I wrote last week about clothes that contrast with what everyone else is wearing – that is, clothes that are non-conformist. This post is instead about contrast within your own outfit – specifically, contrasting lightness of color.
White is the lightest color and black the darkest. The tuxedo is therefore the highest-contrast outfit, being composed of only white and black (or sometimes midnight blue). Conservative business outfits approach this level of contrast, usually involving a dark suit, white or light blue shirt, and dark tie. Lower contrast outfits are generally less sharp and conservative. For instance, Obama's controversial beige suit at his last press conference.
The standard advice, codified in Alan Flusser's Dressing the Man, is that men with high-contrast complexions (e.g. pale skin and dark hair) are better served by high-contrast outfits, while men with low-contrast complexions (e.g. tan skin and brown hair) should favor low-contrast clothing. For the vast majority of the male population that lies in between Tyrone Power and Brunello Cucinelli on the complexion contrast scale, this advice is at best a rough guide. In my view, most men can look good in both low and high contrast outfits.
But they do create different impressions. Consider the two photos above of No Man Walks Alone Main Man Greg Lellouche. Greg has a high contrast complexion, which the high-contrast Formosa tuxedo complements in accordance with Flusserian theory. But then notice that he looks just as good relaxing in a low-contrast combination of ts(s) jacket and Drake's summer scarf.
High-contrast need not be more formal than low-contrast. Here is Styleforum mascot in stitches wearing a high-contrast low-formality arrangement built around a Schneider coat:
and again in a low-contrast suit and tie outfit:
The suit and tie is more formal than the coat and untucked shirt, but the high contrast of the latter makes it look sharp and edgy, whereas the low contrast of the former makes it look more soft and relaxed. Stitches has a lower contrast complexion than Greg, but again both outfits look good. They just serve different purposes.
A high contrast outfit is in many ways more foolproof, and perhaps this is why canonical outfits such as tuxedos and business suits are high-contrast. Low contrast outfits need differentiation along other dimensions such as texture and color to be effective. But as long as a man can manage these elements, he need not consider himself limited by his complexion.