We can blame the Dutch for the reluctance of the British male to wear colour. In the mid-1660s Charles II committed the country to an ill-judged war against the Netherlands, during which the nation was also rocked firstly by the Plague and then by the Great Fire of London. And then, in 1666, needing to save money, Charles decreed that court dress ought to be simplified from its previous decorative excesses. The resulting jacket, waistcoat and breeches ensemble in a single dark colour is regarded by some costume historians as the precursor of the sober three-piece suit that has dominated male wardrobes for generations.
But over the years there have always been men who have bucked the sartorial rules. And at the recent Pitti Immagine Uomo trade fair in Florence, where the world’s men’s wear buyers viewed next spring’s collections, I embraced what might be called a southern European attitude to colour. I was particularly pleased with an outfit comprising tangerine linen trousers by Brooks Brothers, a lilac Ralph Lauren polo shirt and white leather loafers from Trickers. But while the outfit worked well in the Florentine sunshine, even I felt a little odd walking across London’s Victoria station in the early hours, having just arrived back from Italy. It’s all to do with the light in the UK.
Brightening up your wardrobe
● Don’t try too hard. Against mainly neutral pieces (such as a black, grey or blue suit), pick just one item that adds the colour, like a shirt or tie.
● Remember that any use of colour almost always looks good alongside something white, whether that’s a formal shirt or a T-shirt.
● Go for a gentle introduction of colour, with a subtle coloured stripe, a bright coloured lining on a business suit, a pair of bright socks, or flamboyant cufflinks.
● Don’t think that colour has to be only casual. If you can carry it off, it looks even more compelling in smartly tailored suits, jackets and trousers.
● The same goes for luxury knitwear like cashmere; try a vivid red or aquamarine blue rather than navy or camel.
● Add extra zest by wearing an iridescent tie that brings two colours to an outfit. Or choose a suit fabric like mohair that reflects the light and lifts the effect of even a strong dark colour.
● Experiment by trying unfamiliar combinations on in a menswear store. Don’t buy in a hurry, but if you like something you’ve put together, say brown with purple, go and try it again in a few weeks to see if you still like it.
● Avoid being too tonal and coordinated; strong, bold contrasts are easier to carry off and look less contrived.
● Make sure your belt and shoes are in keeping with the spirit of your colourful outfit.
● Colour is not only for summer; we need a lift even more on grey autumn days.
With thanks to Sean Dixon, Kean Etro, Alexandra Finlay, John Hind, William Hunt and Eddie Prendergast for their tips
But Scott Murdoch, founding and managing partner of chartered surveyors and retail property advisors CWM, which includes Burlington Arcade among its clients, has learned to use colour to his advantage in business. “When I started the company 16 years ago I was as conservative in my dress as every other chartered surveyor, but in the last five years or so, I’ve realised that wearing colour can get you noticed. Today, even for meeting the most conservative client I’d wear a boldly striped Duchamp or Etro tie with a blue suit and white shirt. For less conservative meetings, I like my Dolce & Gabbana suit – a deep purple with a pink pinstripe. For really fashionable clients, I wear jeans with an Ozwald Boateng jacket that’s burnt orange with a deep purple lining. I can’t be taken seriously by fashion companies if I look like I’m wearing Man at C&A.”
But if the thought of wearing orange, pink or purple makes you worried you might be mistaken for the Joker, fear not, as there are less strident ways to bring a little colour in to your wardrobe. Kean Etro, the Milan-based designer of the colour-rich Etro menswear collection has this advice: “I’d recommend men find a pivot they are confident with and build around that piece. So, if you like brown chinos, try them with a deep blue sweater. Colours are determined by their transmission of light, and white is the ultimate reflection of light. That’s why white is a good pivot for other colours. Or if you like navy blue trousers, it is not such a big move to try deep purple trousers, which have a blue cast.” So enamoured with colour is Etro that its website has a guide to the characteristics of 16 shades. Pink, apparently, is regenerating; apple green is refreshing.
Eddie Prendergast, co-founder and managing director of UK menswear brand the Duffer of St George, was seen sporting white cotton trousers, white T-shirt and white leather deck shoes, topped off with a pale pink seersucker blazer from Duffer’s own collection at the recent menswear trade fairs. “It’s all been the look of the Hamptons, Nantucket and Cape Cod this summer,” he says. Prendergast stresses that the weather affects men’s propensity to wear colour. “In the UK, people like to wear dark clothes. But as soon as we get a spell of good weather, even men get adventurous and start to brighten up.” And while he admits his Anglo-Irish complexion is not suited to all shades of colour, even in his tailor-made blue mohair suits, a bright crimson lining adds a dash of colour.
Sean Dixon, managing director at Savile Row tailer Richard James, admits that the business was better known for colour when it first started 16 years ago than now. “When we were the new boys on the row, we wanted to be noticed. But we’ve grown up and so have our clients. They don’t want their clothes to shout, ‘Look at me.’ We do still sell colourful tailoring, like pale pink or blue jackets, but these would be worn in the south of France, Italy or Miami, not, say, London. But for the business community we have always done well with colourful shirts. Lilac is good for northern European complexions. And our silk ties are woven with two colours to give an iridescent effect.”
At the other end of Savile Row, William Hunt makes the point that while many men are wary of colour in a business environment, they happily embrace it on the golf course. He has a successful line in golf-wear to prove it. While he was responsible for the Union Jack trousers British golfer Ian Poulter wore for the British Open in 2004, Hunt stresses: “The idea with my collection is that men don’t look like golfers when they are off the course. They just look fashionable.”
For his main tailoring range, Hunt is fond of unexpected colour combinations, such as a brown suit and a pale green shirt and tie. “The only rules on colour are the ones you impose on yourself,” he insists.
American menswear brands are a primary source for colour. Take Polo Ralph Lauren, which offers 40-odd shades in its polo shirts. At Brooks Brothers, John Hind, managing director of the company’s British arm, says a fast-growing option is its gingham short- and long-sleeved shirts, which include blues, reds, and yellows. Among business shirts, pink is a consistent best-seller.
A common mistake in wearing colour is to forget to team it with accessories. A brown belt or black leather Oxford shoes can ruin a colourful palette. A great casual option that avoids this danger is Fin’s, a line of soft suede loafers launched this year by London-girl-about-town Alexandra Finlay. The colours’ names – such as Portofino yellow and Ibiza raspberry – reflect their resortwear inspiration. “Men’s wear is full of classic staples and it’s difficult for men to experiment, but they can introduce colour through their accessories. We sold out of our first run of pistachio, violet and azure blue.”
Finlay’s crusade took her on to a City trading floor, where, she reports, “the ‘Essex boys’ really went for the pink and violet.” Mindful that not everyone is ready for such excesses, she is adding black, navy and brown options in September.