You don’t have to be a fashion victim to try out tonal dressing. Once upon a time, wearing the same hue – or variations of it – from head-to-foot was seen as an overly simplistic way of getting dressed. These days, it’s a tactic often used by guys-about-town like David Beckham, Ryan Reynolds and Nick Wooster. And it’s so slick you probably haven’t even noticed them doing it. Wearing a solo colour top to bottom sounds easy, but it requires some thought if you don’t want to look like the Man from Del Monte. The catwalks have been overrun in recent seasons with tonal looks, so you can always head there for inspiration (everyone from Billionaire to Bottega Veneta are at it). Then, to make it your own, just follow our guide to one-colour dressing.
What Is Tonal Dressing?
It sounds pretentious, but once you’ve got over the terminology, tonal dressing is menswear’s best-kept secret. The bad news: it’s not quite as easy as just taking a colour and going to town with it. Tonal dressing, done well, is about mixing up textures and same-y tones that look like they were almost made to sit alongside each other. “Tonal dressing is probably one of the most fail-safe ways for men to dress – and one that not enough men take advantage of,” says Chris Kyvetos, Stylebop.com buying director. “Aside from the ease of it all, it’s a seriously modern look.” If you already wear the same colour on repeat, you’re halfway there in joining the Tonal Club – just switch up how you combine your pieces in the same get-up. Once your one-colour outfit is sorted, you’ll instantly look and feel your most put-together, even when you’re getting dressed with the darkest of hangovers. Finally, tonal’s ultimate party trick? Its power to streamline and trick the eye with a continuous line of colour – beer bellies become virtually undetectable. (Disclaimer: probably.)
Tonal Dressing: The Rules
Pick Your Colour Wisely
The linchpin of any tonal vibe is the colour (obviously). But it’s not a case of sticking a pin into a tube of Smarties and rolling with it. You need a colour that a) complements your skin tone and b) doesn’t look ‘novelty’ when you’re walking down the street. N.B., The Mask-style yellow is a definite no-no, and millennial pink is only for the brave. “It’s best to keep things muted if you’re a tonal novice,” says Kyvetos. “In my opinion, tan and navy blue are the best options – not just because they’re safer, but these colours tend to look strongest as an overall look. For most of us, all-over bright colours are best avoided.”
Mix Up Your Tones
Tonal dressing may look like a wardrobe art form but it’s all about creating subtle variations on a theme. Think mixing up dark and light tones of the same hue. “The number one thing to keep in mind is not to attempt wearing one block colour head-to-toe,” Kyvetos says. “Tonal dressing is best approached with varying shades – that way you avoid looking like you’re wearing a uniform.”
If one-colour commitment all feels too much, don’t sweat it. You don’t have to wear the same hue throughout your entire look. If you’re a tonal newbie, adding a white T-shirt or Oxford shirt for contrast can be an outfit saver, breaking up the feeling of colour monotony or overkill. Wearing a casual summer suit in a bold tone like powder blue suddenly feels far less daunting with a white tee to pare it down. Likewise, an otherwise all-black-everything look is given a little depth.
Play With Texture
Texture (or lack of it) can make or break your tonal outfit. Throwing different patterns, fabrics and finishes into the mix makes your look less uniform-y, more visually interesting. For example, try combining unexpected fabrics like cotton with leather, or woolly knits with silk. Nick Hammond, head cutter for Savile Row tailor Norton & Sons, says: “Texture can really heighten the effect and impact of tonal dressing. Using different textures will emphasise contrast and add depth to your overall look – especially important if you’re carrying the same colour throughout.”
Tonal doesn’t have to mean literally top-to-toe. Sometimes, matching your shoes with the rest of your look can be overkill for a tonal look. The same applies to accessories like hats and scarves. Instead, reach for a neutral tone, which won’t look weird placed next to a colour. “Keeping it as simple as possible is key for a tonal look,” Hammond explains. “There aren’t a lot of bells and whistles or accessories involved – this is way more about the clothes and keeping it cool and straightforward.”
Key Tonal Dressing Colours
Surprisingly tricky to wear top-to-toe because it can look too harsh against most skin tones. But if black is resolutely your no.1 hue, playing with different textures really comes into play to add variation. It’s razor-sharp for formalwear, but when you’re pulling together casualwear or a weekend outfit, try adding in dark charcoal to lift an all-black outfit.
Meet your paint-by-numbers, fail-safe colour to tonal dressing. If, like the average man, you have an insane amount of blue and denim in your wardrobe, then it’s the obvious colour to try first. And it’s hard to mess up. An ideal intro? Try a pair of stonewash jeans teamed with a darker blue shirt and jacket for some subtle tonal action. For a more dressed-up take on blue, check out our Go-To Tonal Outfits section below.
Admittedly, lime green isn’t the easiest colour to pull off, but khakis and forest greens are where it’s at when it comes to tonal dressing – both behave more like a neutral than a ‘colour’. If you need any more arm twisting, see how often street style god Nick Wooster nails tonal looks wearing green suits, camo print and casuals. When it comes to formal events, a rich green dinner jacket can also make you stand out from the penguin pack.
Unpredictable weather means a white-out outfit is all kinds of tricky to pull off convincingly. Mix light neutrals instead for a more wearable option (that’s also less likely to be ruined with a dirty puddle or lunchtime spills). Think cream, ivory, eggshell, beige and putty for a versatile combination of tones that all work well together. Still into the idea of all-white? Save it for your Amalfi vacation suitcase and keep it crisp and fresh.
No 50 Shades references here (sorry, Christian) but the grey spectrum is pretty vast – and surprisingly wearable. Choose from charcoal, marl, dove, silver or slate for effortless cool. Contrast is key so you don’t end up looking like a slab of granite – remember to add variety via different tones and textures. Mix up items like flecked coats, flannel suiting and woollen sweaters in winter, and cotton tees, seersucker suiting and canvas shorts in summer.
Go-To Tonal Outfits
Nothing says ‘I’ve-got-my-shit-together’ like a smart tonal look. This is more head-to-toe so needs to be fully curated, rather than thrown on. Hammond has this tonal outfit inspiration: “I would wear a midnight navy dinner suit with waistcoat, blue shirt and navy bow tie for a twist on formal black tie.” Tread carefully if you’re going tonal with shirts and ties and steer clear of shiny finishes, which could come off a bit cheesy gameshow host. Instead, try subtle complementary contrast accessories to make your suit pop, like a pocket square or silk patterned scarf.
Tonal is your need-to-know shortcut to looking sharp in smart casual pieces that work for boardroom to bar. For autumn/winter, Hammond suggests adding a roll neck to a suit: “I don’t think you can go wrong with a silvery grey flannel suit teamed with a light, heather grey turtleneck. I also love mixing up blues, so a navy suit with sky blue shirt and royal blue necktie.” For summer, switch out the roll neck for a crisp T-shirt. Pair with breathable linen, cotton or seersucker separates for a look that’s ideal for business casual offices.
Weekend and vacation gear is done best in an ensemble of two or three pieces in same-y hues – beige and camel tones, greys and taupe, or navy and mid-blues. Because there’s less structure in casualwear, taking a tonal approach makes your outfit look more put-together. Avoid mixing summer fabrics with winter fabrics when you’re contrasting finishes, e.g. linen with corduroy is a no-go, but linens, cottons and canvas all combine well together. For casual scenarios, soft greens and khaki lend themselves to layering and work all year round. Use some workwear- or streetwear-style trousers as your starting point and build from there.