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  • Writer's pictureEvan Wolkenstein

What’s the Truth About Pairing With Brown and Black? : [30 DAYS OF WRITING: EPISODE 25/30]

This is day 25 of a 30 day New Year’s Resolution.


Dear Style Maven,

If you wear brown shoes, should you wear any black at all? And vice versa? That’s what I’ve been schooled and I don’t know if there are hard and fast rules on that in this new hip era.

-Don’t Wanna Look Like a Jack-Ass


The answer requires us taking a deeper, dorky dive into the larger question, “what is brown?” — and not because brown is an unusually complex color (what its multifarious of “brown-ness” under the big, brown umbrella). Rather, every color has many varieties and shades, and in every case, we can’t talk universally about any color automatically going with (or not going with) any other color.

Indeed, the main principle to learn is not whether you should or shouldn’t mix brown and black. Rather, the principle to learn is that you shouldn’t match together two colors that are already too close.

Contrast vs. Monotone vs. Clash

Let’s break this down a bit. When pairing colors, a basic rule is that any two contrasting (sometimes called complementary) colors look great together, as long as neither of the colors is too “crazy.” For example, red and blue look great. Blue and yellow look great. Green and brown look great.

Richer, mixed colors, like orange and purple, are a little intense to pair with another “crazy color” – unless it’s just a little accent of color here and there. If you want to pair purple with yellow, keep that crazy combo in a pocket square, socks, or a tie – or risk what I call I “flair-up.” Too much flair makes you look like you’re wearing a costume.  (For more on “flair vs. flair up, read the full post). 

Then, we have deeply contrasting colors: white and black, yellow and black, orange and black. And no, orange is not the new black.

All of these are pleasing to the eye.

closeup monotone

Monotone is fun because it allows you to get crazy with patterns. Blue on blue on blue is always great – as long as the varieties are blue don’t roam into turquoise or aquamarine. Or, what’s that Crayola color… “sea foam.”

Monotone, these days, is pretty common. People will pair 2-4 garments, all variants of the same color. Light, medium, and dark blue. Or grey. Or brown. I’d stay away from doing orange or purple or red, in monotone, because they get a little intense. Otherwise, go for it – pair as many shades of one color as you like.

Clashing is when you pair a color with something that is a different color, but which are too close together. Art nerds call these “analogous colors.”

For example, coral with orange. Sky blue with turquoise. Purple with some blues.

The rule is – if they’re different, great. If they’re the same, fine. If they’re close – they’re too close.


Complementary good! Analogous bad!

For this reason, and no other reason, some browns and blacks should not be paired. They’re too close together.


Which browns shouldn’t be paired with black? Dark brown.

Which browns look great with black? Lighter brown, tan, or reddish brown (sometimes called cordovan).


Black and Brown? SURE! If the brown is light enough!

Black and Brown? SURE! If the brown is light enough!

Here are some do’s and don’ts of brown and black.

DO: pair tan slacks or dress-pants with black shoes.

DO: pair a light brown blazer with black pants and black shoes.

DO: pair reddish brown shoes with black pants.

DO: Wear any article of clothing that features black and lighter brown accents.

DON’T: Wear black shoes with a dark brown suit.

Reddish brown (cordovan) or tan shoes look great with grey / black.

Reddish brown (cordovan) or tan shoes look great with grey / black.

DON’T: Pair brown shoes with a black belt, and vice versa. Unless you do karate. Then wear your black belt with everything.

DON’T: Wear dark brown with dark blue without trying it and looking skeptically in the mirror.

And above all: Do NOT point out, to someone breaking any of these rules, that he is breaking a rule. He may not be stylish, but critique without invitation has no class.

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