Matchmaker: Pairing Up Your Suits & Shoes3/21/2016
Matchmaker: How to Pair Suits & Shoes
Having options is a good thing; an array of colors in your wardrobe ensures you’ll be able to dress appropriately for any occasion. But when it comes time to actually get dressed, the options for matching your suit and shoe colors might give way to confusion. As far as I know, there aren’t any pneumonic devices to keep it all straight. So let’s lay out the rules and conventions for color matching your suits and shoes.
Black suits are generally for designated occasions; that bad boy is reserved more for strict business and funerals, not social outings or friendly meetings. Fittingly, black suits have the most steadfast rules, although there are two schools of thought on this.
The Old School says that black suits require black shoes, and deviating from there is forbidden. Brown, tan, burgundy, and all other colors draw the eye undesirably downward, and should not even be an option.
The New School of thought allows greater freedom, and requires (you guessed it) greater responsibility. Sure, black shoes are the default with a black suit, but if you can mix it up elegantly, go for it. So if you’ve got some black leather shoes that have a burnish or patina that allows a bit of aqua-blue or crimson red to peek through, go ahead and let that accenting shine. (Don’t know what a burnish or a patina is? Check out Doug’s process.)
Personally, I lean toward the latter opinion in the Black Suit Debate, as long as you can be responsible with it. That is, you can break out the purple accent stitching, just not at Aunt Bethany’s funeral. Get your black suits here!
Navy suits are next in line in terms of formality. Unlike black, they offer a bit of versatility in terms of occasion (perfectly acceptable at an important board meeting, or to grab a drink,) and in terms of shoe.
Dark brown shoes are the safest option with navy, and for good reason—they usually look the best. Dark brown has the power to make it interesting… but only as interesting as the shoes let it. If you want to get super technical about it, warmer browns are at the tippy top, because they offset the cool tones of the suit.
Black is safe too, particularly if you’re all business. I don’t know what the pros would say, but my opinion is this: if you’re rocking a plain navy suit and waffling between which black shoes to wear, choose the more embellished pair. I know navy-suit-black-shoes is a business combo, but live a little! A pair of oxfords or medallion toes can take you just far enough away from the norm as not to be boring. And if you want to get away from the all-business look, light brown is perfectly acceptable for a more relaxed setting.
Oh, remember what I was saying about warmer browns offsetting the cool tones of your suit? Burgundy shoes look sharp with navy for exactly that reason. And now that you’ve got all these great options for navy suits, there’s no way you’d do something ridiculous, right? So then you will absolutely not be wearing blue or navy shoes with your navy suit. Because that would be outrageous! Right? Excellent, I’m glad we have that settled.
Still suitable for serious affairs is the charcoal suit, one of my favorites. Once again, black shoes are the default because they’re the safest. And once again, if it’s a solid charcoal piece without any patterning, break out the embellished shoes to spice things up.
If you’re feeling really frisky grab some burgundy or oxblood shoes. Charcoal is more forgiving than black, and these colors can add some interest while maintaining a certain elegance. Charcoal-oxblood is the perfect palette for a business meeting with that important client you’ve never met, but heard is a cool dude. That way you’re never underdressed, but if things take a social turn, you don’t look too prim either. All bases covered.
The only hard no for charcoal suits is brown. Brown is supposed to complement other colors, and with charcoal there’s nothing to complement. Foul ball.
Navy suits are only rivaled in their flexibility by medium and light gray suits. It’s hard to go wrong matching a shoe to gray, and nothing is strictly off-limits. That said, keep your light gray pieces for less-formal occasions.
Personally, I happen to love the minimalist look. Gray suit, plain white shirt, subdued tie. Thing is, if you’re going minimalist, you’ve got to commit. Stick with black shoes and you’ll take on a modern art feel: simple, but bold.
That’s not to say gray suits can’t support a more adventurous look, though. If you want to break out patterned or colored shirts, burgundy and browns have a lot to offer. Find a brown for your shoes that complements the tones of your shirt, (i.e. warm browns with warm colors, cool browns with cool colors,) and you’ll look impeccable. By the way, if you’ve got some light brown, tan, or even navy shoes you can’t wait to wear, a gray suit is hard to beat.
When considering shoes for brown suits, there are two presiding rules. The first I’ll call The Girlfriend Rule. Think of your outfit like the relationship between your best friend and your girlfriend: they can be close, but not too close. Your shoes should complement your suit, not match it.
Brown suits work best with brown shoes, but the color shouldn’t be identical, or even very similar. Dark brown shoes can achieve this superbly, but they should never be darker than your suit.
And that’s the second rule. I can’t think of a clever name for this one, so you’ll just have to remember. The shoes should be lighter than the suit. So then, following that line of logic, black is completely out of the question. Even to the untrained eye, that combo is bad; to the fashion veterans, it’s downright offensive. (Sorry champ, that’s also true for belts.)
The rules for blue suits are similar to those for navy, but the colors themselves are suitable for very different occasions. There’s nothing formal about the blue suit, but the same biggie applies: no navy shoes, no blue shoes. Don’t even try.
A blue suit is definitely a social getup, but if you want to play it safe from there, go for dark brown shoes. Dark brown is right at home with blue—it almost can’t look bad. Tan is another first-rate option, and takes the leisure factor up another notch. Blue with tan shoes is probably the most playful combination; people will know you’re ready to have some fun.
On the flip side, if you want to stay slightly more serious, lace up some black shoes. The blue still gives a jaunty feel, but plain black shoes simplify this palette. If you’re the daring type, burgundy shoes can be done with blue, but that doesn’t mean they necessarily should be. Honestly, this one is for the discerning gents only. If you lay them out together and they look fine, but not, you know—kapow!—it’s probably best to stick with a more conventional option. Maybe grab those tan shoes instead.
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