Fashionably Mix Colors with the Color Wheel


ROYGBV — quick — what is that?

Hi everyone. It’s Grace here!

If you grew up in the U.S., you should remember that as the key to the colors of the rainbow. You remember, right?

Look, I love me my black and monochromatic looks, but ever think of how what you learned in, say, 2nd grade, might help you with your wardrobe? How do those magazines mix violet and green with such panache? Why am I drawn to certain combinations? What do I do with this orange dress?

The key is in ROYGBV, or the color wheel. Let’s take a look, shall we?

Color Wheel

There are dozens of color issues to consider — I mean, there are books and books written about color theory going back hundred and hundreds of years. Seriously!

But for now, let’s think about your outfits, and the following 4 combinations: Complementary, Split Complementary, Triadic and Analogous.

COMPLEMENTARY. This is the easiest. It basically means opposites. Take one color on the wheel, go across to the other side, and voila! There you have it – any two colors directly across the wheel from each other are Complementary:

Color ComplementHow does this translate into an outfit? That’s why that violet outfit looks great with a pea green purse. Let’s take a look at blue and marigold:

Complimentary Colors

Banana Republic ruched dress / white button up shirt / Merona pocket skirt {similar} / Cole Haan leather ballet flat / Diba beige sandals / Yeswalker sparkle handbag / MICHAEL Michael Kors burnt orange purse / Accessorize summer hat / LONGCHAMP Large fabric bag

This is particularly fun for a sharp, crisp look. See how there are neutrals mixed in with the outfit? Not the “red is the new black” kind of neutral, but the true, timeless neutrals like white, cream, tan, beige, gray and black. Otherwise, you might look like the high school mascot.

SPLIT COMPLEMENTARY. This is the slightly more complicated cousin to the above. Take one color, go directly across to the complement, but then pick the 2 colors on either side, like this:Color SplitCompInstead of going from purple directly to just one green, you split the direction to two – a moss green and a gold green:


Positano by Jean Paul kaftan / True Religion skinny jeans / Acne Studios grey boots / Orla Kiely purse / Hematite jewelry / Codello scarf / Rebecca Minkoff Crossbody Hudson Moto

This combo will give you more choices, giving the look more variety and depth. Again, see the neutrals that are in there? The gray boots, the gray and cream in the shirt?

TRIADIC. This splits the colors up evenly around the color wheel. Select 3 colors located evenly around the wheel, creating a triangle:

Color Triad IIThis can be really tricky, because it can make the outfit too busy, or clownish. So you need to pick one dominant color, then add in the other two as co-stars. Let’s take a bright red dress. Don’t want to wear the predictable black or neutral? Try the Triad:


Bacall Red Halter Dress / Roman Luxe Gold Bib Necklace / Metallic Jacquard Wrap / Yellow-Gold Clutch / Blue Studded Clutch / Stella & Dot Adelina Gold Cuff / Cut-Out Cuff Bracelet / Isola Angelique Sandals / Isola Irisa Pumps / Charles David Geri Pump

Red, blue and yellow. Tricky. See how instead of taking yellow literally, I’m suggesting gold? It adds *bling* to a dressy outfit, aaand the gold would be considered…yes, a neutral. Check out the black in the shoes? The cream in the shawl? If you don’t add the right neutrals, you might look like Old Glory…or somebody’s flag, anyway.

Here’s another Triad, using teal, magenta and orange:
Triad teal magenta orange

Kay Unger New York cutout dress / Double breasted coat / Anne Klein zip top {similar} / Gerry Weber orange bag / Tasha circle scarf

Here, the neutrals are the black stockings and boots. The “orange” is used as a neutral because the bag is more of a natural leather color, and the coat leans more toward a tan, seen in the saffron/cognac bag and coat.  If you actually carried an orange bag or wore an orange coat, it would be overpowering for every day.

ANALOGOUS. Here’s another easy one – colors that are next to each other on the color wheel:

Color AnalogIf you stay in the same color group, the looks create a gentler, calmer look. It’s especially handy for petite figures because your body isn’t “broken up” by the different colors.


Belted dress / CP SHADES blue blouse / Old Navy cuffed jeans / Lucky Brand laced flat / Bronx camel sandals / J.Crew high heel shoes / Emilio Pucci pocket tote / Charles Jourdan Blake Leather Satchel / Gherardini fabric purse / KENNETH JAY LANE resin bracelet / Orange jewelry / Logo hat

Remember that with each color combination, you need a healthy dose of neutral.

The last thing to remember is, try to stay in the same RING of the color wheel. See how the inner ring is saturated and the outer ring is light? If you’re working with colors of the inner ring, you’ll want the other colors to be in the inner rings, too. If you’re working in the outer rings, like the chambray, the other colors should be in the outer ring, too.

Got it? Simple, right? *wink*

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  1. says

    I think this is great! I myself for whatever reason (think its having big boobs) always seem to wear black, gray or black! lol! I want to get more color into my wardrobe – I am so going to try this out for matching up. Thank you!

    • Grace says

      I did that too – alas, not for the same reason! It’s easy to fall into that. I realized that what color can do for my overall appearance was worth it.

  2. says

    Ok THIS would have totally helped me struggling with color theory in film school and learning web design. See, just throw in fashion and it all makes sense :) GREAT post, thanks!

  3. says

    I Love this! Being in graphic design, I should have been able to relate this to my wardrobe, but sadly my closet is filled with greens, blues and white. I will definitely be taking the color wheel theories into my wardrobe. Thank you!!!!

  4. says

    Such a fantastic post. I often think about the color wheel when decorating my home but hadn’t thought about it in terms of building an outfit. Great stuff!

  5. says

    Wow, You lost me a bit at the split complimentary but I’m going to study this like homework till I grok it! Maybe it will help with my outfit coordination efforts in the future – thank you, Grace!

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