin cuff, a gorgeous bib necklace, or a stack of multi-hued bangles can really punch up an outfit.

Suede belts, Land’s End

Belts: If you’ve got a waist you’d like to accentuate, nothing will do it like a bright belt on a wash of neutrals. Red on a black dress, electric blue on gray, orange on brown … all fabulous combinations. And, again, as the sole colorful element a bright belt will draw the eye right to the waistline.

D&G frames, United Shades

Eyeglasses: If all other clothing and accessory options turn you off AND you’re a glasses-wearer, consider a pair of bright frames. There are so many amazing designs out there, many with multiple colors and slick patterns on the earpieces. My boss’s boss is a neutral-wearer, but has pairs of teal/black and chartreuse/brown glasses that look so sharp with her white, tan, and black ensembles.

If you’re a devotee of neutrals, do you try to keep a little bit of color in the mix? How do you inject non-neutral tones into your outfits?

Top images from Oscar de la Renta via style.com.

  • lopi

    Only one pair of red shoes? I think I'm verging on half-a-dozen…

  • bubu

    (I can't believe I'm first! East coast advantage, I suppose). Great post, right up my alley. I have a ton of neutrals, for all the reasons you say, but realized I was yawning whenever I opened my closet. I'm now trying to add some kind of color or pattern every day: with scarves, cardigans (over neutrals) or bright, printed blouses inside my many suits (I'm a lawyer, so they are often required). Am now trying to branch into shoes- realized I had a sea of black and brown, so when I went shoe shopping a couple days ago with a friend got some fun giraffe print pumps and bright green wedge sandals (ordinarily a horrid color for my comlexion, but ok way down there on the feet). Will definitely try to do that red shoe idea for fall!

  • Rosie Unknown

    I live for colour, but I think a good way of working colour into a neutral heavy wardrobe would be to start with a bit of colour on a neutral item. For example, if you feel a but uncomfortable jumping straight to a bright scarf, maybe go for a brown scarf with some pink in it to start.

  • chouette22

    I have a lot of colorful items in my wardrobe, very much along the lines you describe. What I have been wondering lately is, why is the "matchy-matchy" that keeps coming up in fashion blogs again and again, frowned upon? I really like that look, I guess. If I have a neutral, and then accessorize it, let's say, with red tones, why is this too matchy-matchy? Why do I have to throw in that turquoise necklace? I have been wanting to ask this question, and now is a good moment, I think. Please chime in if you have an opinion about it. Thank you all!

  • Jenniferocious

    I love colored shoes! I am sloooowly adding more to my wardrobe, as budget allows. I can check red off my list, though I'd like a pair of red flats as well. I also have a pair of black & burgundy t-straps (that I got at target, no less!), and just got myself a nice warm purple suede pair of wedges. :) I'm dying for a pair of turquoise or green shoes, right now.

    Not that my closet is neutral heavy at all, but I still love fun, different, interesting shoes.

    I can't master the scarf-as-headband trick, though. Maybe mine are all just too long? And if I try to fold them so I don't have such a hugely long tail at the end, it just looks way too bulky on my head. Hmm…

  • Sal

    chouette22: Hmmm. I don't think matchy accessories are frowned upon by all, but they are not the only option anymore. I remember growing up, I felt like I HAD to match my shoes to my bag to my belt or look like a crazed hobo-woman. Currently, mixing colors and textures in accessories is encouraged. I think it provides more options, which is awesome!

    I do make jokes about my OWN matchy tendencies because I feel that I can do it to the extreme. But I hope you don't feel I've become anti-matchy! I do it all the time, really, and still adore the look. Matching accessories can create unity and provide a chic, classic look, so by all means, match away.

    Anyone else have matchy-matchy opinions to share?

  • Meli22

    The one thing I am majorly lacking in is the shoe department. I have a pair of burgundy heels that are ALMOST neutral, and a pair of teel peeptoe pumps for fun. Everything else is brown or black- NOT KIDDING! Ooops, I lied- I have a pair of light pink flats that match my skin tone that I term 'nude'

  • K.Line

    Great suggestions. I do a lot of neutrals with pop of colour for work. Mind you, I also do a swath of colour balanced by neutral accessories!

  • WendyB

    "whites, blacks, grays, and browns" — some people think "chic" …I think "depressing"!

  • Lauren

    Neutrals with bright pops of color are my favorites!!

  • spacegeek

    Sometimes I wonder if wearing funky colorful glasses (which I own) *and* a scarf are too much jazziness around the face? Thoughts?

  • Kashaya

    I love that scarf!

  • angie

    One word: handbags!

    A colourful bag is one of the easiest ways to inject colour into a wardrobe. My favourite way actually.

  • Charlotte

    It's interesting, too, to use a non-traditional color as one's base neutral. Mine seems to be a clear lime-veering green, which is more flattering to my "spring" coloring. I'm surprised by how many colors (including the traditional neutrals gray and brown/taupe–I try not to wear black or white, both of which are a bit severe on me) go well with this as accent colors. Even those red shoes (and like Lopi, I have more than one pair)look striking & fun paired with it.

  • chouette22

    Thank you, Sal, for your quick answer and I am glad to read its content. No, no, you don't come across as anti-matchy :). I have been inspired by blogs to throw in my, let's say, yellow shoes, instead of the matching brown ones, for example, but I don't take it too far.

    Also, I wanted to tell you this: The other day I bought a colorful skirt but had to shorten it. I kept the 2 inch piece of fabric, hemmed it, and then wrapped it around my wrist as I had seen you do with small scarves. It complemented the skirt so fabulously and I thought it was just genius. Thanks for the inspiration, I would never have thought of this!

    I LOVE your blog. I have been reading it for months, but never commented before.

  • rb

    I have an almost completely neutral wardrobe, which I'm absolutely fine with. I don't even wear colorful tops. So generally I add punch with weird shoes (not necessarily colorful, but sometimes) and a bright bag. Currently my bag is orange. This past winter my bag was violet and before that, turquoise. My go-to winter coat was also a deep shade of plum.

  • tinyjunco

    synchronicity abounds – i just posted about red shoes myself today! currently i have one pair red boots and one pair red mary jane style clogs. i generally have at least one pair of red shoes at any time.

    my wardrobe is heavily based on neutrals. HEAVILY. i've found that all of Sal's suggestions work well for adding color.

    here's some more: if you have a lot of separates, throw in a tee or other little top in a solid color or a colorful pattern that contains neutrals you like. camis in colors are lots of fun, as are tights, leggings, and sox. don't forget pins and hats – you can get a neutral hat and dress it up with a colorful scarf and/or pin. colorful petticoats and slips can peek out beneath a neutral hem. earrings can bring a flattering color up next to your face, as can hairbands, barrettes, and other hair accessories. a purse in a vibrant color can become a trademark when worn with a neutral wardrobe.

    i'm a 'dyed in the wool' (sorry) neutral-lover, but i love me some color on the 'edges'. steph

  • Valerie-MN

    I love suits and jackets. I have more suits in neutral colors than vibrant colors; however, I have tons of jackets with color (either solids or textured like tweed or appliques or soutache design on them). That is a way to inject color via the jackets or via metallic textures on the jackets.

    I also inject color through handbags and jewelry. Sometimes, I may wear tropical colors in jewelry (mixing blue topaz with citrine, and peridot) and that will inject color onto a mostly navy or black ensemble.

    Regarding "matchy/matchy", I always say that whatever you like, go for it. At times, I may have the cardigan with a matching shell or a shell in that color family. I may decide to wear all blue topaz jewelry (regardless if it is gold or silver).

    Oh, and if you are a girl who wears color all the time, then you can do neutrals via jewelry, handbags or shoes to break up your color scheme.

  • Frances Joy

    As a self-professed neutrals addict, I agree with everything you said. I hate wearing red (too bright and attention grabbing), but I have about six pairs of red shoes. My sunglasses are orange. My winter coats are green and royal blue. I love my colorful scarves and bracelets. That's just enough color for a woman like me.

  • lisa

    These are such great tips Sal! I think one of the easiest things colour-phobes can do when they get dressed in the mornings is swap one neutral item out for a colourful item. Neutralneutralneutral with a bright accent colour looks a lot better than neutralneutralneutral alone.

  • jesse.anne.o

    I am definitely a neutrals person (black black black). I love it and I can't help it. I often think bright colors take away from the person bc it's all you notice but I appreciate it is an extension of personality – and I like that.

    That said, I do often wear bright flats because all-neutral 24-7 is a little too sedate for me so I think it's a nice "offer" to those of us who are very attached to our more edited color palette.

  • Eyeliah

    I own five pairs of red shoes, and I don’t own very many shoes in total ;-) Really like those outfits for inspiration, saved to folder thanks.

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  • Laura (So Ca)

    This BLOG is a hoot, and the contributors are just so great at suggestions and ideas. Thanks lovely ladies. I am 55 years young (size 3) and I love to add a pop of color to my neutral wardrobe. My career clothing is boring, so I wear lots of color in jewelry, cute little tees under my jackets (summertime hot flashes are a itch with a “b”). I love that granny apple green, lemon yellow, shades or orange, and regal purple. Life is too short not to express yourself.
    There is a blog “Advanced Style” (60-100 y o who dress fabulous) and the Countess Of Style (Lynn Dell Cohen) says to “Dress for the theatre of your life.” And being that many acts have passed, I plan to do just that.

    Color, Joy, Class, and always wear a smile. Gloom & Doom need not apply!