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Ton Sur Ton: A Men’s Guide to Mastering Tonal Dressing

Choose one colour and wear it well, with Port's monochromatic tips

Successful people are often creatures of habit. Steve Jobs, through years of iPod revisions and MacBook redesigns, stuck to his trademark black rollneck and blue denim. Barack Obama, during his presidency, pared his wardrobe down to a series of navy and grey suits. Tom Wolfe's all-white finery was almost as famous as his writing; while they didn't call Johnny Cash ‘the man in black’ for nothing.

A signature shade can be a whimsical choice, and such dedication is certainly not within everybody's reach. But there is a strong argument for choosing a handful of colours and wearing them ton sur ton, or tone on tone.

Simplicity aside, tonal dressing feels modern and purposeful in a culture where excess and noise are so often promoted. Perhaps this is why it has felt so omnipresent at the last few rounds of fashion shows, as designers seek to show off their craft without distraction.

Looking back to two of the most eagerly anticipated shows of late – Kim Jones’ and Virgil Abloh’s spring/summer 2019 debuts at Dior and Louis Vuitton respectively – both men employed largely monochrome styling to make a mission statement. The former turned to pastel blues, pinks and canary yellows for his new take on the house’s tailoring codes, while the latter opened his show with a series of 17 all-white streetwear-meets-suiting ensembles. Both were uniformly praised, thanks in part to the clarity of message put forward.

Here we explore the world of tonal dressing, giving you four striking examples of how it can be achieved.

Subtle Neutrality

Keeping to pale shades of off-white, grey and beige is often more appealing than committing to a bold primary colour – though it comes with obvious risks when indulging in a glass of barolo and a good pasta puttanesca. Mix different shades with relaxed silhouettes to avoid any trite ‘man from Del Monte’ comparisons, taking care to cover your lap with a napkin during meal times.

Going Green

If colour is indeed your thing, you could do worse than to opt for the hue of the season: sage green. As with any tonal ensemble, it pays to mix in different shades and textures, whereas accoutrements needn't be colour-matched. White sneakers or black dress shoes can add depth, while accessories should always have a slight contrast. 

Brilliant Brown

While browns and beiges are often fraught with negative connotations, there’s very little to find boring about utilitarian wares such as the above. The addition of ’90s-inspired cargo pockets – and, in the case of Burberry’s zip-down polo, subversive appliques – creates a modern, sporting aesthetic.

To prevent the palette from becoming too sludgy, a white t-shirt can be layered underneath the polo, creating a clean visual break without impacting the overall effect. 

Clever Clashing

 For those who find head-to-toe tonal dressing a little cloying, a simple way to disrupt the sweetness is to add in a subtle colour clash. A pink T-shirt judiciously tucked into a pair of red shorts, for example, breaks the uniformity and creates a slight visual discord that can be satisfying. When employing this tactic it’s important to keep to keep to only two unfriendly colours, so that the overall effect is measured rather than chaotic. A more subtle effect can be produced by wearing a coordinating shirt and shorts with clashing sandals or sneakers.