The Gentleman’s Beginner Guide to Tonal Harmony and Tonal Contrast

The five elements to consider when putting together your look for the day are the suit jacket, the shirt, the tie, the socks (or hose) and the handkerchief. The simple way of relating these would be to consider tonal harmony.

Tonal harmony would be simply using different shades of a single color to tie the pieces of the outfit together. It is the safest choice when in doubt, and a favorite for many of the classic dressers. However although it is a look that will always work, it is perhaps a bit less interesting and more predictable.

Now if you are looking to stand out and avoid blending into the crowd, a tonal contrast look would be much more appropriate. With unlimited possibilities of combinations, it requires more attention to details and but also a great reward in creating you own unique style. Perhaps with a navy suit you wore a pink shirt instead of a blue shirt, with a tie of gray or dark green, a soft pink handkerchief, and socks of gray or dark green.

The creativity in arrangements between shirt, tie, socks, and handkerchiefs have more to just do with colors though, as patterns also play a vital role whether you go for tonal harmony or tonal contrast.  If you stay within a few guidelines on the patterns it can make almost any color combination work.


·      Try not to wear combinations of patterns that are too similar to each other. For example a shirt that has a mini-check pattern should not be used with a tie that also uses a smaller pattern. Even between the suit and the shirt, if wearing a bird’s eye suit, avoid the small check shirt.

·      Use smaller patterns to contrast with larger, bold patterns. If your shirt has larger stripes, wear a tie with neater patterns on a different scale.

·      Try not to go overboard on one pattern, such as all stripes in one combo. For example, if you wore a plaid suit with a checked shirt, give it balance with a solid tie.

·      Also consider mixing textures in your ensemble, perhaps combing a silk tie with linen handkerchief.

·      Also keep in mind the seasonal guidelines as well with the colors. In the winter when wearing darker wool suits, opt for lighter colors in the shirt. Similarly inverse in the summer with lighter color linen suits combined with deeper colors in the shirt.


At the end of the day it is important to try and follow the basic rules and create your own style that looks right to you rather than trying to copy another look. Looking completely at home in your clothes is as important as the styling as it makes the look your own and reflects your personality.