How to Mix Neutrals

I talk a good game about bright colors, and I do adore them … but I’ve come to love outfits comprised entirely of neutrals, too. There’s something so chic, elegant, and relaxed about mixed neutrals and I find that combination of traits irresistible.

When I set out to create a wash of neutrals, here are my personal rules of thumb:

THREE OR MORE TO A BATCH

An outfit comprised entirely of neutrals will look sophisticated and intentional if you include at least three distinct colors. In the outfit above, I have on a brownish-gray dress, heather brown cardigan, chocolate brown tights, and gray boots. I might be able to add one more neutral as an accent, but any more than that might tip the scales into neutral overload. (The tan and black contributed by my cat, Rowan, as she rolls on the rug in the corner do NOT count toward my total number of neutrals.)

LIKE UNDERTONES

Cool grays and warm cognac browns can definitely be mixed, but I find it easier to pair warm with warm and cool with cool. Look at the neutral garments hanging in your closet. You should be able to tell which ones have cool undertones (whites, blues, and greens in their color mixes) and which ones have warm undertones (reds, yellows, and ivories in their color mixes). Pair like with like and you can’t go wrong.

TEXTURAL VARIETY

Since neutrals are soft and easy on the eyes, all-neutral ensembles can read a bit bland. A great way to spice ‘em up is to add a variety of textures: Leather, wool, slippery silk, nubby tweed, rough linen, smooth cotton. Pieces with embroidery, pick-stitching, and other 3D detailing also add textural interest.

Now, if you’re mainly interested in mixing just black and brown, the easiest shortcut is to pick ONE shade of brown (either chocolate or tan, not both) and utilize it at least twice within the context of your outfit. Or if brown is the base color, utilize black at least twice within the context of your outfit. It’s that repetition that creates intentionality. This formula constitutes a great way to practice mixing neutrals and train your eye to accept shades of brown and black as complementary.

How do you feel about outfits comprised entirely of neutrals? Are you a fan? Do you have a specific batch of shades that you adore together? Any other tips to add to this list?

  • http://www.misfitsvintage.com/ Sarah

    I love it and I agree that it is more relaxed feeling somehow, though I can’t explain why. Perhaps it’s something to do with nature? No idea, I’m waffling. I do not own a single brown or grey item.

    I love your boots Sal. You look fab as always!

    Sarah xxx

  • http://mygrowingobsessions.blogspot.com Samantha

    If only I could wear neutrals like you do! They look so good. I stick to mixing them with denim, for the most part. Great advice, as always!

  • malevolent andrea

    I’ve recently come to the realization that my favorite combination of colors is black, gray (especially charcoal) and white. Or, alternately, gray, white, and denim. I always feel put-together and attractive when I wear that combo (even in gym clothes!) Sadly, along with this realization came the other realization that I hardly have anything white anymore. I need to work on that.

  • Diana

    I’m not much of a neutrals wearer, unless black counts. I occasionally pair black with grey and/or white, but that’s as far as I usually go… my favorite browns tend toward the (non-neutral) cognacs. I think part of my problem with all neutral outfits is that it’s hard to create color contrast, which I adore. I have a weird fear of looking like I got dressed in the dark – which also explains why I love black with lighter browns but hate it with chocolate.

  • http://www.bookishbent.blogspot.com A.

    Thanks for the rule of thumb about mixing black and brown. I needed help in this area!

  • http://www.futurelint.blogspot.com FutureLint

    I love your mix of neutrals in this outfit! I don’t do all neutrals very often but when I do, I’m a big fan of mixing grey and camel together!

  • http://huffmania.wordpress.com Amy

    I LOVE mixing neutrals. There’s something very calming and relaxing about not wearing bright colors. Today for instance I’ve mixed navy and chocolate – perfect for a dreary Monday!

  • http://scribblesfromemily.blogspot.com/ Emily Joyce

    I love your outfit! I like mixing grays and blacks, but I haven’t tried mixing gray with brown or brown with black. I’ll have to try it now!

  • SarahN

    Big fan. I dress like this almost every day. Today I’m wearing brown herringbone trousers, a black and tan printed top, a brown and amber beaded necklace, and burgundy heels. I’m trying to get away from black, which sucks the life out of my skin, and gathering more browns, grays and navy into my wardrobe. I’m getting to a place where everything in my closet goes with everything else, and it makes getting dressed so much easier. Thanks, Sally!

  • JB

    I especially like the neutral-patterned feline accessory in the photo!

  • emi s.

    I love this outfit. The majority of my closet is grey & black, though I don’t wear much brown. I like the idea of going for cool browns though.

  • http://skrush.blogspot.com Sara K.S. Hanks

    I usually feel compelled to add some bit of color to otherwise neutral looks, kind of like how I insisted on using the color red at least once on every page of my childhood coloring books. However, I’m making use of a navy sheath dress this week, and I think I’ll try at least one neutralized look that integrates navy as a neutral. Great tips, Sal.

  • Anat

    Neutrals are pretty foreign to me… except for black and white. I have very few greys and even less browns, beiges or creams.
    However I love the look you achieved, I will keep an eye open to see if I can try and incorporate this style once in a while.

    (PS – just bought some turquoise sandal heels, and thought about you! I think you would like them).

    • http://www.alreadypretty.com Sal

      I bet I’d LOVE them! ;)

  • http://nosignposts.blogspot.com The Waves

    I used to mix neutrals a lot more than I do now (just the phase I’m in), but overall I love the look. I swear by the point you made about textures!

  • spacegeek

    I’m wear a black and white ensemble today as a matter of fact. I wear a mix of neutrals probably more often than a mix of brights, though the color “pop” is also one I enjoy doing. Seems I wear neutrals more when the weather is dreary than in the early days of spring. I go colorful for spring it seems, but otherwise usually revert to mostly neutrals for work wear and save color for the weekends.

  • http://www.thebigsalad.blogspot.com Leigh

    I wear a *lot* of black and pair my black tops most often with gray, but when I stayed home with my daughters my go-to outfit was a black top with khaki bottoms. It sounds dull, but it was easy to pair up and I’d throw on a pretty necklace and my leopard-print flats and be ready to go almost anywhere.

  • pope suburban

    I love gray and black, to the point of it being a handicap. Sadly, my cat is no help there, as she’s a gray tabby who does not add a pop of color to my outfits.

  • http://www.fashionherald.org/ Fashion Herald

    this past week (in Des Moines!) I found a perfect Cynthia Rowley neutral dress from TJMaxx, great for a family occasion, and I mixed it up with different tone neutral sweater and shoes. 3 was the perfect number!
    and i love a kitty neutral shot!

  • rb

    ah! this is how I dress just about every day. I find black harder to wear with other neutrals – I pretty much stick to gray and ivory with it – but the grays and navys and the browns are fun to mix within their tone families. I love a mix of different shades of gray, from charcoal all the way up to a pale gray. And I agree with you that texture is a great way to break up an otherwise monochrome ensemble.
    I add color to my outfits through accessories – right now I carry a dark eggplant colored purse and today with my mostly black ensemble, I’m wearing forest green shoes. When I have my raincoat on, I also have an orchid-colored tissue weight cashmere scarf. And my earrings are pearl and aquamarine.

  • Gail D.

    I think your discussion of warm versus cool was way too simplistic. There are warm blues and cool reds. In fact, I’m a Winter and look great in the primary colors; all of the primary colors are, in fact, cool. There are also cool neutrals as well as warm ones. And another thing–I would never wear gray with browns–they clash in my eyes. In my opinion, dressing is all about warm vs. cool–I can’t go anywhere close to a rust or peach because I look like I died and nobody told me! But primaries, or any cool color, look great on me. It all depends on your skin.

    Gail D.

    • http://www.alreadypretty.com Sal

      I’m actually describing the undertones of neutrals, not colors themselves.

      Neutrals with white, blue, or green undertones will appear cool. Neutrals with red, yellow, or ivory undertones will appear warm. I’m well aware that warm blues and cool reds exist. The point is that if you mix any red into a neutral, it will read warm. If you mix any blue into a neutral, it will read cool.

  • Rebecca

    Ah, mixed neutrals are my standard uniform! Today, for example, I’m wearing jeans with a brown & black print shirt and reddish-brown [Is there a better name for that color? If it were hair I'd call it auburn. But anyway] shoes. My absolute favorite is black with a light khaki or beige. Just this morning I was thinking that I really should branch out from my all-neutral wardrobe and my first step would be to add an interesting color to my black-and-beige combo: Teal? Cranberry? Might have to go with ivory. ;)

  • http://fashionforgiants.blogspot.com Gracey

    Wonderful advice. I especially like the bit about textural variety. That’s something I sometimes forget when I’m getting dressed. I also appreciate the advice about mixing black and brown – I already do it, but I’m glad to hear that I’m a) doing it right and b) doing it in a manner that seems deliberate, even if it’s not.

  • http://dashingeccentric.blogspot.com/ tiny junco

    great tips! i’m an ‘all newts, all the time’ gal – they work easily with my coloring and with each other. shopping is incredibly easy, color-wise, when you focus on newts. other tips:

    i find it’s possible to get away with much more detail and really extreme silhouettes when wearing newts than colors. a bustle under a black and ecru look is edgy, under a pink and green dress it’s way too much for all but the rarefied few. if you really want to pile on the details and accessories, and wear asymmetrical balloon tunics with 6″ heeled thigh high boots, but you’re worried about how to pull it off – try it in newts! punk/rocker looks are a demonstration of this principle. it’s all about the variety of textures and accessories on a newtral base of black, white, denim.

    i find most newt looks work best if they are anchored with a structured/fitted part of the outfit. defined waist or cuffs, strong shoulder, architectural hairdo – you want something that will literally give an ‘edge’ to your look so it doesn’t seem to wash out into space…

    i also find that adding a spark of lite color to a dark outfit or dark color to a lite outfit helps keep the look crisp. if you’re wearing medium tones, choose either lite or dark. adding a black or dark brown belt to a beige and ecru look will lend more dimension to the color scheme and make it look like you did this outfit on purpose.

    it also can help to pay attention to your hair and makeup – the danger to avoid in all-newt looks is looking like you’re playing it safe or trying to blend into the background. wearing a bold eye or lip, or accenting your ringlets to echo your vintage edwardian camisole lets your public know you mean it.

    Happy Newting! steph

  • http://penguins-in-socks.blogspot.com/ Jane

    I like the way they look –so elegant! But it’s not for me, and especially not on Mondays or rainy/overcast days (today was both). If I didn’t wear colors on those days, I think I would not be able to get out of bed.

    However, I will keep definitely keep this post in mind for dressier occasions –there’s a brown blazer in my closet that I haven’t managed to wear yet, mostly because it seems too dressy to wear everyday (and risk getting dirty) but I haven’t managed to match dress pants to it that would let me wear it in formal settings.

  • b.

    Ahhh, Sal, you’re speaking my language now! Like some of the other commenters, I too dress mostly in neutrals. They just feel so calm to me. Thanks for these tips!

  • http://www.stacyverb.typepad.com Stacy

    I love the look of mixed neutrals when other people do it, but then when I go to my closet to look for neutrals to mix, I find…black. And a brown skirt or two. Gray and white look icky on me. I think my quest for spring will be to add some ivory to my wardrobe.

  • Jenny

    I have a colleague who dresses like this. She wears browns and greys and blacks and ivories, but in the most wonderful combination of textures — slubby silk and tweed and leather and linen and jersey. And she has the most amAZing jewelry, that she inherited from her mother and that she wears with flair. I always wish I looked so elegant.

  • http://dailyclothesfix.blogspot.com/ Emma at Daily Clothes Fix

    Great advice, Sal. I definitely agree about mixing at least 2 accessories of your contrast colour to make it look deliberate. I don’t do neutrals that much but when I do, I find these guidelines hold true.

  • http://scrapandrun.blogspot.com/ Colleen

    I love your cat

    • http://www.alreadypretty.com Sal

      She IS adorable!

  • http://madelinequaint.blogspot.com Madeline Quaint

    This is my first time commenting on your blog, so I would just like to thank you for all the advice you share. You really collect all the information that matters in a topic!
    This post is extra useful too! And I have a very similarly coloured tortoiseshell cat! :) They are great at mixing neutrals, aren’t they? :)

  • Stephanie

    Love neutrals. They go well with my red hair!

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